Grading the Capitals’ Forwards for the 2019-2020 Season (So Far)

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Through 69 games this season, the Caps find themselves atop the Metropolitan Division by a single point over the Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals’ forward group has a lot to do with the standings position they’re currently in, providing 210 of the team’s 240 total goals this season. That 240 goal mark is good for second overall in the NHL, trailing only Tampa Bay at 245 in one more game played.

The Capitals also have eight forwards who have goal totals in the double digits: Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, Nicklas Backstrom, and Ilya Kovalchuk. Both Garnet Hathaway and Richard Panik find themselves currently at nine goals each.

Overall, when looking at goal scoring and point generation, there’s not much to complain about with this forward group. We’ll dive into each player’s contributions, and give them a letter grade for their performance so far this season. We’ll be limiting this list to skaters who have played over 500 minutes this season.

Statistics in this article are thanks to Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Alex Ovechkin: A-

The grade of A- is really being a stickler for wanting Ovechkin to play a bit more of the 200 foot game we saw from him in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff run. At 5-on-5 play, he’s been on the ice for 69 goals against, and 67 goals for. You’d expect a player with Ovechkin’s offensive output to have a positive differential there.

Offensively, Ovechkin is still as elite as it comes, potting 48 goals and tallying 19 assists. However, his playmaking numbers have suffered a bit, as he’s currently sitting 19 assists below his assist total for last season. Granted, the offensive system when Ovechkin is on the ice seems to be a bit more tailored for generating chances for Ovechkin, so take that assist drop-off with a grain of salt.

If we took Ovechkin’s pace for goal scoring over the course of 81 games (he was suspended a game for skipping the All Star Game), he’d have 57 goals. This would have been his highest goal-scoring output since the sensational 2007-08 season where he notched 65 goals.

Overall, when looking at possession metrics, Ovechkin has solid numbers. He’s hovering at 52.8% Corsi For, and 51.4% Fenwick For. To explain the real difference between the two figures, Corsi For counts all shot attempts including blocked shots, while Fenwick For does not count blocked shots.

T.J. Oshie: A

Overall, Oshie has had a very strong 2019-20 campaign. With 26 goals and 49 total points, he’s pretty much what you’d want for a second line winger. His contributions on the power play have been essential, and he’s played the bumper position with expert precision.

He’s continued his level of physical play, and is strong defensively. This is shown by his on ice goal differential: 64 goals for, and 55 goals against at 5-on-5 play. His possession numbers are on the right side of 50% for both Corsi For and Fenwick For, but he’s still underperforming slightly compared to his teammates when he’s off the ice (-2.0% Corsi For Relative, -0.9% Fenwick For Relative).

There’s not a ton to be concerned about there because his possession numbers are tracking almost precisely to his average figure while suiting up for the Capitals: 50.6% Corsi For in 2019-20 compared to 50.6% in all five years as a Cap, and 51.3% Fenwick For in 2019-20 compared to 51.3% in all five years as a Cap. His possession numbers take a slight hit because he’s deployed in the defensive zone 49.9% of the time.

Jakub Vrana: A+

It’d be hard to give Vrana anything but an A+ for his performance so far this season. Is there room for him to grow his game? Absolutely. But, he’s already at a career high for goals (25), assists (27), and points (52) in 69 games this season. He has really elevated his offensive talents to correspond to his deployment on the second line.

Vrana has also posted career bests in Corsi For Percentage (51.0%) and Fenwick For Percentage (51.5%). These are only slight gains in the grand scheme of things, but small improvements are still improvements. Vrana has not been a liability defensively either, with only 43 goals against at 5-on-5 play compared to 51 goals for. He’s also getting a majority of his deployments in the defensive zone (50.6%).

Tom Wilson: B+

The grade of B+ for Wilson is a tiny bit nit-picky, since he’s had a strong season so far. He’s posted career highs in assists and points through 68 games played this season. Wilson is one goal shy of his career high he set last season. He’s also significantly reduced his penalty minutes, going from 128 last season in 63 games to 93 in 68 games this season.

While his offensive marks are certainly nothing to be concerned about, it appears his defensive game his taken a slight hit. He has tied his career high of 253 hits so far this season, but his takeaway figures have dipped a bit. In 2018-19, he had 43 takeaways compared to 25 so far this season. He’s also been on the ice for 65 goals against compared to 59 goals for at five on five play.

Wilson’s possession numbers are on the right side of 50% with his Corsi For Percentage at 51.5% and his Fenwick For Percentage at 50.4%. Wilson’s Corsi For and Fenwick For is lower, relative to his teammates (-.9% Corsi For Relative and -2.2% Fenwick For Relative).

Evgeny Kuznetsov: C-

When Kuznetsov is engaged and involved, he’s among the top players in the league. The issue is that when Kuznetsov is “off”, he’s really off. For a player of his caliber, 52 points through 63 games isn’t exactly what you’d expect. After the 2017-18 regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs, many were expecting to see the Conn Smythe worthy Kuznetsov’s performance carry over into the regular season. He was certainly no slouch last season, putting up 72 points in 76 games, but with his talent, he should be at a point per game pace. He’s tracking for a point per game pace of .83 so far this season.

The defensive aspect of Kuznetsov’s game isn’t exactly his strong suit. He’s currently in the negative when looking at the differential between expected goals for and expected goals against with a differential of -3.1. This is a marked improvement from last season, though, where his negative differential was -9.3. His takeaway figures are also trailing considerably lower than last season, going from 46 takeaways to 22.

The expected goals against figure being so much higher than his expected goals for is indicated by his possession metrics. Kuznetsov’s 46.9% Corsi For and 46.2% Fenwick For percentages are both considerably lower than his teammates’. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement for Kuznetsov.

Lars Eller: A+

Having Eller as the third line center on this team is a definite luxury. He’s able to fill in on the top six when needed, and can play in all situations. There’s been points during the season, especially during the dregs of the months long slump after November, where Eller was one of the team’s best players. He’s posted a career high in points this season, which is impressive considering he’s in his 11th season in the NHL.

Eller’s two-way game is one of his best assets. He’s currently showing a positive differential when you compare takeaways (44) and giveaways (41). Additionally, Eller is also tracking well when comparing expected goals for and expected goals against, where he has a positive 4.6 differential. He’s also having his best season in face-off win percentage (51.9%) since 2014-15 while he was playing in Montreal.

When considering possession numbers, Eller is strong. His 55.7% Corsi For and Fenwick For percentages are among the strongest on the team, and those are considerably higher than his teammates when he’s off the ice.

Nicklas Backstrom: B

Backstrom is one of the franchise cornerstones for the Capitals, and his consistency over his career with the Caps is admirable. He can play in every phase of the game, although the team has leaned on him less in penalty killing scenarios unless he’s needed in a pinch. Offensively, Backstrom is still an elite playmaker. He’s scoring at a .89 points per game pace, which is still on the higher end of the NHL. We’d all like to see Backstrom shoot the puck a bit more. His shot is too good to only have 12 goals this season.

Defensively, it’s a mixed bag. His expected goals for versus expected goals against is strong with a positive 5.3 differential. The issue he has, which is becoming a trend, is that his takeaway numbers have dipped since last season, going from 53 to 34. Obviously, we need to take into account that that’s comparing to 80 games played last season, but if we look at takeaways per game, he’s gone from .662 takeaways per game last season to .557 takeaways per game this season. Definitely an area of improvement here as the Caps work towards shoring up their team defense.

For Backstrom’s possession metrics, they’re solid. He’s at a 53.3% Corsi For and a 53.1% Fenwick For, and his performance relative to his teammates is about 1% higher in both metrics.

Garnet Hathaway: B+

Hathaway has already cemented himself as a fan favorite, adding physicality, grit, and even a bit of offense. He’s been supremely effective on the Capitals’ fourth line, posting nine goals so far this season. He’s scoring at the same goals per game pace as last season with Calgary, where he scored 11 goals. Effectively, Hathaway came as advertised when the Caps signed him in unrestricted free agency last summer.

Defensively, Hathaway is having a strong year. He’s a positive 5.7 in expected goals for versus expected goals against. This tracks nicely with his actual goals for versus goals against, where he has a positive differential of 5. He’s on track for setting a career best for takeaways in a season, as well. He’s also on the positive side for takeaways (21) versus giveaways (16).

When looking at Hathaway’s possession metrics, there’s nothing to be concerned about. His Corsi For (52.5%) and Fenwick For (53.0%) are strong, and they’re slightly stronger when compared to his teammates.

Richard Panik: C

If this grade was given out before Panik was shifted to the fourth line, it’d probably be closer to a C- or D+. Panik seems to have great chemistry with Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway, and he’s had more offensive contributions while deployed on that line. The injury he suffered early in the season definitely derailed him for quite a bit in learning the Capitals’ systems and meshing with teammates on the ice. He’s certainly not replacing Brett Connolly’s production quite yet, but there’s some promise if the Panik we’ve seen more recently is the new norm.

Defensively, he’s firmly in the “OK” category. His takeaways are certainly not going to take your breath away, with only 21 in 59 games played. His expected goal for versus expected goals against is slightly negative, at -0.6. The interesting piece here is his actual goals for (34) and his actual goals against (17) is considerably positive. His PDO (which measures the sum of on-ice shooting percentage and on ice save percentage) is 106.1, which is what some may categorize as “lucky”.

Panik’s possession metrics are on the stronger side. He’s currently at 54.4 Corsi For percentage and 53.1 Fenwick For percentage. Both of those are positive figures when looking at his possession numbers relative to his teammates.

Carl Hagelin: B

While Hagelin is certainly not going to light up the scoresheet, his speed and defensive prowess is where his paychecks are earned. His chemistry with Lars Eller is noticeable, and the third line is one of the Caps’ most effective. He’s an effective penalty killer and can use that speed to generate shorthanded chances.

Hagelin is leaned-on heavily in defensive zone deployments, receiving 53.1% of his zone starts in the defensive zone. His takeaway numbers are slightly down from his total for last season (30 down to 24 in the same amount of games played). His expected goals for and expected goals against differential is slightly negative at -0.6. This can be somewhat expected for a line that’s mostly deployed in defensive scenarios. His actual goals for versus actual goals against figure is a lot better, with a positive differential of 8 goals.

Possession-wise, he’s on the stronger side. He’s at 53.6% in Corsi For percentage and 53.2% Fenwick For. His relative performance is stronger than his teammates when he’s off the ice.

Nic Dowd: B+

When Dowd came to DC in the summer of 2018, he had big shoes to fill, replacing Jay Beagle as the squad’s fourth line center. He’s had strong performances in his two years in DC, and is a dependable option on the fourth line. Offensively, he’s trailing slightly behind his .34 point per game pace last season with a .27 points per game pace this season. The added caveat is that Dowd is only one goal from tying his career high in goals at 8 that he set last season.

Looking at Dowd’s defensive statistics, there’s one thing that really sticks out. His takeaway rate is solid, at 22 so far this season. He’s also only tallied 7 giveaways, which is solid for 56 games of work. His expected goals for versus expected goals against differential is also strong, posting a positive 4.1 differential. He’s currently at a +7 differential in actual goals for versus actual goals against at five on five play. Dowd is effectively filling the role of a defensive minded fourth line center to a T.

Dowd’s possession metrics are nothing to scoff at either. He’s posting 52.9% Corsi For and a 54.2% Fenwick For percentages. These numbers are also impressive, considering he gets the majority of his deployments in the defensive zone.

Brendan Leipsic: C-

Leispic is a bit harder to grade, due to his role on the Capitals being much different than his roles with Toronto, Vegas, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. His ice time is considerably lower, with only 9:10 in average time on ice per game. Since he was on the fourth line for most of his games played, his defensive zone starts are considerably higher than his previous seasons. For context, he’s at 54.7% defensive zone starts this season compared to 44.4% last season. For a more skilled depth player, this is likely a big adjustment for Leipsic, and that’s likely causing his offensive output to dip.

Looking at Leipsic’s defensive performance, he’s performing fairly well. His expected goals for differential is +3.8, and his actual on-ice goals for differential is +2. There’s not much to complain about when looking at his defensive stats, other than his takeaway rate being rather low at 8. He’s usually hovering in the low to mid 20s.

Leipsic’s possession metrics are actually pretty strong. He’s posting 52.9% Corsi For and 53.2% Fenwick For percentages. There’s certainly not much to complain about when a fourth line role player is on the right side of 50%.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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