Photo: Nick Wass/AP
When the 2019-20 NHL season paused on March 12, the Washington Capitals had been rotating defensemen in the lineup for the previous month since rookie Martin Fehervary shined in a brief stint with the big club. During that period, eight different defensemen suited up and some of the starters from the beginning of the season were scratched. So, who will be fighting for playing time for Game 1 of the first round when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin? NoVa Caps looks at the locks and the ones who will need to have a solid “training camp” to earn a spot when the fun begins.
First, let’s take a look at the Capitals’ defensive lineup for their final regular-season game on March 9 at the Buffalo Sabres:
Brenden Dillon — John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Nick Jensen
Michal Kempny — Jonas Siegenthaler
Scratched: Radko Gudas
After Fehervary was called up on February 4, Siegenthaler was scratched five games, Gudas six, and Kempny and Jensen each sat out one game. Gudas was scratched for five of the Capitals’ last 10 games while Siegenthaler sat for four games after the team acquired Dillon from the San Jose Sharks on February 18.
Carlson: The 30-year-old had a strong start to the season, and despite a dip in performance he still led all NHL defensemen with 75 points, 10 points more than the second-highest scoring defenseman (Nashville Predators’ Roman Josi). Though, he had a -8 rating after December 6. Carlson finished the season with a respectable 51.32% Corsi-for percentage and an expected goals-percentage of 50.85% at five-on-five, according to Natural Stattrick. He has had strong starts in each of the past three seasons so there is optimism that Carlson can get back to his first half of the season form when play resumes.
Dillon: The 29-year-old started on the top pair with Carlson after the trade and played well. Even though he posted no points and a -2 rating in 10 games with the Capitals, he finished with a 51.12% Corsi-for percentage, including 56.92% in the high-danger area, and an expected goals-percentage of 54.44%, indicating that he played better than his stats on paper. Dillon also plays with an edge that the Capitals can use during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also averaged 2:07 per game on the penalty kill.
Orlov: The soon-to-be 29-year-old hasn’t missed a game since missing the entire 2014-15 season and he has played better after a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, already topping his goal total and coming within two points of his point total from last season in just 69 games. His plus-minus recovered after it was among the team’s worst to begin the season as he posted a +14 rating (tied Kempny for second on the team) from October 30 onward. Orlov’s Corsi-for percentage jumped from 48.5% last season to 53.37% this one as did his expected goals percentage (46.27% to 52.92%), scoring chances-for percentage (48.21% to 54.69%), and high-danger Corsi-for percentage (41.35% to 50.38%).
Should Be In The Lineup:
Jensen: After getting scratched for the first time this season on February 8, the 29-year-old led the Capitals with a +8 rating in 14 games. Before, his -7 rating was better than only captain Alex Ovechkin’s -8. Jensen finished the season with a respectable 50.82% Corsi-for percentage, a 50.59% expected goals-for percentage, and a 56% high-danger goals-percentage. He was moving around the lineup prior when he got scratched and might have been on his way out of Washington entirely but finally clicked with Orlov and played strong down the stretch, which should be good enough to pen him in for a spot in the top-four.
Kempny: The 29-year-old was struggling towards the end of the regular season and was a healthy scratch for the first time since he first joined the Capitals in February 2018, but he still led the team with a +19 rating. However, he lost his spot on the top-pair with Carlson after the Capitals dealt for Dillon. He finished the season with a 50.35% Corsi-for percentage, an expected 49.54% expected goals-percentage (which was actually up from 2018-19), and a 49.73% high-danger Corsi-for percentage (which was better from his in 2018-19). After being able to work out without restrictions, which was not the case last offseason, expect Kempny to be better from before the pause.
Fighting for a Spot:
Gudas: The 30-year-old defenseman got off to a solid start to his first season in Washington as his +16 rating on December 22 was tied for 10th in the NHL. He was a big part of one of the league’s top penalty-killing units, and he provided a solid, steady physical presence on the team’s third pair. Gudas posted just a -1 rating the rest of the way but there was a noticeable decline in his play and he played only eight of the Capitals’ final 14 regular-season games. Gudas finished the season with a 51.43% Corsi-for percentage, a 49.44% expected goals-for percentage, and a 49.27% high-danger Corsi-for percentage. His snarl and physicality could give him an advantage as the past two Stanley Cup Champions have won playing that kind of style.
Siegenthaler: The 23-year-old Swiss defenseman had a strong rookie season as his +11 rating was tied with center Nic Dowd for sixth on the team and he developed into the Capitals’ top penalty-killer as he averaged a team-high 3:11 per game on the penalty kill. His 105 blocked shots were second on the team behind only Carlson. Even after the Capitals’ defensive pairs started juggling, Siegenthaler appeared in 11 of the team’s final 16 games. He posted a 50.14% Corsi-for percentage, a 51.38% expected goals-for percentage, and a 54.47% high-danger Corsi-for percentage.
Fehervary: The 20-year-old rookie appeared in the first three games of the season when Kempny missed time and got recalled for three games in February, shining in the first game, where he posted a +2 rating in 19:55 worth of ice-time against the Los Angeles Kings. Though he finished with a -2 rating, he was a -4 in his final two games where the Capitals got outscored by a combined total of 12-5. In the six games he played in, Fehervary posted a 53.64% Corsi-for percentage, a 47.53% expected goals-for percentage, and a 41.18% high-danger Corsi-for percentage, though he can’t be blamed for the last two of those numbers as the Capitals were the league’s worst defensive team after January 28. Fehervary posted four goals, 14 points, and a +15 rating in 56 games in his first season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. He previously told Czech media that he will be with the Capitals when play resumes.
While there are plenty of questions surrounding who will make up the bottom defensive pairing for the Capitals, the team has plenty of good options to choose from. Perhaps we see some shifting in that pairing during the first three round-robin games to see who is ready come later this summer. This will be no doubt a smaller training camp than usual, but there will be no lack of competition.
By Harrison Brown