Fixing The Washington Capitals Defense

One of the most glaring issues with the Washington Capitals during the 2019-20 season was the performance of the team’s defense. The team struggled to find consistency on the back-end, resulting in then head coach Todd Reirden regularly mixing up the pairings in a continual search for stability and chemistry.

In this piece, we’ll take a look at some potential targets in unrestricted free agency and in the trade market. We’ll also be using Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool to discern the cap hit and term required to sign free agents.

One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the left side of the defense is somewhat deep for the Capitals, with Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler, Martin Fehervary, and Alex Alexeyev topping the depth charts on the left side.

The right side of the defense was glaringly weaker this season, outside of Norris Trophy nominee John Carlson, and Nick Jensen, who looked more like the player the Caps acquired from the Detroit Red Wings at last year’s trade deadline.

As it stands at the end of the 2019-20 NHL season, the Capitals will enter the offseason with $10,394,872 in cap space, with three openings on defense (Radko Gudas, Brendan Dillon, and Jonas Siegenthaler all have expiring contracts), one opening at goaltender (likely filled by a free agent, Pheonix Copley or Vitek Vanecek), and two spots at forward (Travis Boyd and Ilya Kovalchuk have expiring contracts).

Free Agent Targets

There are a wealth of right handed and left handed defensemen who are unrestricted free agents this offseason. If the Capitals look to acquire a left handed defenseman, one of the defensemen on the left side will likely need to be moved, especially if the Capitals also sign a right handed defenseman. Siegenthaler showed he could play on either side of the ice, which adds a bit more versatility with the personnel group.

Dylan DeMelo

DeMelo was one of the hotter commodities at this season’s trade deadline with his stellar play with the Ottawa Senators. He would have been a good fit on the Capitals’ blue line then, but was acquired by the Winnipeg Jets for a third round pick.

He’d fill a gap on the right side of the ice on defense with the Caps’ current personnel group. He’s much more of a stay-at-home defenseman, which would pair nicely with Dmitry Orlov’s aggressive style of play.

Here’s a visual of DeMelo’s performance last season, compared to Radko Gudas (via Evolving Hockey):

demelo vs gudas rapm

He’s firmly in the solid category there, with positive ratings per 60 in every category. As  previously mentioned, he’s not going to add a ton on offense, but he’s very capable defensively. He posted 53.1% expected goals for, which is impressive considering he spent most of the 2019-20 season with the Ottawa Senators.

Contract Projection: 3 years at $2,849,000 cap hit

Carson Soucy

Carson Soucy was a strong player for the Minnesota Wild during the 2019-20 regular season, playing in his first season where he saw meaningful action in the NHL. He played in 55 games, scoring 7 goals and 7 assists. Interestingly enough, he’s entering Group 6 Free Agency, which Cap Friendly defines as:

A player whose contract is expiring and meets all of the following conditions will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA):

  1. The player is 25 years or older (as of June 30th of the calendar year the contract is expiring).
  2. The player has completed 3 or more professional seasons – qualified by 11 or more professional games (for an 18/19 year old player), or 1 or more professional games (for a player aged 20 or older). This can include NHL, minor league, and European professional league seasons played while under an SPC.
  3. The player has played less than 80 NHL games, or 28 NHL games of 30 minutes or greater for a goaltender.

Soucy could be a unique addition to the blue line. He’s a bigger player, coming in at 6’5″ tall and 210 pounds, and he’s only 26. This might be more of a stretch, since Soucy could definitely be retained by the Wild, but it’ll be up to Soucy to choose since he’ll be a Group 6 unrestricted free agent.

He’s a bit more unproven than other options on the market, but could come at a more budget-friendly price. Here’s a comparison of his performance this season to Nick Jensen:

soucy vs jensen

Ultimately, pretty similar performance as Nick Jensen. He suffered in possession metrics, but was on the right side of expected goals for percentage with a 51.33% figure there. He’s a bit more of a stretch signing, but the Capitals might take a flyer on him with a budget friendly contract.

Contract Projection: 3 years at $1,660,000 cap hit

Tim Heed

Tim Heed would be an interesting addition on the blue line. He’s probably more of a third pairing talent based on his NHL playing time, but could solidify the third pairing if the Capitals are comfortable with Nick Jensen in a top four role going forward.

Heed posted strong possession numbers last season with a Corsi For percentage of 55.25 and a Fenwick For percentage of 54.76. The context there is that he likely was not on the ice against the most difficult competition, with the Sharks’ top pairing of Marc-Eduard Vlasic and Brent Burns taking the brunt of those matchups. Here’s how he fared last season compared to Nick Jensen:

heed vs jensen

The goals for per 60 minutes being substantially lower on Heed’s chart here is indicative of Heed’s skill set being more defensively focused, especially with his expected goals against over 60 minutes is above replacement levels. He’d also be a budget friendly pickup, most likely.

Contract Projection: 1 year at $790,700 cap hit

Travis Hamonic

Hamonic would also be an interesting pickup. He missed time during the 2019-20 regular season with an upper body injury, only participating in 50 games. With that, his 50 games this season were a bit of a disappointment, since he didn’t perform nearly at the levels that have been expected of him based on his past performance.

That being said, he’d be a pretty decent bounce back candidate, if he’d be willing to sign with an Eastern Conference team after requesting a trade from the New York Islanders in 2015 to be closer to his family in Winnipeg.

Here’s his comparison to Nick Jensen this past season:

hamonic

As previously mentioned, Hamonic didn’t perform too well this past season. His expected goals against per 60 minutes and Corsi Against per 60 minutes were well below the replacement level. Below are his figures from last season:

hamonic 2

If the Capitals can sign Hamonic and get the player from the 2018-19 season, he’d be a great addition to the top four defensive group. He’s a physical defenseman who can help contribute offensively, which should suit the Capitals well.

He won’t be cheap, considering his wealth of experience and high level of play, which could necessitate a trade to free up cap space.

Contract Projection: 5 years at $5,211,000 cap hit.

Ben Hutton

After a strong season on the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings, Ben Hutton is entering the free agent market. Hutton is a left handed defenseman, which means that if the Caps sign him, one of the existing left handed defensemen could be on the move–if Martin Fehervary is expected to get regular minutes in the NHL this season.

He had strong possession numbers, posting a 53.25% Corsi For percentage and a 52.71% Fenwick For percentage. He also had a positive differential in expected goals for percentage at 50.11%, quite a feat on the rebuilding Kings.

Here’s Hutton’s advanced analytics this past regular season, compared to Michal Kempny, who he’d likely replace if the Caps were to take a flyer on Hutton:

hutton vs kempny

Overall, based on these statistics, Hutton would be a clear replacement over Kempny. Hutton was able to push higher possession rate outcomes with lower offensive zone starts and more defensive zone starts than Kempny.

Contract Projection: 5 years at $4,315,000 cap hit

Trade Targets

The trade market is a lot more nebulous than the free agency market, where the only real question about acquiring the player comes down to contract terms and team fit. Trading for an established, quality defenseman is a lot harder, especially for a right handed defenseman. For this section of the article, we’ll only use players that have been listed on TSN’s Trade Bait board.

Adam Larsson

Larsson, a right handed defenseman on the Edmonton Oilers, is most famous for being traded one-for-one from the New Jersey Devils to the Oilers for Taylor Hall. That was one of the more laughably bad trades in recent NHL memory, but Larsson is a quality player, and fits a position of need for the Capitals.

Larsson dealt with some injury issues last season, only making 49 appearances for the Oilers. Here’s what Larsson’s advance stats compared to replacement level look like over the past three seasons:

larsson

Overall, his goals for per 60 aren’t exactly strong. He’s also had to play on some pretty average defensive teams for the Oilers the past three seasons. The expected goals against per 60 minutes and Corsi Attempts against per 60 minutes figures are promising though. He’s more of a physical, shot-blocking type defenseman that could slot nicely in a pairing with Dmitry Orlov.

Larsson is currently entering the last year of his contract with a cap hit of $4,166,666. That lowers some of the risk in trading for him, since the Caps wouldn’t be stuck with a long term contract if the fit didn’t work out.

A trade package needed to land Larsson is unclear, since the Oilers have a lot of the same needs on their roster as the Capitals do: defensive depth and scoring wingers. Potentially a package of a roster player or a B level prospect packaged with a mid to late round pick would do the trick.

Vince Dunn

Here starts the journey into the unlikely, but immensely impactful territory. Vince Dunn is a major contributor on the Blues’ blue line, but St. Louis’ general manager Doug Armstrong is faced with the cap dilemma of trying to bring back star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

Jake Allen and his $4,350,000 cap hit were traded to Montreal, but the Blues only have $6,397,501 in projected cap space entering this offseason. Vince Dunn is a pending restricted free agent, and with five other defensemen under contract for next season, could be on the move for the right price.

Here’s a look at Vince Dunn’s advanced analytics per 60 minutes compared to Michal Kempny, who’s spot he’d likely take on the left side of the defense:

dunn

Overall, Dunn is an extremely talented an effective player. He’s above replacement level in all five of these categories, and would be a tremendous partner for John Carlson on the top pairing.

Even with St Louis’ precarious salary cap situation, Dunn likely won’t be cheap. The Caps would likely have to part with an NHL ready defensive prospect on a cheap contract, like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev, and a first or second round pick. Dunn is a controllable asset coming off of his entry level contract and hasn’t accrued enough NHL time to be eligible for arbitration.

Recap

The Capitals and general manager Brian MacLellan have their work cut out for them this offseason to extend the Stanley Cup window during the tail-end of the Alex Ovechkin era in DC.

The salary cap ceiling staying the same at $81,500,000 certainly doesn’t help, but there are definitely some options if the Caps are willing to work in trades and signings to bolster scoring depth and defensive stability.

By Justin Trudell

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 at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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6 Responses to Fixing The Washington Capitals Defense

  1. Anonymous says:

    I hope they keep BD but word is the Jets love him. Trade away MK as his injury was worse than expected.

  2. Jonathan says:

    If Trotz had been coaching the team we wouldn’t have sucked on defense, which also tells you what the real issue was.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Stop trying to slot players in positions they don’t belong! If you want a great defense then put one together with the proper ingredients. I’ll say it again the capitals best players are aging veterans playing offense. They have very few young studs that play 60 minute hockey. Reirden wasn’t the answer and I seriously doubt a new coach can cure what ails this hockey club.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It might be true that we are missing a piece here or there, but a new coach is going to have to get 5 players skating together. The problem is overall scheme; plugging in new players won’t solve it. Caps have tried it the past 2 seasons and not much improvement. But if we’re going to talk players, it would be nice to see a more physical blue liner back there.

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