After allowing an average of 3.32 goals-per-game from December 8 on during the regular season (the third-worst in the NHL and the worst among teams that participated in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers), the Washington Capitals made some changes to their defense in free agency, signing three right-handed blueliners in Justin Schultz, Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and Paul LaDue. In addition, they re-signed Brenden Dillon to a four-year contract before he was set to hit unrestricted free agency.
With those additions, the Capitals currently have eight NHL defensemen on the roster and a 21-year-old prospect defender in Martin Fehervary who shined when given a chance with the big club during the 2019-20 season. Right now, the Capitals’ defense looks the best as it has in two years with a reigning Norris Trophy candidate in John Carlson and promising youngsters like Fehervary and Jonas Siegenthaler.
For starters, let’s look at the Capitals’ projected NHL roster defensive depth chart:
Dillon — Carlson
Dillon was put with Carlson after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks on February 18 and played admirably, earning a 51.12% Corsi-for percentage and a 54.44% expected goals-for percentage, according to Natural StatTrick. He also impressed with his physical play, which fit right into the Capitals’ system. Dillon, who signed a four-year contract extension that carries a $3.9 million cap hit on October 6, was taken off of the top-pair for the return-to-play, but after that did not work out, it would be fair to expect the Capitals to reunite the two.
Putting Dillon on the top pair will also give Carlson, who has led the NHL in points by defensemen in two of the past three seasons, some more freedom to jump into the offense.
Dmitry Orlov — Schultz
Orlov had a nice bounceback season after a disappointing 2018-19 campaign but will need to play solid defensively as Schultz may be a good offensive defenseman but his 49.77% Corsi-for percentage at five-on-five during the regular season suggest that he may not be the best defensive defenseman. However, the two make up a respectable second-pairing for the Capitals as Schultz has shown in the past that he can defend well as he posted a +49 rating over two seasons from 2016-18.
Do not expect to see this combination play against other teams’ top lines, though.
Siegenthaler — van Riemsdyk
Siegenthaler and van Riemsdyk arguably make up the Capitals’ best shutdown pairing as Sieganthaler established himself as the Capitals’ top penalty-killing defenseman in 2019-20 and ended the season with a solid +11 rating, a 50.14% Corsi-for percentage, and a 51.38% expected goals-for percentage.
Meanwhile, van Riemsdyk posted a 51.27% Corsi-for percentage and a 48.51% expected goals-for percentage during the 2019-20 regular season in a so-called “down year” for him as he was held to just a goal, eight points, and a -7 rating. Though, he played only 49 games due to the Carolina Hurricanes’ strong depth at defense, so he might not have gotten the chance that he needed.
Other options: Fehervary (LHD), Jensen (RHD), LaDue (RHD). Michal Kempny (RHD is out 6-8 months after undergoing Achilles tendon surgery on October 6
While the Capitals did a good job of building one of the NHL’s deepest bluelines in free agency, a move is almost certainly coming as there are five candidates to play on the right side but only three spots available. They will likely leave the left side the way it currently is.
Kempny, 30, got off to a strong start after recovering from core muscle surgery in April 2019, which forced him to miss the first eight games of the 2019-20 season, but he struggled in February, leading him to be a healthy scratch for the biggest game of the regular season against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 4. After recording a -3 rating in the first two games in the first round against the Islanders and a 41.91% Corsi-for percentage in the first five games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 30-year-old never saw the ice again. During offseason training, he tore his Achilles tendon while training and will miss the first 2-5 months of the 2020-21 season, depending on when the season actually starts. However, Kempny was already on the outside looking in before the Capitals acquired three new defensemen and he has a steep hill ahead of him in his recovery.
Fehervary took advantage of an opportunity with the NHL club when given ice time last season as he recorded one assist, a 53.64% Corsi-for percentage, and a 47.53% expected goals-for percentage in only six games and pushed Siegenthaler, Jensen, and Radko Gudas all out of the lineup at one point with his strong play. While the Capitals’ three offseason additions put Fehervary’s jump to an everyday-NHLer on hold, he could still make the team as the seventh defenseman and will definitely get some chances this season.
Signed to provide even more defensive depth, LaDue, 28, has never appeared in more than 33 NHL games in a single season. However, he had a career-year with the AHL’s Ontario Reign this past season as he set career-highs in goals (nine), assists (18), points (27), plus-minus (+11), and games (48). While playing two games for the Los Angeles Kings, he recorded an assist and a 56.25% Corsi-for percentage, and a 49.13% expected goals-for percentage. While you may think this signing would be more for the AHL’s Hershey Bears, the contract was only a one-way deal, leading you to think that the Capitals clearly view him as more as just an AHL defenseman but with seven blueliners above him on the depth chart, it is hard to see where he fits in.
Carlson is untouchable after being the runner-up for the Norris Trophy last season and the Capitals will almost certainly not move Schultz, van Riemsdyk, or LaDue after just signing them to free agency. That makes Jensen the most likely to get moved before the 2020-21 season begins.
After a solid start to his Capitals’ career, the 30-year-old struggled in the team’s seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs where he recorded no points, a -2 rating, a 43.32% Corsi-for percentage, and a 39.23% expected goals-for percentage. Jensen struggled for most of last season as he was a team-worst -7 rating and had only four assists through 54 games until he was scratched for the first time as a Capital. He improved after that, equalling his point output from the first 54 games of the season in just 14 games and led the Capitals with a +8 rating. While Jensen had an admirable 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs where he posted a 54.64% Corsi-for percentage, no one on the team played particularly well and he has struggled more than he has shined during his tenure in Washington.
While his strong play in February, March, and August would earn him another chance on most teams, Jensen has clearly moved down the Capitals’ depth chart after the acquisitions of Schultz and van Riemsdyk.
Jensen’s $2.5 million contract is also expensive for someone who will likely spend more time in the press box than on the ice. Moving Jensen would clear the cap space necessary to re-sign Siegenthaler and add some room to add another forward. The Capitals could use some additional scoring depth as 10 of their 13 goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs were scored by either captain Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, or forward T.J. Oshie.
While the Capitals solidified their defense in free agency, questions remain about how the puzzle is ultimately going to fit with nine options (10 after Kempny recovers from surgery). The Capitals may end up having to trade two defensemen but one after Kempny returns. There are all sorts of possible solutions but we will have wait until the new season begins to see where the exciting new pieces fit together.
By Harrison Brown