Photo: Santa Maria Times
The Washington Capitals signed five familiar foes over the offseason, including two they have seen continuously in the Stanley Cup Playoffs during their battles with the Pittsburgh Penguins in forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Justin Schultz.
Schultz, 30, was signed to help a defense that gave up an average of 3.44 goals-per-game in their final 32 games last season, the most of any team that participated in the NHL’s return-to-play format last summer. Schultz was coming off of a down season where he was limited to only 46 games because of injury and finished with a -13 rating, his worst since the Edmonton Oilers traded him to Pittsburgh deep into the 2015-16 season.
There was optimism as Schultz has shown sparks of being a solid offensive top-four NHL defenseman since his game fits in well with the system of new Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette, who pushes his defensemen to jump into the rush.
Despite missing four games early this season due to an upper-body injury, Schultz has bounced back nicely as he has posted two goals, seven points, and a Capitals-high +8 rating while averaging 16:21 of ice-time per game, fifth among the team’s defensemen, including 2:11 on the power-play (second, John Carlson: 3:15). On the defensive side, Schultz has posted an average of 1.28 hits-per-60 minutes, 3.22 blocked shots-per-60, 0.96 giveaways-per-60 (third among Capitals’ defensemen), and 0.64 takeaways-per-60 (tied for third with Zdeno Chara). He also has a 50.5% shot attempts percentage, the best among Capitals’ defensemen.
Schultz has arguably been the Capitals’ most consistent defenseman this season as he has posted a 50.55% Corsi-for percentage (a team-high among defensemen), a 48.49% expected goals-for percentage, and 52.17% scoring chances-for percentage. Schultz and Chara, who have played 69.3 minutes together, have combined for a 51.7% Corsi-for percentage, a 46.8% expected goals-for percentage, and a team-best 77.8% goals-for percentage.
Before getting held off of the scoresheet in the Capitals’ 3-1 win against his former team on Tuesday, Schultz was on a four-game point streak, where he produced all of his points so far this season. He recorded three two-point games during the streak.
The Capitals’ defense is still a work in progress as it has given up an average of 3.57 goals-per-game (tied with the Penguins and San Jose Sharks for the third-most in the NHL) but Schultz has been a bright spot when it comes to the backend.
Sheary, captain Sidney Crosby’s linemate during their run to the Stanley Cup in 2016, was brought in following the departure of forward Ilya Kovalchuk in free agency, which left a vacancy in the Capitals’ bottom-six forward group. Washington was looking for additional firepower after only six of the 22 players that suited up for the team in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs found the back of the net.
After earning an assist in his Capitals’ debut and playing one more game, Sheary was a healthy scratch for two games before the team started having COVID-19 issues. He was held off of the scoresheet for four straight games before striking twice in the Capitals’ 6-3 comeback win over the New York Islanders on January 28, where he scored the first two goals after the Islanders grabbed a 3-0 lead. Sheary was held off of the scoresheet in the next four games and missed one contest due to a lower-body injury. The 28-year-old posted a goal against the Penguins on Tuesday.
Through 11 games with his new team, Sheary has posted three goals, four points, an even rating, a 55.08% Corsi-for percentage (fourth-best on the Capitals), a 57.14% expected goals-for percentage (third), and a 52.17% scoring chances for percentage (tied with Schultz for eighth).
While averaging 10:54 of ice time per game, including 14 on the power-play, Sheary has recorded 2.5 hits-per-60, 2.5 blocked shots-per-60, .5 giveaways-per-60, and 1.5 takeaways-per-60. He has also recorded a 54.7% shot-attempts percentage, the best among Capitals’ left wings.
His line with center Lars Eller and forward Richard Panik has combined for a 76.9% expected goals-for percentage, a 100% goals-for percentage, and a 64.8% Corsi-for percentage in 44.5 minutes together.
The additions of Schultz and Sheary might have been awkward for everyone after the two helped the Penguins beat the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2016 and 2017, but they have played well for Washington since signing with the team in the offseason. While Schultz’s contract might have looked pricey at the time, he has made GM Brian MacLellan look good so far. The Capitals will need the two to keep up their strong play since defense and scoring depth were two huge issues in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
By Harrison Brown