Photo: Yahoo! Sports
With training camp for the 2021-22 season set to open in less than four weeks and the Washington Capitals scheduled to open their preseason slate on Sunday, September 26, there is an opportunity for head coach Peter Laviolette to try some new things with his lineup before the puck drops for real. After three first-round exits in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, perhaps shuffling the deck and starting the season on a fresh note will be beneficial for a group that seems to need a spark.
Before rolling your eyes at some of these suggestions, keep in mind that these are just for exhibition games where teams can focus on finding chemistry within their group. If it does not click, then the Capitals never have to use that combination again. But if it does and it does so well, the Capitals can give it a try when there are points are up for grabs.
Nick Jensen On Left Side Of Second-Pair
The loss of Brenden Dillon left a hole on the left-side of their second defensive pairing and the two leading candidates to grab that spot (assuming no other roster additions are made prior to the start of training camp) are rookie Martin Fehervary, who has just eight games of NHL experience (two coming in the postseason), and Michal Kempny, who missed the entire 2020-21 season due to his second major surgery in 19 months.
Meanwhile, Jensen was one of the Capitals’ best defensemen last season when he tallied two goals, 14 points, a +5 rating, a 50.24% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 53.58% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 52.5% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage while averaging 17:18 per game, including 2:38 on the penalty kill in 53 games.
Perhaps, Jensen has earned an opportunity for larger responsibility after making big strides in his game last season. With Justin Schultz set on the right side, it is going to be harder for Jensen to get more ice time on his dominant side. After the (likely) departure of Zdeno Chara, his primary partner last season, the Capitals could be more willing to give it a try.
Assistant coach Kevin McCarthy prefers his defensemen to play on their strong side so maybe this experiment would not last long but it is still be worth a shot.
Justin Schultz On Third Pairing
The 31-year-old did not have the best season in 2020-21 and is not known as a defensively strong player, so the Capitals could shelter his minutes more to match him against easier competition. Schultz finished the season with a 49.14% Corsi-for percentage, a 48.25% expected goals-for percentage, and a 49.25% scoring chances-for percentage at five-on-five in 46 games.
Especially after Jensen’s performance last season, there could very well be an argument to increase his responsibility. Like Jensen, Schultz also lost his primary defensive partner after Dillon was dealt.
Schultz has also missed 105 regular-season games over the past four seasons, including 10 last year, due to injury so playing him less could also lead to having him a more healthy player.
T.J. Oshie On Third-Line, Daniel Sprong On Second
Sprong, 24, is the youngest forward on the Capitals, the oldest team in the NHL, and his 1.59 goals-per-60 minutes last season was tied for 13th best in the league. However, he played primarily on the third line and had to earn his spot on a very deep offense. It was not until Richard Panik was traded on April 12 that he got more opportunity and Sprong, who finished the season with 13 goals and 20 points in 42 games, was still scratched in favor of Michael Raffl at times.
GM Brian MacLellan said that he wanted to see Sprong get increased responsibility this season and that would not be a bad idea for the league’s oldest team. Playing with centers Nicklas Backstrom and/or Evgeny Kuznetsov will just improve his scoring.
Since Laviolette puts together his bottom-six forward group with an emphasis on defense, Oshie would be a much better fit in it than Sprong, who’s game has some defensive deficiencies. Oshie is also set to turn 35 in December and plays the game with a lot of energy, adding some potency to the third line. Perhaps playing him against worse competition in decreased minutes would be beneficial for both the team and player. Oshie has also had chemistry with center Lars Eller before, including during the 2018 Stanley Cup run.
This would overall balance the scoring more across the lineup and help it defensively.
Sprong Over Eller On Second Power-Play
Despite his impressive even strength scoring prowess, Sprong averaged just 36 seconds on the Capitals’ power play last season.
While the Capitals like to ice their first unit for most of the time with the man advantage, Sprong ranked 13th among forwards on the team in average power-play ice time. It is understandable that he would have a hard time throwing one of Oshie, Backstrom, left-wing Anthony Mantha, left-wing Alex Ovechkin, or defenseman John Carlson on the first unit but what about the second?
Left-wing Conor Sheary, maybe. Kuznetsov or Wilson, doubtful. What about Eller, who earned just eight goals in 44 games last season and turned 32 last May?
Decreasing Eller’s power-play time would also give him more opportunity to focus on his defense, which the Capitals usually rely on him more for. While he would give the Capitals’ second unit fewer centers, Kuznetsov is already projected to be on that unit and he improved defensively last season.
Playing Sprong more on the power play would also give the Capitals a second shooting threat, giving them more leeway to drop Ovechkin’s ice time as he is set to turn 36 this month.
Garnet Hathaway On Second Penalty Kill Over Wilson
Wilson averaged 1:35 while shorthanded last season (fourth among Capitals forwards) while Hathaway was right behind him at 1:19.
While playing Wilson more gives him more of an opportunity to irritate the opposition, maybe the Capitals would be better off using him in a more offensive role with Hathaway being a smart, defensively-responsible forward who is mostly used in a shut down role anyway. It makes sense considering Wilson usually plays on the top line.
Using Wilson less on the penalty kill also reduces the risk of losing him to suspension (which the Capitals cannot afford) since the opposition will have a majority of the puck possession.
It could also be beneficial because Hathaway would be working with Dowd, his linemate, primarily on the penalty kill and the two would likely work together better since they know each other and their tendencies better.
By Harrison Brown