One position battle that could be taking shape for the Washington Capitals this September is the roster spot at left wing on the fourth line. While stalwart Carl Hagelin’s status remains very much in question due to the serious eye injury he sustained in March, the Capitals have other (Swedish) options for the position.
If Carl Hagelin is unable to resume his playing career this fall, the Capitals will need to find a replacement. Johan Larsson was brought in at the 2022 trade deadline and did a good job, but is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Capitals also have the younger Axel Jonsson-Fjallby waiting in the wings should the team want to go that route.
While many will immediately call for Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to takeover at the Hagelin spot should Hagelin be unable to return, Larsson has made a very good case for sticking around in Washington. In this post we’ll take a look at a few of the key variables related to the candidates for the position of left wing on the fourth line.
Before beginning an assessment of who might be the best candidate for a job opening, it’s helpful to reiterate the specific job requirements for the open position. The fourth line has been a critical piece to the overall system that Laviolette employs, as the line, like many fourth lines across the league, is a defense-first (checking) line, but maybe even more so under Laviolette. Scoring is not a driving factor.
Laviolette needs complete trust in his fourth line, as he often deploys the line to neutralize opposing team’s top lines. He’s had that in the Hagelin-Dowd-Hathaway line, and will be very hesitant to alter the chemistry.
First up, the vitals – age, height, shot, contract and contract value for each of the three wingers.
The first discernible difference is the age of the three forwards, with Hagelin nearly a decade older and costing two-million more dollars than Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. Larson falls in the middle of the age scale, but also provides a significant cost savings.
As noted, Hagelin is the older of the three wingers and by far the most expensive. On the plus side he is excellent, defensively, and has been a key component on the Capitals penalty kill. Probably his biggest positive is his proven experience working with fellow fourth liners, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. The line has been the Capitals best trio for many parts of the past two seasons, and proven to be a favorite of Laviolette’s.
The Axeman Cometh
Jonsson-Fjallby, nearly 10 years younger than Hagelin, brings just as much speed and defensive skill, if not more, at $2,000,000 less of a hit to the salary cap. He’s also been excellent on the penalty kill in Hershey and has the best shot of the trio of Swedes. While lacking experience, he did spend some time with Dowd and Hagelin this past season and proved he can be an asset to the line.
Larry The Stable Guy
Larsson filled the Hagelin spot well once he returned from the injured reserve list. Defensively, Larsson was as advertised, providing dependable defense on the back-end and also worked well with Dowd and Hathaway. Larsson is an unrestricted free agent and will need to be re-signed by the Capitals, and it’s almost certain he will garner more money this coming season, as he could receive outside offers.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
To dig a little deeper into the side-by-side-by-side comparison it’s helpful to look at a few of the key statistics for each player, keeping in mind Laviolette’s job description for the role of the 4th-line winger.
[The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, NHL.com and NoVa Caps’ Advanced Anlytics model. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.]
While the fourth line will be looked to provide defense first, we begin the analytics review with a look at the offensive metrics at even strength – shot attempts (CF%), scoring chances for (SCF%), expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60) for each of the three candidates. [Click to enlarge].
This is where we begin to see Johan Larson’s value, as he had the best numbers of all of the candidates in all categories. You can be assured that Laviolette and the Capitals management have noticed these numbers.
The next graph plots a few of the key defensive possession metrics for the three wingers at even strength. [Click to Enlarge].
Defensively, this is where Carl Hagelin shows his dominance, as he leads all three candidates in GA per 60, xGA-Ga and xGA per 60. This is also where Larsson comes in at the bottom of the list. Once again Jonsson-Fjallby falls respectably in the middle. Again, defense is what Laviolette wants from his 4th line, not scoring.
This upcoming offeseason will have a different feel to it than ones in recent past, as the Capitals will finally have salary cap space. Just as important is the fact that there are now several position battles that appear to be taking shape, that will include younger prospects.The upcoming training camp will be a good one to watch.
While Carl Hagelin was a perfect fit for the fourth line job requirements, his health status will require the Capitals to make another move at the position. Luckily the move will be to a younger, less expensive player.
While Johan Larsson has been a valuable addition to the team with respect to meeting Laviolette’s needs for a fourth-line winger, the move to the younger Axel Jonsson-Fjallby seems to make the most sense at this point in the Capitals timeline. 10 years younger and $2,000,000 cheaper than Hagelin, Jonsson-Fjallby is a perfect replacement, having extremely similar skills. lacking in experience, but having a much better shot and offensive upside.
Having said that, don’t be surprised if the Capitals lean towards Larsson and try to re-sign him this off-season. He was the preferred Swede since the deadline and in the postseason, which could mean he was more coveted in Laviolette’s eyes, or it could simply mean “we traded for him, we need to play him”.
Regardless of the decision, it’s good to see the Capitals finally being faced with competition from the youth, once again. September is going to be very interesting.
By Jon Sorensen