The Washington Capitals are slated to enter the 2022-23 regular season with five returning regular defenseman, with Justin Schultz leaving for the Seattle Kraken via free agency. As the roster stands today, we’re likely to see a three or four player position battle for that last spot on the defense.
Unless General Manager Brian MacLellan decides to make a late summer move for another defenseman, the four players we can expect to contend for a third pairing spot are Matt Irwin, Erik Gustafsson, Gabriel Carlsson, and Lucas Johansen.
Gustafsson and Carlsson were snagged from unrestricted free agency. Irwin had hit unrestricted free agency but was re-signed to a one-year deal. Johansen, the 28th overall selection from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, is looking to finally crack the NHL roster as a full-time regular.
In this post I’ll take a look at the defensive corps’ performance during the 2021-22 regular season, as well as the 2021-22 NHL performances for Gustafsson, Carlsson, and Irwin. Johansen was not included here because his body of work in the NHL last season was only one game, and the sample size was too low compared to the other three skaters.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and Evolving Hockey. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL analytics glossary.
Five-on-Five Individual Stats
First up, let’s take a look at the offensive production generated during five-on-five play last season by the Capitals’ regular defensemen:
John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov led the way, tied for the most points during five-on-five play last season. Orlov ended up scoring a career high 12 goals last season, as well as a career-high in points at 35. Nick Jensen’s offensive stats were also a career high for him last season and showed some development in his overall two-way game.
The departure of Schultz’s five-on-five offense and his position on the point of the Caps’ second power play unit are going to need to be replaced. That’s likely why the Capitals targeted Gustafsson, who really only brings value offensively:
Gustafsson put up 11 points during five-on-five play while only appearing in 59 games with Chicago last season. The concerning piece for Gustafsson was that he had the second most power play time for defensemen on the Blackhawks last season, but only tallied four points–all assists. Schultz tallied one more point in six less minutes.
Irwin certainly isn’t going to contribute too much, offensively. He’s typically more of the stay-at-home defenseman. Carlsson has only played in 75 games in his career and tallied 16 total points. It’s unclear if his offensive capabilities will develop further, or if he’ll be more of a defensively focused defenseman going forward.
Five-on-Five Possession and Scoring Chances
Here’s how the defensive regulars from last season performed for the Caps:
The most interesting piece here is that Schultz posted rather strong possession numbers but had a substantial underperformance in actual goals for percentage (GF%). Part of the reason why Schultz had rather good possession numbers is that he received extremely sheltered offensive zone starts (58.3%).
Something to keep an eye on is Fehervary’s possession performance. His Corsi For (CF%) and Fenwick For (FF%) were under the 50% threshold, and his expected goals for (xGF%) vastly underperformed his actual GF%.
For a rookie making his mark during his first full time assignment in the NHL, he received no sheltering during five-on-five play, getting only 49.4% of his zone starts in the offensive zone. This is a rather tough assignment for a rookie defenseman and the possession struggles were apparent. Would an easier role on the third pairing make a difference in his development?
We’ve talked about Jensen’s 2021-22 performance a ton over the past season. He was undoubtedly the Capitals’ best overall defenseman last season, and these numbers are just more evidence of that fact.
And now, the 2021-22 performances of Gustafsson, Irwin, and Carlsson:
Gustafsson’s 2021-22 performance was rather underwhelming. He did hit the exact 50% threshold on his CF%, but everything else trailed below that mark. Part of that was the quality of team he was playing for in Chicago.
On the other hand, the extremely concerning part is Gustafsson received 72.3% of his zone starts in the offensive zone. The expectation is, with higher rates of offensive zone starts, the more shot attempts your team should take while you’re on the ice. That was not the case for Gustafsson and while part of the equation was a rebuilding Chicago roster, that cannot be the whole story.
Irwin posted strong possession and scoring chance statistics while filling in on the Caps’ blueline when injuries arose. He only skated in 17 games last season, which makes the sample size a bit incongruent to Gustafsson, but overall, there’s not much to complain about here. Irwin also started 51.5% of his zone starts in the offensive zone, so not much sheltering there. He was pretty much everything you’d want in a seventh defenseman.
Carlsson is interesting here. He had similar struggles as Gustafsson being on a rebuilding team in Columbus last season. The piece that sticks out here is the over 10% net difference in GF% and xGF%. That differential in GF% vs xGF% isn’t exactly sustainable unless he takes a huge step forward developmentally and the players on the ice around him are also performing at a high level.
Goals Above Replacement Value
Let’s take a look at the Goals Above Replacement (GAR) values for the 2021-22 Capitals’ defensive regulars. The penalties GAR values were omitted for brevity:
Jensen and Orlov, the Capitals’ shutdown pairing, posted the two highest GAR marks for defensemen last season, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise here. With Schultz departing in free agency, the Capitals also free themselves of the lowest value player in the defensive corps. With even a replacement level player (0.0 value) in the lineup over Schultz, the Capitals would have an improved defensive group.
Again, Fehervary needs to be watched. He performed admirably in stretches, but ultimately struggled down the stretch with the longer NHL season and hard minutes, and deployments. This is where you start to see the main question mark with the Capitals’ defensive group: is Fehervary really a top four defenseman yet? And does playing him in that role before he’s really ready a hindrance or an advantage for his development?
Here’s the 2021-22 performance of Irwin, Gustafsson, and Carlsson:
Realistically, based on these GAR figures, any of these three players would be an improvement over Schultz. The piece, as mentioned earlier, that’s concerning is if Gustafsson gets the role of power play quarterback of the second power play unit with a -1.6 power play offensive value. Where Gustafsson is better offensively, he’s somehow worse defensively during even strength than Schultz was.
Irwin has solid GAR value for the amount of games he played in last season. It’s not clear you can expect Irwin’s EVO to get much higher than what he has here based off of his last five seasons. That 2.2 EVO value is the highest Irwin has achieved in the past five years.
Carlsson actually has the highest EVO value of the three. Realistically, if you keep him off of the penalty kill, Carlsson’s GAR value is actually rather strong.
A rather large factor for the Capitals’ success defensively in the 2022-23 season really hinges on Martin Fehervary’s development. It’s certainly likely that the Capitals will roll with largely the same pairings as last season, with the position battle determining who slots in as van Riemsdyk’s defensive partner.
Ideally, Fehervary continues his development and solidifies himself as a true top four defenseman on a playoff team. As it stands today, one of the main uncertainties on this roster is now at left-handed defenseman.
If Fehervary shows flashes but still struggles at times like he did last season, it would not be a shock if MacLellan acquired a top four left-handed defenseman at some point during the season or at the trade deadline.
The largest obstacle in potentially acquiring a defenseman at this juncture is the cap uncertainty. The Capitals would like some cap flexibility in the unlikely scenario that Nicklas Backstrom returns to the lineup late in the season. It’s likely the Caps will know the full picture of Backstrom’s recovery by the trade deadline.
By Justin Trudel