Photo: Blackhawk Up
Entering training camp, the Washington Capitals have a solid defense but have a little uncertainty on the bottom-pairing after Justin Schultz signed with the Seattle Kraken as an unrestricted free agent on July 13. The job appears to be between newly-signed Erik Gustafsson, newly-signed Gabriel Carlsson, 2016 26th overall pick Lucas Johansen, or veteran Matt Irwin. NoVa Caps looks at the four horses in the race to earn the open spot.
The 30-year-old earned three goals, 18 points, a -4 rating, 50% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 47.07% expected goals-for percentage, and 47.71% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 59 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. He averaged 16:13 per game (eighth among Blackhawks defensemen), including 1:56 on the power play (second).
Since a 17-goal, 60-point season in 2018-19, Gustafsson has struggled to cement himself as a full-time top-six defenseman, let alone top-four. Over the past two seasons, he has played in just 88 of 138 regular-season games and was a healthy scratch for five games of the Montreal Canadiens’ run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.
Gustafsson could have an edge at getting the job since he will likely come the closest toward’s matching Schultz’s offensive production, which head coach Peter Laviolette’s system appears to favor but Gustafsson has not proven that he can hang onto a permanent job yet. Could Laviolette and assistant Kevin McCarthy unleash some untapped potential from him? It’s certainly possible but Gustafsson could begin the season on a short leash.
The 34-year-old was excellent in a limited role last season as he notched a goal, four points, even rating, 56.01% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 59.32% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 54.55% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 17 games. That warranted a one-year contract extension for him.
While Irwin played well for the Capitals, he did it in a very small sample size. He played 74, 50, and 44 games, respectively, in three full seasons under Laviolette and McCarthy with the Nashville Predators from 2016-19, showing that they have counted on Irwin in the past and they can. However, he has not played more than 27 since and is getting up there in age.
The 24-year-old put himself back into the conversation in contributing with the Capitals after tallying an assist in his NHL debut and recording eight goals, 28 points, and a +20 rating in 62 AHL games in 2021-22. However, the 26th overall pick from 2016 fell off of the radar before his breakout season.
A huge training camp appears to be on the horizon for Johansen as he has the chance to preserve his dream of making it to the NHL.
The 25-year-old, who signed a one-year, two-way contract on July 20, earned two goals, nine points, a 47.99% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 47.47% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 48.99% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 39 NHL games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. He also earned two assists in two AHL games. His +6 rating led Columbus blueliners.
Prior to last season, Carlsson had never played more than 14 NHL games in a single season and played double-digit games only twice. He earned two goals and 12 points in each of the previous two AHL seasons and earned a +13 rating in 41 games with the Cleveland Monsters in 2019-20.
While there is a bit of uncertainty replacing Schultz, the Capitals appear to have their go-to in Gustafsson but if that doesn’t work out, it could get a little murky and they may have to pursue an addition around Christmas. This training camp and preseason will be critical for all four of these blueliners, especially Gustafsson, and if one does not take the ball and run with it, the Capitals may need to outsource to find their man.
By Harrison Brown