Theme: “Do not worry about holding high position; worry rather about playing your proper role.”
On a team that has offense in spades, the Caps are a club that is perceived as being somewhat lacking in the defensive arts. That notion seems to apply to forwards as well as defensemen. A team that finished 16th in goals allowed per game – sixth among the eight teams in the Eastern Conference that made the playoffs last spring – has not really done much to alter that perception. And that brings us to David Steckel.
You might be forgiven if you are of a mind that the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native has been playing for the Caps for years and years. It might merely seem that way. The truth is, Steckel has played only three full seasons for the Caps (fewer than ten games in two others) and has only 234 regular season games to his credit. But at age 28, he is now entering what should be his prime years. Given the way the Caps are put together, it is not likely that his “prime” will be reflected in the usual numbers. Steckel’s contributions to the Caps are going to be more at the defensive end of the ice – matching up against an opponent’s scoring line centers, winning faceoffs, killing penalties.
Let’s take a look at that. First, defense. If you look at the 143 centers that played in at least 50 games last year, Steckel ranked 28th in plus/minus-on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (behindthenet.ca). That is a rather respectable ranking, higher than Ryan Getzlaf, higher than Anze Kopitar, higher than Mikko Koivu, among others. But that is rather deceiving. If you compare that to /minus-OFF ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Steckel has the second highest number of those 143 centers (parenthetically, only Brooks Laich’s was higher). What that means is that the plus/minus differential (on ice versus off ice) for Steckel is -0.97, which ranks 129th among the 143 centers in this list. This is not a result you would be looking for in a defensive center.
Faceoffs are another matter. In his three full seasons with the Caps, Steckel finished the season ranked seventh, fifth, and second in the league last season, his success rate climbing from 56.3 percent to 57.9 percent to 59.2 percent last year. Only 16 times in 79 games last year did Steckel fail to win at least half of his draws taken. But 11 of those occurrences took place in the last 22 games he played.
Steckel’s penalty killing was part of a larger problem the Caps had playing a man short last year. There were 88 centers who played in at least 50 games and averaged at least one minute of penalty killing ice time a game. Among that group, Steckel had the 11th highest goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes at 4-on-5.
Hockey is a team game, and as a team game, the Capitals deficiencies cannot be laid at the feet of David Steckel or any single player. But Steckel is something of the canary in the coal mine here. As a forward with primarily defensive responsibilities, his numbers have to be better for the Caps to be more successful in shutting other teams down.
Fearless: Hey cousin, did you know that Rod Brind’Amour went minus-3, minus-8, minus-9, and minus-4 in his first four years with the Flyers? He went on to win two Selke Trophies. Or that Michael Peca was minus-7 over his first two sesasons? He won two Selke’s, too.
Cheerless: Uh, cuz? In those six seasons those guys played, only one (Brind’Amour’s Flyers in 1994-1995) finished above .500, and that was the 48-game season. Those teams were pretty bad all around.
In the end…
Steckel was a decent offensive performer in the AHL (54 goals in 208 games), but that is not the role he plays at this level. He is going to get 12-14 minutes a night, 3-4 of that coming in penalty killing situations. He is going to be the go-to guy on faceoffs in critical situations (for example, he was second in the league last year in shorthanded faceoffs won). He is not going to put up gaudy numbers; in fact, against Eastern Conference teams making the playoffs last year he was 1-4-5, minus-2 in 28 games (oddly enough, his lone goal was also his only power play goal last year, scored against the Flyers).
The difficulty Steckel and the Caps face is that he and Boyd Gordon, despite very different appearances on the ice, play very much overlapping roles. Both are primarily defensive forwards, both are excellent at faceoffs, both get a lot of penalty killing minutes (more than a quarter of Gordon’s average ice time per game last year was spent killing penalties). The trouble from a management standpoint is that Steckel carries a $300,000 larger cap hit and has three years left on his contract (Gordon is in a contract year).
What it all means is that the Caps need improvement defensively, and this is the role Steckel has inherited among the forwards. Last year was not a particularly good one, either for him or for the club at their own end of the ice. Sins in the defensive end can be absolved in the regular season when the offense can steamroll most teams. But those sins, if not corrected in the regular season, tend to get magnified in the post-season. It means that the Caps – and Steckel – have to play a more determined role in their own end of the ice.
77 games, 5-12-17, +5