The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals might have had a light schedule in the early going of their 2018-2019 season – they will play only their third game of the season on Wednesday night against the Vegas Golden Knights – but it does not compare with the schedule of their next opponent, the New Jersey Devils. When the Devils host the Caps on Thursday, Day 9 on the 2018-2019 season calendar, it will be only the Devils’ second game of the season. Since defeating the Edmonton Oilers in their season/home opener, the Devils have been limited to practice and waiting.
It is not the best way, perhaps, to build early season momentum, but the Devils do have the advantage of starting their season with a five-game home stand, the longest home stand on their schedule this season. The Devils reached the postseason last year after a five-year absence. But despite failing in the first round of the playoffs to the Tampa Bay Lightning, it is a team that seemed content merely to tinker around the margins of their roster. Gone are late-season acquisitions Pat Maroon (to St. Louis as a free agent) and Michael Grabner (to Arizona as a free agent), while in are… well, there do not appear to be much in the area of upgrades.
The stand-pat approach to the roster will put some pressure on second-year player Nico Hischier to take the next big leap in his development. The first overall pick in the 2017 Entry Draft had a superb rookie season, finishing with 20 goals (tied for seventh among all rookies), 32 assists (fifth), 52 points (tied for sixth), 19 even strength goals (tied for third), and averaging 16:19 in ice time per game (sixth among rookie forwards). He is the only rookie in franchise history to record at least 20 goals and at least 30 assists, while going at least plus-10 in his rookie season. And, he did not succumb to a problem many rookies face – hitting a wall over the long season. He appeared in all 82 games (the only Devil to do so) and finished a respectable 7-4-11, plus-5, in his last 15 games of the season. Hischier was 1-1-2, minus-1, in four games against the Caps as a rookie.
Only three defensemen in team history have appeared in more games for the club than Andy Greene (789): Ken Daneyko (1,283), Scott Stevens (956), and Scoot Niedermayer (892). That’s Devils royalty, all three having played on all three Devils’ Cup-winning teams (1995, 2000, 2003). Greene has had no such team success, and he has toiled in near anonymity. Since he came into the league in 2006-2007, he has been dependable, those 789 games played ranking 22nd among defensemen over that period, and he is one of only six defensemen in club history to record at least 200 points. The 2017-2018 season was the third consecutive season in which Greene finished with 13 points. It is down a notch or two from his most productive years (from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015 he averaged 28 points per 82 games), but as the oldest defenseman on the roster (we will turn 36 before the end of this month) his role might be as much leadership as it is production these days. Greene is 3-6-9, minus-17, in 40 career games against Washington.
The 2004 Entry Draft was an odd one for goaltenders. Four netminders were taken in the first 26 picks. It was a mixed bag. Neither Al Montoya (taken sixth overall by the New York Rangers), nor Marek Schwarz (picked 17th by the St. Louis Blues) put together much of a resume in the NHL. Devan Dubnyk (taken 14th by the Edmonton Oilers) became a very good goalie, but not until his sixth season and his fourth team in the NHL (Minnesota, where he finished third in the Vezina Trophy voting and fourth in the Hart Trophy voting in 2015). Cory Schneider was the fourth goalie taken in that draft, a selection of the Vancouver Canucks. After a solid apprenticeship (85-45-12, 2.30, .921, with 12 shutouts in 137 AHL games, he played well for the Canucks in a limited role (55-26-8, 2.20, .927, with nine shutouts in 98 games), but he ended up getting stuck behind Roberto Luongo, although he did push Luongo quite hard for the top spot, eventually getting 30 of 48 starts in his last season in Vancouver in 2012-2013. Since being traded to New Jersey in June 2013 for a first round draft pick, his numbers have been steadily slipping. He posted a 1.97 goals against average in 45 games in 2013-2014, but his GAA has gone up every year since, cresting at 2.93 last season. His save percentage in that first season with the Devils was .921, but after two more seasons over .920 it sank to .908 two years ago and .907 last season.
Part of the problem for Schneider last season might have been a hip injury. He had off-season hip surgery and did not dress for the Devils’ season opener. He remains on injured reserve, leaving the number one duties for the time being to Keith Kinkaid. It was a bit of a surprise to see Kinkaid get 41 games last season, but he did not wilt under the workload. However, neither did he shine. His 2.77 goals against average and .913 save percentage were squarely in the range of his career numbers in four seasons preceding last year (2.68/.912 in 69 games). If Schneider cannot come back soon and come back better than he has been the last few seasons, the Devils reaching the postseason a second straight year would be in jeopardy. Kinkaid is 2-3-0, 3.95, .864 in five career appearances against the Caps.
1. From 2014-2015 through last season, only seven players in the league among more than 1,300 to have dressed had a worse plus-minus than Devils defenseman Damon Severson (minus-60).
2. It might seem odd, but in 43 seasons coming into this one, the Devils have only one 50-win season. That came in 2008-2009 (51-27-4), and they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in seven games by the Carolina Panthers.
3. Last year’s magic number for New Jersey was “four.” Thirty times they scored four or more goals, and not once did they lose in regulation (28-0-2).
4. There was quite a drop-off in points from Taylor Hall (93) to Nico Hischier (52), but on the other hand, after Hall the Devils were quite balanced. There were 14 skaters with at least 20 points and 21 skaters finished last season in double digits in points.
5. New Jersey was one of only six teams last season to have more takeaways than giveaways. Their takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (1.04) was fifth-best in the league.
1. The Caps bring a 15-game points streak against the Devils into this game. Washington is 13-0-2 over that stretch. They have outscored New Jersey, 54-27, have outshot the Devils by a 426-382 margin, have converted 10 of 50 power play chances (20.0 percent), and have killed off 41 or 45 shorthanded situations (91.1 percent).
2. When the Caps allowed four goals to the Devils last January 18th in a 4-3 overtime loss, it was the first time that the Caps allowed more than two goals to the Devils in New Jersey since they allowed three goals in a 3-2 overtime loss on January 25, 2013. The odd thing about the nine straight games in which the Caps allowed two or fewer goals in New Jersey was that they lost two of the games, both in regulation.
3. Only the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lighting average more shots on goal per game, for and against (72.0 per game combined for both) than the Caps (69.5).
4. The Caps are averaging 13:00 in penalty minutes per game, third highest in the league. Yes, only two games in. Yes, a matter than needs to be addressed.
5. Washington hasn’t improved its shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5, but it's early. They finished last season ranked 24th (47.98); they are ranked 23rd as of Wednesday afternoon, before their evening game against Vegas (45.55).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
New Jersey: Taylor Hall
You are the reigning Hart Trophy winner. You set career highs in goals (39), assists (54), points (93), plus-minus (plus-14), even strength goals (25), power play goals (13, tying his best), and were named to the first team All-Star team at season’s end. For the first time in nine seasons in the NHL, you reached the postseason. What is next for Taylor Hall? Well, for starters, if he has another big year in 2018-2019 (41 goals), he would become the 25th player in team history to score 100 goals with the club. With 79 points he would jump into the top-30 in points in franchise history. Not bad for a player entering only his fourth season with the club. He led the club in just about every offensive category last season (goals, assists, points, plus-minus, power play goals, power play points, game winning goals, overtime goals, shots on goal, and shootout shot attempts). Under a literal interpretation of the Hart citation (player most valuable to his team) it is hard to argue with the selection. Hall is 3-2-5, minus-3, in 11 career games against Washington.
Washington: Michal Kempny
After suffering a concussion at the hands (elbow, shoulder) of St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo in the preseason (Bortuzzo was suspended two preseason games and the regular season opener), Michal Kempny is expected to make his season debut for the Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday. If last season was an indicator, it matters. As we wrote in the preview for Kempny a short time back regarding his addition to the blue line in a trade with Chicago:
“Kempny ended up being the solution to more than one problem. The Caps were not getting it done, or at least not looking like a likely deep-run playoff team with two rookie defensemen (Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey) getting regular turns in the lineup. Whether they were paired together, or they were partnered with John Carlson (Djoos) and Brooks Orpik (Bowey), it wasn’t working at a high enough level. They had one solid pair – Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov – and two that just didn’t seem to click.
Enter Kempny. Pairing him with John Carlson on the second pair allowed head coach Barry Trotz to pair a conventional offensive defenseman in Christian Djoos with a conventional defensive defenseman in Brooks Orpik. Uncertainty about the blue line’s ability to stand up when the pressure was greatest melted away.”
Kempny does not, and is not likely to have numbers that will impress the casual fan. But he plays a complementary role quite well, as was the case last year with John Carlson. Give that the Caps were at the extremes in their first two games – holding Boston without a goal before surrendering seven to Pittsburgh, the stability Kempny demonstrated he can provide would be a welcome contribution to defensive consistency. In four career games against the Devils, Kempny is 1-1-2, plus-4.
In the end…
This is one odd game. The Caps are coming into it playing their second straight back-to-back after five full days off since their last one. New Jersey has had one game so far and might be expected to have accumulated some rust after having four full days off of their own. Dmitrij Jaskin, claimed off waivers from the St. Louis Blues by the Caps, could see his first action with the club, if he didn’t already against Vegas on Wednesday. It is entirely possible that Pheonix Copley will get his first turn in goal for the Caps, the first time a goalie other than Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer started a game for the Caps since Justin Peters stopped 30 of 33 shots in a 5-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks on February 15, 2015. New Jersey is trying to get by in the early going with their backup netminder while their number one is on the mend from surgery. One would have a devil of a time (wink wink) figuring out just how this game might unfold. OK, not really…
Capitals 5 – Devils 2