“Whoso neglects learning in his youth, loses the past and is dead for the future.”
Christian Djoos had a nice rookie season for the Washington Capitals in 2017-2018. How nice? He started his rookie season with a goal in his first NHL game:
And when the season was over, he became only the 13th defenseman in team history to dress for at least 60 regular season games as a rookie and only the fifth since Kevin Hatcher played in 79 games as a rookie in 1985-1986. He became only the third rookie defenseman in team history to play in 60 regular season games and post a plus-minus of plus-10 or better, joining John Carlson (plus-21 in 2010-2011) and Scott Stevens (plus-15 in 1982-1983).
Djoos ranked highly among his rookie defenseman peers in 2017-2018 as well, finishing eigth in games played (63), tied for eighth in goals (three), 12th in assists (11), tied for ninth in points (14), tied for fourth in plus-minus (plus-13). He accomplished this despite ranking 40th in average ice time (14:02 per game) among 62 rookie defensemen appearing in at least 20 games.
His possession numbers were respectable, finishing 20th among 56 rookie defensemen appearing in at least half of their teams’ games (521.79 percent; numbers from NHL.com), although he was sheltered in terms of his offensive zone starts (60.43 percent, 11th among that same group of 56 defensemen).
Odd Djoos Fact…
Christian Djoos scored three goals on home ice last season (none on the road). The Caps lost two of the games, a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh on October 11th and a 4-1 loss to Florida on October 21st. The lone win accompanying a Djoos goal was a 5-2 win over New Jersey on December 30th.
Playing defense is hard in the NHL, perhaps the hardest position on the ice to master and play well consistently. That only 13 rookie defensemen played in 60 or more games last season, including Djoos, speaks to that idea. It is especially noteworthy with respect to Djoos that he was among this group having been a seventh-round/195th overall draft pick in 2012. He is one of only six skaters out of the seventh round of that draft to have dressed for an NHL game, and Djoos has the most among them. He is one of only eight rookie defensemen since 2005-2006 taken in the seventh round of any draft to have played in 60 or more games and the only one to have played for a Stanley Cup winner.
Djoos hit a wall last year, at least in the offensive end, that looked like Wile E. Coyote trying to chase the Road Runner through a tunnel, only to find it was a painted rock. He had a four-game points streak to end January and begin February, but starting with his 45th game of the season on February 9th, he was 0-2-2 over his last 41 games, including the playoffs. He finished the season with a 54-game streak without a goal, including the postseason. And there was an ice time issue. In 20 games in which he skated more than 20 minutes, the Caps were 9-9-2. They were 9-5-1 when he skated 13 minutes or less.
The Big Question… Is Christian Djoos’ role as a starting third pair defenseman secure?
The overall picture of the Washington Capitals heading into training camp and the 2018-2019 season is that they bring almost their entire Stanley Cup winning roster back. They lost one skater (Jay Beagle). Drilling down, it would then follow that Christian Djoos, having established himself with a good rookie season and then appearing in 22 playoff games after sitting out the first two games of the first round, would have his name written in pen on the six-deep depth chart of defensemen. Well, let’s step back a bit.
Remember that at this time last season, he and Madison Bowey were being looked at as a rookie third-pair for the Caps. For a while, they were in the lineup regularly, even if not always paired with one another. As the season unfolded, the Caps traded for Michal Kempny, who was paired with John Carlson, Djoos was paired with Brooks Orpik, and Bowey was sent to Hershey. Voila! A Stanley Cup. So here we are a few months later, and Bowey is in camp pushing for a roster spot, some other youngsters (Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler, Connor Hobbs) might be making a case for themselves, and Djoos did have, if not struggles, than a less productive last five months of the season in his rookie campaign than he had in its beginning.
It is not to say that Djoos is in imminent danger of losing a starting spot or even a roster spot. But he does have an additional consideration that in some cases would be incentive, while in other cases, pressure. His current contract expires after this season, and he will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free-agent. How well he fights off a “sophomore slump,” how well he deals with the grind of a long NHL season to avoid hitting a wall, and how well he can compartmentalize his on-ice responsibilities and his looming contract situation will go a long way to determining if he can maintain a firm grip on his spot on the depth chart.
In the end…
What with Alex Ovechkin having another fine year and fulfilling a Stanley Cup dream, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s coming-out party as a top echelon forward in the league, John Carlson’s career year, Lars Eller’s clutch playoff performance, Devante Smith-Pelly’s odd propensity to score goals in the postseason at rates he doesn't approach in the regular season, and Braden Holtby’s return from the abyss at the end of the bench as Philipp Grubauer’s backup to open the playoffs, Christian Djoos’ season can get lost in the cheering.
Make no mistake, though. Djoos had a rookie campaign that compares favorably among rookie defensemen over the history of this franchise. The object of the sophomore year, then, is to take the lessons learned and experience gained as a freshman and build on it to continue with favorable comparisons to his predecessors on the Capitals’ blue line.
Projection: 74 games, 4-12-16, plus-10
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America