Thursday, May 23, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“Just remember, once you're over the hill you begin to pick up speed.”
-- Arthur Schopenhauer


It is a bit early to be pronouncing a 32-year old defenseman “over the hill,” but there was something of a head-scratching quality to the season Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen had in 2018-2019.  He tied a career high of seven even strength goals this season, but his overall point total dropped for the second straight season, from 39 points two years ago to 29 points last season to 25 points this season while playing more games this season (80) than in either of the last two.  He also finished a minus-3, his worst plus-minus rating since he was minus-3 in a 2010-2011 season that was split between the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Of some alarm, his season deteriorated (at least from a points perspective) from a good start.  Over his first three ten-game segments, Niskanen recorded five, four, and five points, respectively, going 4-10-14, even, in 30 games.  The fourth segment was key, though.  He was 1-0-1, plus-1, in the first six games of that segment.  In that sixth game against Carolina, Niskanen was chasing down a puck in the corner to the right of Braden Holtby mid-way through the third period with the Caps ahead, 2-0.  As he approached the wall, he was nudged in the right shoulder by Justin Williams, and then he was pushed face-first into the boards by Clark Bishop.  He missed the remainder of that game and the next two.

Niskanen strugged in his own end upon his return.  Although he was 2-2-4 in his first 14 games upon his return, he posted a minus-12 rating.  He rebounded to go 1-5-6, plus-8, in his last 30 games, but that 14-game stretch was a killer on an individual level for his numbers.  It begs the question, was it an injury-influenced off year for Niskanen (who was 6-15-21, plus-9, in 66 games not including the 14-game struggle he had on his return from injury), or was it an indicator of diminishing production to come?


Fearless’ Take… Matt Niskanen has long been a minutes-eating defenseman.  Including this season, he has averaged more than 20 minutes per game for seven straight seasons and averaged 22:20 per game over that span.  Even though his minutes were off some this season (his 21:56 per game was his lowest since he averaged 21:18 per game for Pittsburgh in 2013-2014), heavy ice time loads did not seem to burden him or the team.  In 16 games in which he skated more than 23 minutes, he was 3-5-8, plus-4, and the Caps were 10-3-3.

Cheerless’ Take… There is engaging in play, and there is engaging in play.  In 25 games in which Matt Niskanen was credited with three or more hits, the Caps were 12-11-1.  In 18 games in which he was credited with three or more blocked shots, they were 11-5-2.  They were 3-4-0 in the seven games in which he recorded at least three hits and three blocked shots.  Sometimes, there are some numbers you might not want to see a lot of. 

Odd Niskanen Fact… Matt Niskanen recorded three or more shots on goal in 23 games this season, but the Caps were just 9-11-3 in those games.  They were 11-4-2 in the 17 games in which he did not record a shot on goal.

Bonus Odd NIskanen Fact... Matt Niskanen is one of two first round picks of the 2005 Entry Draft who play with the Caps.  T.J. Oshie is the other.  Neither was selected by the Caps, Niskanen taken by Dallas with the 28th overall pick and Oshie taken by St. Louis with the 24th overall pick.  The Caps did have two first round picks in that draft -- Sasha Pokulok (taken 14th overall) and Joe Finley (taken 27th overall, one pick before Niskanen).  Neither played a game for the Caps.

Game to Remember… October 17th vs. New York Rangers

The Caps had a special night to open the season, a 7-0 win over the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup banner raising.  However, the Caps went 1-2-1 in their next four contests before hosting the New York Rangers.  The Rangers arrived in Washington as winners of two of three games after a struggling 0-3-0 start.  The visitors put the Caps down early with a Mika Zibanejad goal six minutes into the contest.  John Carlson got the Caps even before the first intermission, and Alex Ovechkin gave them a lead early in the second on a power play.  The teams exchanged power play goals before the second intermission, but the Rangers got even mid-way through the third period on a Chris Kreider power play goal.  That set up overtime.

Just as the clock was passing the two-minute mark of the 3-on-3 session, NIskanen fed the puck up ice from his own end to Evgeny Kuznetsov circling at the red line.  Kuznetsov skated the puck down the middle and faked a shot before peeling off to the left wing circle.  He and Niskanen crossed, giving Kuznetsov an opening to stwp up and send a shot high to the glove side of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  Although he got his glove on the shot, Lundqvist could not control it, and it dropped to his left, just where Niskanen was crossing in front.  Niskanen whipped a shot past a fallen Lundqvist into the back of the net for his first goal of the new season, giving the Caps the 4-3 win 2:18 into overtime.
                                                                                                                                                                     
Game to Forget…  October 11th at New Jersey

Through their first three games of the season, the Caps were 2-0-1 and scored 18 goals.  Going to New Jersey to face a Devils team that finished the previous season 17th in scoring defense offered the promise of further padding the early season offensive stats for the Caps.  Things did not work out quite that way.  Before the game was 20 minutes old, the Devils had a 2-0 lead, both goals from Kyle Palmieri, and Matt Niskanen got an up-close look at each, being on ice for both.  By the time it was over, the Devils had a 6-0 win, Niskanen also being on ice for the last of those six goals.  It was the first of three instances this season in which Niskanen posted a minus-3 rating, adding three shots on goal and two hits in his 19:46 in ice time.

Postseason…  About the best one could say of the postseason Matt Niskanen had against the Carolina Hurricanes was that it was uniformly mediocre.  He was 0-1-1, plus-2, with four shots on goal in four home games, 0-1-1, minus-2, with three shots on goal in three road games.  He had two blocked shots in five games, three in the other two.  He had two hits in four of the games.  He skated more than 20 minutes in all seven games, including a 37:35 log in the double-overtime loss in Game 7.  It was at the end of those 37-plus minutes that he could not quite close the distance between himself and Justin Williams as Williams chased down a loose puck along the right wing wall, nor could he block Williams’ centering feed to Brock McGinn for the game-winning, series-clinching goal for the Hurricanes. 

Looking ahead… Matt Niskanen has two more years at a $5.75 million cap hit on his current contract.  That cap hit with the other contract issues the club has, and perhaps the combination of his age (he will turn 33 in December) and diminished production in 2018-2019, has led people to wonder if he will be traded in this off-season.   Complicating the issue is that Niskanen has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to submit a 10-team no-trade list (source: capfriendly.com). 

In the end…

Matt Niskanen has been with the Caps five years.  In that time he has averaged 78 games played per year, and he has five of the top 11 average ice times per season (John Carlson also has five, and Dmitry Orlov has one).  All of those missed games have come after he appeared in all 82 games in each of his first two seasons with the Caps.  He has skated a lot of hard minutes, and the chips and dents might be showing as he heads toward his age 33 season, what would be his 13th in the NHL. 

It was the legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey who once said, “trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”  It might be his most famous quote.  But he also said, “never surrender opportunity for security.”  And this is the situation that the Caps face.  Is Matt Niskanen showing the first effects of a long career in which he has skated a lot of minutes, or was the 2018-2019 season, arguably his worst statistically since the 2010-2011 season in which he was traded to Pittsburgh after going 1-9-10, minus-3, in 63 games for Dallas, merely an aberration?  Will the Caps bet on the latter, which could end up being a surrender to security if it isn’t an aberration?  Or, will they look to move the player to give the club an opportunity to free up resources to address other players’ contract situations at the risk that this season really was just a hiccup in Niskanen’s career?

Grade: B-

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Nick Jensen

Nick Jensen

"With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.”
-- Eleanor Roosevelt


One day, you are toiling in relative obscurity for a renowned franchise that has fallen on hard times, the next you are thrust into a stretch run to the postseason with the defending Stanley Cup champions.  Life in the NHL at the trading deadline, where there are buyers and sellers, even a seller with 11 Stanley Cups in franchise history and a buyer who has but one.  However, the Detroit Red Wings were on their way to a third straight season without a playoff berth, and that made third-year defenseman Nick Jensen an asset that might be attractive to teams looking to bolster their blue line for the postseason. 

For the Washington Capitals, a player like Jensen, a smooth skating defenseman who appeals more to the fan who pays attention to detail than the casual fan who might look more at top-end numbers, might be a chance to capture lightning in a bottle a second time after securing Michal Kempny, an important part of the Caps’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, at the trading deadline in February 2018.  The Caps gave up young defenseman Madison Bowey and a 2019 fifth round draft pick to secure Jensen, but it seemed a light price to pay to add another layer of strength on the blue line going into the postseason.

Jensen dressed for 20 games to close out the regular season with the Caps, and his points production (five) was equivalent to that of the pace he set in Detroit (15 points in 60 games).  He managed to do it while averaging less ice time (17:00) than he did in Detroit (20:48).

Fearless’ Take… Jensen getting more ice time was associated with good things for the Caps in his abbreviated stay.  They were 11-2-0 in the 13 games in which he skated at least 16 minutes, 3-3-1 when he skated less than 16 minutes.  And, it wasn’t a case of having to contribute scoring for the Caps to be successful with Jensen in the lineup.  Washington was 4-1-0 in the five games in which he had points, 10-4-1 in the games in which he did not. 

Cheerless’ Take… There is getting ice time, and there is managing it.  In the last 20 games of the season, Jensen was the only Capital defenseman who dressed for more than one game with an on-ice shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 under 50 percent (46.69 percent).  The odd part of that was that he was second best in that group in tied-game situations (54.89 percent, trailing only Michal Kempny (56.00 percent in 12 games).

Odd Jensen Fact… Nick Jensen played his college hockey at St. Cloud State.  Nick Jensen played college football at…yup, St. Cloud State (before he transferred to Saint John’s College).  We don’t think either is related to… Nick Jensen of the University of South Dakota, although Nick Jensen (the second one) also played at South Dakota State.

Game to Remember… March 24th vs. Philadelphia

Upon arriving in Washington, Nick Jensen was dipped into the history of rivalries.  Of his first eight games with the Caps, six were against former Patrick and current Metropolitan Division clubs – the New York Rangers (twice), the New York Islanders, the New Jersey Devils, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Philadelphia Flyers.  That was the run-up to a matinee rematch against the Flyers on March 24th a game that was important to the Caps because they just had a seven-game winning streak snapped and wanted to avoid consecutive losses for the first time in two months.

Washington drew first blood early in the first period on a broken play that was quickly repaired.  From the right wing corner, Nicklas Backstrom sent a no-look backhand pass in front to Alex Ovechkin.  He tried to send the puck across to Tom Wilson alone to the right of goalie Brian Elliott, but a sliding Claude Giroux interrupted that effort.  The puck slid out to Jensen at the top of the zone.  Backing off to try for a better passing angle, Jensen flipped the puck at the net, and Wilson got his stick on it to redirect it down and past Elliott’s left pad to make it 1-0, 3:52 into the game.

The Caps doubled their lead mid-way through the second period on a Travis Boyd goal, but the Flyers got back within one on a power play before the second intermission.  Jakub Vrana put the game away mid-way through the third period, the Caps getting back on a winning track, 3-1.  It was a typically “Jensen” game, if only more of it.  In addition to the assist on the Wilson goal, he had three shot attempts (one on goal, two others blocked), two hits, and five blocked shots (his high with the Caps) in 20:45 in ice time (his high with the Caps to that point).
                                                                                                                                                                     
Game to Forget…  March 12th at Pittsburgh

Nick Jensen’s introduction to the Capitals-Penguins rivalry was not a happy one.  Things started well enough for the Caps, who got a pair of goals from Jakub Vrana in the game’s first 31 minutes to take a 2-0 lead.  However, two minutes after the second Vrana goal, the Caps turned the puck over inside their own blue line, and the Penguins capitalized with Jared McCann feeding Jake Guentzel, who took advantage of what looked like an early exit from the defensive zone by Jensen, for the Pens’ goal.  It was the first of four straight Penguin goals, scored over a 19-minute span over the second and third periods, as the Pens won going away, 5-3.  In 14:09 of ice time, Jensen did not have a point, did not have a shot attempt, did not have a hit, takeaway, or blocked shot.  He did have a giveaway and was a minus-1 for the evening.

Postseason…  Nick Jensen was the only one of five Capital defensemen who played in all seven games of the opening round loss to Carolina and did not record a point.  That was not too surprising, given that his had five points (all assists) in 20 regular season games with the Caps.  The odd thing, though, was his being the only Capital skater not to record a shot on goal in the Game 7 double overtime loss that ended the Caps’ season, despite more than 24 minutes of ice time (he had three shot attempts).  His first career postseason appearance might be summed up, as it might for a lot of Caps, as being not bad, but just not quite good enough.

Looking ahead… The first order of business upon his acquisition by the Caps was to get Nick Jensen signed to a new contract, a deal that was consummated on the day of the trade.  Jensen inked a four-year/$10 million deal that will keep him with the team through the 2022-2023 season.  Although he is a different sort of defenseman than Matt Niskanen (Jensen has six goals in his three-year career; Niskanen had eight goals this season), other than the fact that both are right-handed shots, Jensen comes at a much lower cap hit ($2.5 million) than does Niskanen ($5.75 million).  He could make Niskanen expendable to give the Caps some signing flexibility and/or the opportunity for young defensemen to assume bigger roles.

In the end…

Nick Jensen was traded for Madison Bowey, but the player he essentially replaced was Christian Djoos, who was out of the lineup upon Jensen’s arrival and did not return until Michal Kempny was lost for the remainder of the season to injury on March 20th.  Whatever the underlying reason, the Caps were objectively more successful after Jensen’s arrival (9-2-1 in his first 12 games) than in the period immediately before his arrival when Djoos was in the lineup (4-3-1 in eight games after he missed 24 games).  After Djoos returned to the lineup, and both he and Jensen were in the lineup, the Caps finished 5-3-0, but that included a meaningless loss, in terms of impact on standings, in the season finale).  This is not to diminish Djoos, who remains a promising prospect, but to suggest Jensen was an upgrade.  Perhaps not of the magnitude of the upgrade Kempny provided at a similar point in 2017-2018, but an upgrade nevertheless.  For Jensen, is did not seem so much a new game for him as it was a new setting in which it could flourish.

Grade: B

Photo: Nick Wass/Associated Press

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Michal Kempny

Michal Kempny

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"
-- John Greenleaf Whittier


Michal Kempny was the “X Factor” when he was obtained via trade by the Washington Capitals from the Chicago Blackhawks in February 2018 for a third round draft pick.  He was the piece that allowed all the others to fall into their place, the piece that provided an unexpectedly high level of stability and balance on the blue line, an important ingredient in the Capitals’ march to a Stanley Cup championship.  Kempny was rewarded with four-year/$10 million contract, and fans were left to think about how things might unfold with Kempny in the fold for an entire season in 2018-2019 as the Caps looked to repeat as NHL champions

Kempny got off to a bit of a slow start in the new season.  It was delayed when he suffered an upper-body injury in a pre-season game against the St. Louis Blues, an elbow to the face from Robert Bortuzzo, that put him on injured reserve and kept him on the shelf for the Caps first two games of the regular season.  He appeared in 16 of the next 17 games for the Caps and posted two assists with a plus-4 rating.

It was at this point that Kempny found his scoring touch.  Over an 11-game stretch from November 19th through December 11th, he went 2-6-8, plus-15, while averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game.  That was a quick pace for a “puck-moving” defenseman to sustain, and he did cool off some, but he did continue making offensive contributions at a career-best pace and did so by being in the lineup night-in and night-out. 

When the Caps beat the New Jersey Devils, 4-1, on March 19th in what was Kempny’s 70th game of the season, he was in the midst of another solid run, going 1-6-7, plus-4, over a 12-game stretch.  In Game 71, though, a matchup at Capital One Arena against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 20th, it all came crashing down.  Late in the second period, tempers boiled over, and players squared off.  Most attention was focused on Jakub Vrana and Yanni Gourde wrestling with each other, but Kempny and Cedric Paquette got tangled up in front of the players’ bench.  Paquette took Kempny to the ice, and Kempny’s left leg bent awkwardly underneath him.  Diagnosis: torn left hamstring.  He underwent surgery, ending his season far too soon.


Fearless’ Take… It turns out that Kempny, who was on a short list of most consequential trading deadline acquisitions in 2018, was on a short list of biggest bargains in 2019.  He obliterated career highs in goals, posting six (he had three in three last season with two teams), assists (19, surpassing last seasons’ seven), points (25 versus 17 last year), plus-24 (he was plus-17 last season), shots on goal (111 versus 82 last season), and average ice time (19:11 versus 15:55 last year).  And even though he had his season cut short by injury, he dressed for a career high 71 games.  If you discount the last of them, in which he was injured and that the Caps lost in overtime to Tampa Bay, the Caps were 42-22-6 when Kempny got a sweater.  They were 16-6-4 in games in which he skated at least 20 minutes.

Cheerless’ Take… About the worst thing one can say about Kempny’s season is that he got hurt.  His numbers don’t jump off the page, but he was consistent, without high highs or low lows.  He was 4-9-13, plus-9, in 35 home games; 2-10-12, plus-15, in 36 road games.  Only against Pacific Division teams did he average less than a third of a point per game, and he had points against 18 of the 30 teams in the league.  Only against the Nashville Predators was he worse than a minus-1 for the season (minus-3 in two games), and he was a “minus” player against only four of 30 teams he faced.  He and John Carlson were the only defensemen appearing in more than two games who finished over 50 percent in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5.  But what was strange was that it was Kempny who led the defense in penalty minutes, and by a large margin (60 in 71 games to Matt Niskanen’s 41 in 80 games).

Odd Kempny Fact… Michal Kempny is not known as an offensive defenseman, but he is one of only three Capital defensemen since 2005-2006 to record at least 25 points in 75 or fewer games while posting a plus minus of plus-20 or better (he was 6-19-25, plus-24, in 71 games).  Mike Green and Matt Niskanen were the others (Green did it twice).

Game to Remember… November 21st vs. Chicago

The Caps opened the season spinning their wheels, going 8-7-3 in their first 18 games.  They looked to be coming out of that early season fog with a pair of overtime wins in Colorado and Montreal to close a four-game road trip.  That set up a meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks in their return to home ice on the night before Thanksgiving and, for Michal Kempny, a chance to face his for the first time since his trade to the Caps in 2018.

The Caps broke on top in the first minute, Tom Wilson scoring 54 seconds into the contest in his first home game after his suspension to open the season.  Andre Burakovsky scored less than six minutes later to put the visitors in a hole.  Kempny dug that hole a little deeper for his old team mid-way through the second period.  From a scrum battling to win a faceoff in the Chicago end, Jakub Vrana emerged with the puck and cricled out and around the far side of the faceoff circle to the right of goalie Corey Crawford.  Patiently waiting for a passing lane from the wall, he slid a pass between two Blackhawk defenders to Kempny five feet inside the blue line.  Kempny’s one-timer sailed through a clot of bodies in front and past Crawford to make it 3-0, 9:28 into the period. 

The Blackhawks would get two of the goals back, but the Caps iced it on a third period goal by Devante Smith-Pelly.  For Kempny, it was a fine night.  In 18 minutes and change, he had the game-winning goal (his first goal of the season), three shots on goal, a hit, a takeaway, three blocked shots, and finished plus-2.                                                                                                                                                                     
Game to Forget…  January 22nd vs. San Jose

After wrapping up the 2018 portion of the season with a 24-11-3 record, the Caps started the 2019 portion of the schedule unable to get out of their own way.  They did earn points in their first four games of the new year (3-0-1), but then forgot how to score, posting a total of four goals in four games while going 0-3-1.  They broke out of the scoring slump with five goals in Chicago, but gave up eight to the Blackhawks for their fifth straight loss.  That brought them home to host the San Jose Sharks. 

Things started poorly for the Caps when the Sharks scored just 12 seconds into the game.  The Caps shook it off to score three times before the first intermission, allowing only one other San Jose goal to take a 3-2 lead to the locker room.  San Jose tied with another first minute goal in the second period, but the Caps scored twice less than three minutes apart later in the period to take a 5-3 lead.  San Jose closed to 5-4 before the second intermission, but the Caps appeared to get some breathing room with a goal by Alex Ovechkin early in the third.  It was a false sense of security.  San Jose got a power play goal mid-way through the period to get back within a goal, and then Evander Kane scored with 1.0 seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime.  In the extra session, Tomas Hertl completed a hat trick 1:48 in to give the Sharks the improbable win and send the Caps to their sixth straight loss.

For Kempny, it was a lost night.  In 22:30 of ice time he had four shot attempts, but all of them were blocked, and he did not have a point.  Worse, he was on the ice for three goals against, including the game-tying goal by Kane in the last second when he left Kane alone on the weak side of the play to check Hertl in front of the net.

Postseason…  Kempny missed the entire postseason to injury.

Looking ahead… When Michal Kempny underwent surgery to repair his torn hamstring in early April, it was reported that he could miss 4-6 months.  That prognosis was updated in late April to his being ready for training camp,  which is much better news for the team.  Whenever it is that Kempny is cleared for competition, the real target might be the second half of the 2019-2020 season when a (hopefully) fully healthy Kempny will once more be an important cog in a defense that will, at a minimum, include John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Nick Jensen, with perhaps Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler having grown out of their “prospect” status.  If Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen move on, it makes Kempny’s full recovery that much more important.

In the end…

Michal Kempny credits the trade to the Capitals in February 2018 as saving his career in the NHL.  In a perverse sense, his importance to the team was made clear as crystal when he was absent for the opening round playoff series against Carolina, especially when you consider that the Caps’ defensive corps combined for three points (all assists) in 18 man-games of action on the road.  Last spring, Kempny was 1-2-3 in 13 road games.  No single player could be said to be the element in a series win or a loss, but when a team is eliminated in double overtime of a Game 7, one has to think that a contribution somewhere down the line that might have been made by an important player who was absent could have been the difference in advancing to the next round (and think what the Caps did last year after falling behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round) and going home for the summer.  In that sense, it really is sad to think that if Kempny was in the lineup in the postseason, “it might have been.”

Grade: A-


Monday, May 20, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Christian Djoos

Christian Djoos

“You cannot step into the same river twice.”
-- Heraclitus


Christian Djoos was the 69th defenseman of 77 selected in the 2012 Entry Draft, taken in the seventh round (195th overall) by the Washington Capitals.  That is not a starting point from which successful NHL careers are often born.  For example, since the 2005 draft, 51 defensemen have been taken in the 191-200 overall pick range.  Of that group, only ten have dressed for at least one NHL game, and only four have appeared in at least 100 NHL games.  Djoos happens to be one of the four (108 games). 

Of his 108 career games played, 63 of them came last year, in his rookie season.  All in all, it was a respectable rookie campaign for Djoos, especially given his draft position.  He was tied for eighth among rookie defensemen in goals scored (three), 12th in assists (11), tied for ninth in points (14), tied for fourth in plus-minus (plus-13), tied for 11th in takeaways (13), and 11th in on-ice shot attempts –for percentage at 5-on-5 (51.70).

It was a nice foundation from which Djoos might have had a better sophomore season.  He did not.  He got off to a slow start, appearing in 28 of the Caps first 30 games and going 0-4-4, plus-6, while averaging 13:13 in ice time per game.  As if the slow start was not bad enough, his season really went off the rails in that 28th game against the Detroit Red Wings.  He skated 16:23 against the Wings that, oddly enough, was the most ice time he logged in a game since Game 2 of the season against Pittsburgh (16:52), but he suffered a thigh injury that developed into compartment syndrome that required surgery.  He missed 24 games and did not return to the lineup until February 9th. 

Djoos dressed for the next eight games, but with the acquisition of Nick Jensen, he was then relegated to press box duty, missing the next ten games.  However, when Michal Kempny was injured in a game against Tampa Bay in late March, ending his season, Djoos returned to the lineup once more and dressed for the last eight games of the regular season.


Fearless’ Take… Despite the injury and the intermittent appearances in the lineup, Djoos averaged 0.22 points per game, precisely his average in his rookie season.  His plus-9 in 45 games was an equivalent pace to his plus-13 in 63 games last season.  And, the Caps recorded a better points percentage in games in which Djoos played this season (.622) than they did in the games he played in his rookie season (.587).

Cheerless’ Take… This season looks a lot like last season for Djoos on a per game production basis, but there just seemed to be something…off.  There was the matter of his ice time and the team’s success.  It was almost spooky how that looked like last season in one respect.  The Caps were 9-9-2 in the 20 games last season in which he skated at least 15 minutes, and they were 5-5-1 in the 11 games in which he logged at least 15 minutes this season.  Then there were the 5-on-5 shot attempts on ice.  The Caps as a team were slightly better this season in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (49.04) than last season (47.98), but Djoos’ on ice numbers in this category were worse, dropping from 51.79 percent last season to 48.87 this season.

Odd Djoos Fact… In the seven-round era of the NHL Entry Draft (since 2005), the Caps have drafted 35 defensemen.  No defenseman drafted lower (and there have been only five) have appeared in more games than Christian Djoos (108).  Of that group, Djoos is the only one among the lowest 23 defenseman picks to appear in at least 100 games with the Caps.  The next lowest overall pick among defensemen to play in at least 100 games with the Caps since the seven-round draft began is Dmitry Orlov (taken 55th overall in 2009 with 447 games played with the club).

Game to Remember… February 11th vs. Los Angeles

The Washington Capitals had their problems in January, suffering a seven-game losing streak to end the month and head to the All-Star Game break.  When they returned at the start of February, they started the month with a six-game home stand, over which they went 3-1-1 in their first five games.  The Los Angeles Kings came to town to wrap up the Caps’ home stand, bringing with them a four-game points streak (3-0-1), their longest points streak since a five-gamer in December (4-0-1). 

The teams came out firing.  Washington got things started with an Alex Ovechkin goal just over three minutes into the game, but by the time the first period was over, the game was tied, 2-2.  Los Angeles took their first lead less than four minutes into the second period, but Evgeny Kuznetsov tied the game less than three minutes later.  Four minutes after the tying goal, Kuznetsov skated into the Kings’ zone and peeled off to the left wing wall.  From there, he fed it to Ovechkin skating down the middle, and Ovechkin relayed it to Djoos at the right wing faceoff dot.  Backing off to the goal line, Djoos tried to feed the puck back to Ovechkin for a shot from point-blank range.  The puck pinballed back in the direction of Djoos, and just before Brendan Leipsic could sweep it away, Djoos shoveled a one hander up and over sprawled goaltender Jonathan Quick and into the back of the net to give the Caps a lead they would not relinquish in a 6-4 win.  For Djoos, it was his only goal of the season in what was his 30th appearance.
                                                                                                                                                                     
Game to Forget…  February 21st at Toronto

The Caps had just wrapped up their annual California trip, winning two of three games, when they worked their way back across the continent with a game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.  The teams battled to a scoreless tie in the first period, but the Caps broke the ice early in the second period on an Alex Ovechkin goal.  The Caps extended their lead before the second intermission on a goal by Brett Connolly, but Toronto got one back early in the third period to make it a 2-1 game.  Tom Wilson restored the Caps’ two-goal lead two minutes later with a shorthanded tally, and it was enough to hold off the Maple Leafs, 3-2.  For his part, Djoos had a quiet night – no points, and even rating, one shot attempt (blocked), and one credited hit in a season-low 8:17 in ice time.  He skated only two shifts in the third period, the latter lasting only eight seconds, and skated no shifts in the last 15:37 of the game.

Postseason…  It was a thoroughly forgettable postseason for Djoos.  He dressed for only the first three games of the series, averaged just 7:24 in ice time, and recorded neither a point nor a shot on goal while posting a minus-3 rating.  No defensemen in the postseason through Saturday’s games among the 113 to dress averaged less ice time per game than did Djoos.

Looking ahead… Christian Djoos is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent.  Qualifying him would cost the team less than $700,000, and given the unlikely re-signing of Brooks Orpik, Michal Kempny coming off a season-ending injury, a possible trade of Matt Niskanen to free cap space, and uncertainty about who among the defensemen in Hershey could legitimately challenge for a roster spot, re-signing Djoos appears likely.

In the end…

Christian Djoos was one of four defensemen younger than 25 years of age to dress for the Caps this season.  While that suggests a young wave poised to take its place on the roster, Madison Bowey is now in Detroit (traded for 28-year old defenseman Nick Jensen), and Tyler Lewington dressed for two games and does not appear to have a roster spot waiting for him.  That leaves Jonas Sigenthaler and Djoos, for the time being, as the young defensemen poised to get regular ice time with the Caps for the time being.  If Orpik and/or Niskanen depart, the Caps might not be able to afford the “marking time” sort of season Djoos had following up his rookie season.  While his second season looked a lot like his first, it wasn’t quite stepping into the same river twice.  The Caps might not be able to afford a third season of the sort Djoos has had to open his career.  More will be expected.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
-- William Shakespeare


Last season, Washington Capital defenseman John Carlson had the season a lot of players dream of.  Career bests in almost every statistical category, votes for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman (he finished fifth), a Stanley Cup championship, and a brand new contract that is exceeded in average annual value only by that of Nashville’s P.K. Subban and, barring the unforeseen, will make him a Capital well into the next decade.

With all that happening during and after last season, one might forgive Carlson to have regressed a bit in the first year of his new deal and on the heels of a long and successful Stanley Cup run last season.  Quite the opposite; Carlson was one of the rare players who improved on his many of his previous “contract year” numbers after having signed the big deal.  He was off slightly in goals (from 15 to 13), despite a better shooting percentage (7.0 to 6.3 percent last year).  He was a plus-21 this season, a large improvement over an “even” rating in 2017-2018.  He had 30 power play points, slightly up from the 28 he had last season.  And, he averaged a career high 25:04 in ice time per game.

Carlson has become part of the core in terms of his contributions.  Washington was 30-11-5 in the 46 games in which Carlson recorded a point, 18-15-3 in the games in which he did not or was out of the lineup.  And there was an odd feature about his ice time.  Defensemen are often praised for the ice time they log, the more being evidence of their durability and the degree to which teams depend on them.  However, it doesn’t seem to be closely associated with team success.  For instance, nine defensemen logged at least 27 minutes in ice time at least 15 times this season, including Carlson.    Only the San Jose Sharks won a higher percentage of available standings points when Brent Burns logged at least 27 minutes (28 of 44 available points/63.6 percent) than the Caps did when Carlson logged at least 27 minutes (18 of 30 available points/.60.0 percent).  No player skates in a vacuum, and both the Sharks and Caps were better teams this season than, say the Los Angeles Kings with Drew Doughty (51.4 percent of available standings points earned) or the Edmonton Oilers with Darnell Nurse (46.9 percent of available standings points earned), but it is one more indicator of how important John Carlson has become to the Caps.


Fearless’ Take… When one looks at this era of Capitals hockey, it will be dominated by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as figures on the team’s “Mt. Rushmore” of this era.  John Carlson makes a case for being on that sculpture as well.  When the season ended, Carlson found himself among the highest-ranked defensemen in many all-time statistical categories.  Looking at eight such categories (games, goals, even-strength goals, power play goals, assists, points, game-winning goals, and plus-minus rating), Carlson ranks in the top five in six of them (all but goals (sixth) and power play goals (seventh)).  Only three defensemen in team history rank higher: Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson, and Kevin Hatcher (seven categories apiece).

Cheerless’ Take… Carlson had a strange year scoring goals.  He recorded at least one goal in 11 games this season, and the Caps had a 5-4-2 record in them.  Compare that to last season when Carlson had at least one goal in 15 games, and the Caps went 12-2-1. 

Odd Carlson Fact… John Carlson is one of two NHL defensemen to have posted at least 65 points in each of the past two seasons.  San Jose’s Brent Burns is the other.  Only Burns has recorded at least one point in more games over those two seasons (100) than Carlson (97).

Bonus Odd Carlson Fact... Through Friday's games, John Carlson still leads all NHL defensemen in points recorded over the last two postseasons (25, one more than Boston's Torey Krug and Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien).

Game to Remember… March 26th vs. Carolina

When the Capitals took the ice against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena on March 26th in the front half of a home-and-home set against the Hurricanes, they were stumbling to the finish of the regular season.  Going into that contest, the Caps 3-3-1 in their previous seven games and lost two of three games on the four-game home stand that would wrap up against Carolina. 

The Caps broke on top late in the first period on a T.J. Oshie goal, but Carolina tied it late in the second when Dougie Hamilton scored for the Hurricanes.  Early in the third period, the Caps broke the tie on Alex Ovechkin’s 49th goal of the season.  Seven minutes later, John Carlson provided some insurance. Evgeny Kuznetsov got things started on the play when he flagged down a puck out of the air as he was about to circle behind the Carolina net.  As he did so, he collided with the stick of goalie Petr Mrazek, knocking the stick out of Mrazek’s hand.  Coming out the other side, he sent the puck cross ice to Dmitry Orlov at the left point.   Orlov wound up for a slap shot, but he saw Carlson pinching in from the right wing circle, filling in the space that Kuznetsov vacated.  Orlov’s slap-pass was right on Carlson’s stick blade, and Carlson redirected the puck behind Mrazek to make it 3-1 at the 11:16 mark of the period.  It was Carlson’s 399th career point.

With the clock under three minutes to play and the Hurricane net empty, Carlson ran down a loose puck in the corner to the right of goalie Braden Holtby and chipped it up the boards to Ovechkin, who feathered it to Nicklas Backstrom exiting the defensive zone.  Backstrom skated to the red line, taking a peek behind him to see if Ovechkin was in position to receive a return pass and try for a 50th goal of the season, but there were two Hurricanes between Backstrom and Ovechkin.  Backstrom fired a one-hopper down the ice and into the empty cage for the final tally in the 4-1 win.  Carlson earned an assist on the play to become the fifth defenseman in Capitals history to reach the 400 point mark, joining Calle Johansson (474), Scott Stevens (429), Kevin Hatcher (46), and Sergei Gonchar (416).                                                                                                                                                                     
Game to Forget…  January 15th at Nashville

On March 3, 2017, John Carlson skated 19:43 in a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.  For each of the next 140 regular season games, he skated at least 20 minutes.  That brought Carlson and the Caps to Nashville to face the Predators.  Nashville has not been an especially hospitable venue for the Caps, who were 5-7-1 with one tie in 14 visits there in team history.  What made this game more difficult for the Caps was that it was the back half of a back-to-back set of games, the front half being a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues the previous evening.

The Caps might have wished they didn’t make the trip.  The Predators had a 2-0 lead before the game was 11 minutes old, and after a power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom interrupted the home team’s fun (Carlson assisted), Nashville went on to score four more goals in a row before a T.J. Oshie goal provided the final 7-2 margin. 

Carlson was not around at the finish, though.  By the time Nashville scored their seventh goal, Carlson had already been on the ice for two Nashville goals (one of them scored shorthanded), took a penalty, and had one shot attempt (a miss).  Before that seventh goal for Nashville, Carlson was dumped to the ice by Flip Forsberg, whacked in the visor as he lay on ice, and then Forsberg slashed Carlson’s stick for good measure.  Before the faceoff after the Predators’ goal, Carlson gave the officials an earful from the Caps’ bench, for which he earned 12 more minutes in penalties, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a game misconduct that ended his evening.  For the first time since that win against the Flyers in March 2017, Carlson skated less than 20 minutes, ending the night with 18:35 in ice time, the only time in 80 games in the regular season that he skated less than 20 minutes.

Postseason…  In the Caps’ Stanley Cup run in 2018, John Carlson was tied for the league lead in goals among defensemen (five), led the league in assists (15), and led in points (20).  His plus-11 was second among the league’s defensemen to teammate Brooks Orpik (plus-17).  Fast forward to 2019.  It did not go nearly as well for Carlson, who finished the opening round series loss to the Hurricanes without a goal (the first time he did not record a postseason goal since he failed to do so in a seven-game loss to the Rangers in the opening round in 2013) and five points, three of which came in the series opener, a 4-2 win over Carolina.  Only one of those five points he recorded in the series came at even strength, and none of them came on the road.

Looking ahead… John Carlson is signed through the 2025-2026 season, and he has a modified no-trade clause (15-team no-trade list submitted by the player through 2021-2022, a ten-team list thereafter through the end of his contract).  That means that by the time Carlson’s tenure with the Caps ends, he will almost certainly hold every meaningful statistical record for the club among defensemen.  He could be the team’s all-time leading point-getter from the blue line as early as next season, although that would require another improvement in his point total (he needs 72 points to eclipse Calle Johansson).  With ten goals he could become the fifth defenseman in team history to reach 100 goals with the club, and he needs 49 assists to pass Calle Johansson for first all-time on that list.

In the end…

Finalists for NHL trophies are often a small, slowly changing community.  Take, for example, the Norris Trophy for the league’s top defenseman.  Over the last five seasons, including this one, there have been six players filling the 15 finalist spots.  Four of them – Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Brent Burns, and Victor Hedman – have been named finalists three times.  P.K. Subban has been a finalist twice.  This season, Calgary’s Mark Giordano broke the lock on that gated community and was named a finalist.  Despite having more goals than Doughty over the last five seasons (57 to 51), despite having more points (269) than either Doughty (246) or Subban (241) over the last five seasons, despite trailing only Burns in game-winning goals (15 to 20) over the last five seasons, and despite one of only two defensemen with at least 65 points the last two seasons (Burns being the other), John Carlson has yet to earn a finalist spot for the award. 

What is more, Carlson is the only top point-getter among defensemen over the last five seasons (he led all defensemen last season with 68 points) not to be named a finalist in the year in which he led the league, and two of them won the award in their league-leading year (Karlsson in 2015 and Burns in 2017), with this year’s results pending (Burns led the league and is a finalist).  So let’s not throw up the “defense is more than scoring” argument too strongly.  It makes one wonder what, if anything, Carlson is going to have to do to crack the seal on that container of Norris finalists.  Nevertheless, he did have a fine season in 2018-2019, albeit marred by a disappointing postseason, a profile he shares with a lot of teammates.

Grade: A-

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson

“An obsession is where something will not leave your mind”
― Eric Clapton


If the properties in the board game “Monopoly” were “Islanders Fans’ Heads” and “Penguins Fans’ Heads” instead of “Boardwalk” and “Park Place,” Tom Wilson would own the board with hotels on all of the properties.  If there is a player in the league who is as widely despised among fan bases as is Tom Wilson, please point that player out.  If there are players who inspire more loyalty among Caps fans than Wilson, it is a short list.

What really must fry the minds of those fans of other teams is how Wilson blossomed as a full-service contributor this season.  Yes, despite sitting out the first 16 games of the season under a suspension, he recorded 22 goals in only 63 games, the second straight seasons he obliterated his career best.  His 0.35 goals per game were more goals per game than Logan Couture (0.33), more than Phil Kessel (0.33), more than Max Pacioretty (0.33).  But in addition to his improved goal-scoring frequency, he averaged more than a minute per game on power plays (1:24) and penalty killing (2:14), both of his averages being career bests.  He led the team in hits per game (3.2), led the team’s forwards in blocked shots per game (0.8), and he was second to Lars Eller among forwards in takeaways per game (0.68 to 0.73 for Eller).

Wilson was consistent, too.  Despite that 16-game absence to start the season, only once did he not record at least five points in a ten-game segment, and that included recording five points (1-4-5) in the four games of the first segment in which he played.


Fearless’ Take… Tom Wilson came into the NHL with an edge in his game that fans of other clubs have grown to despise, but the evolution of his offensive game this season puts him in some rarefied air in franchise history.  He is one of two players who, in their first six seasons with the club, recorded at least 50 goals, at least 140 points, and at least 750 penalty minutes.  The other?  Scott Stevens.

Cheerless’ Take… Tom Wilson put up nice numbers, but his numbers against stiffer competition were not quite as impressive.  In 32 games against teams that reached the playoffs this season, he was 6-11-17, minus-1.  And for all the hitting, it was not all that clearly associated with team success.  He was credited with four or more hits 23 times this season, and the Caps were 12-9-2 in those games; they were 9-3-1 in the 13 games in which he was credited with one or no hits.

Odd Wilson Fact… If you are going to get first line minutes, you have to play those minutes, not spend them in the penalty box with your linemates stapled to the bench while others kill those penalties.  For the first time in his career, Wilson recorded fewer than ten games with at least five minutes in penalties.  OK, it was nine games, and he played in only 63 games overall, but he shaved his total almost in half from last season (17 such games out of 78 played).

Game to Remember… February 21st at Toronto

When the Caps visited Toronto in early February, it was another homecoming for Tom Wilson, but more important, the Caps were trying to re-establish some momentum.  Since recording a three-game winning streak in early January, the Caps were 6-8-3 and had not won consecutive games in regulation over that stretch.  They could solve that last problem against the Leafs after beating the Los Angeles Kings three nights earlier. 

The teams were locked in a scoreless tie into the second period when the Caps broke on top on a power play by Alex Ovechkin.  Washington made it a two-goal lead mid-way through the period on a play started by Wilson.  Lars Eller dumped the puck down the right wing wall into the corner to the left of Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen.  Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner was first to the puck, but he was separated from it by Tom Wilson coming from behind the Toronto net.  Eller collected the loose puck and fed it in front to Brett Connolly, who stuffed it past Andersen to put the Leafs in a deeper hole.

After Toronto got one back early in the third period to make it a one-goal game, Wilson restored the two-goal lead barely two minutes later.  With John Carlson in the penalty box on a hooking penalty, Braden Holtby made a big save on Mitch Marner to preserve the lead.  The puck came out to Eller, who led a 2-on-2 break with Wilson.  As Eller crossed the Toronto line, he fed Wilson skating down the middle.  Wilson skated in another ten feet and ripped a shot past Andersen’s blocker to make it 3-1, 6:46 into the period.  It would prove to be the game-winner, Wilson’s second of the season and his only shorthanded goal, as the Caps won, 3-2.

Game to Forget…  March 16th at Tampa Bay

After opening their next to last road trip of the season by splitting a pair of games in Pennsylvania, losing to Pittsburgh to snap a seven-game winning streak and beating Philadelphia, the Caps headed south to Florida to meet the league’s top team in the standings. The Lightning made short work of the Caps, scoring two goals 1:58 apart mid-way through the first period and recording a third goal less than four minutes after the Caps halved the deficit to take a 3-1 lead to the first intermission.

Washington closed the gap to a goal in the second period and again in the third, but Tampa Bay added two late empty net goals for a 6-3 win.  For his part, Wilson 18:41 in ice time, recording only one shot attempt (a miss) and was minus-2.  In addition to the penalty he took that led to a Lightning power play goal, hHis frustration was reflected in logging a team-high seven hits and taking a ten-minute misconduct penalty (coincidental with Erik Cernak) in the last seconds of the contest.  It would be the last of five occasions this season that Wilson recorded more than ten minutes in penalties.

Postseason…  Tom Wilson had, by appearances, a decent postseason, going 3-2-5, plus-1, in the seven-game series against Carolina.  However, it would be deceptive and similar to that of several of his teammates.  Wilson was 3-2-5, plus-2, with nine shots on goal in four home games, but he was held without a point, was minus-1, and recorded only two shots on goal in three road contests.  On a per game basis, though, his three goals in seven games did outpace his five goals in 21 games last season, but like other Capitals, had he managed one on the road or assisted on one, we might be having an entirely different conversation than one about the postseason he just completed.

Looking ahead… Wilson is in the Capitals’ fold through the 2023-2024 season with a $5.167 million cap hit, one of four current Caps with deals extending to that season or longer (Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson being the others).  He, Kuznetsov, and Jakub Vrana (assuming he is re-signed), none older than 26, might be considered the second wave behind Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson, none younger than 29, among homegrown Caps that constitute the core of the club.  It makes Wilson’s maintaining or exceeding this year’s level of production an important part of the Caps’ chances for success in the years to come.

In the end…

At the highest level of observation, Tom Wilson had a superb season.  Career highs in goals, assists, points, more special teams responsibility, maintaining a hard edge and an ability to distract and annoy opponents, not to mention their fans.  However, drilling down there seems to be more work to do in terms of being heard from more often against stiffer competition and finding home-road balance in the postseason.  However, Wilson also turned 25 years old just this March.  There is room for him to grow, but he has already justified his role as a top line, two way player.  It is a matter of continuing that upward path on his developmental arc and leaving the obsession over his style to the minds of other fans in the game of “Wilsonopoly.”

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jakub Vrana

Jakub Vrana

“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”
-- Marie Curie


Marie Curie might be right, but there might be exceptions.  Jakub Vrana was the 13th overall pick of the 2014 Entry Draft, and curiously enough, he is the 13th-ranked goal scorer of that class through this season.  But he might be poised to make a big leap in his production given the progress he has made in three seasons with the Caps.

Vrana appeared in 21 games two seasons ago in what was his first NHL action and posted a modest three goals and six points.  Last season he jumped to 13 goals and 27 points in 73 games and added another three goals (two of them game-winners) and eight points in the Caps’ Stanley Cup run.  This season he took another large leap, going 24-23-47, plus-20, while appearing in all 82 games.   Over those three seasons, Vrana became one of three players joining the Caps since 2005-2006 to record at least 40 goals in his first three seasons and by his age-22 season.  The others: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Not bad company.

His contributions were quite consistent, too. Vrana recorded precisely three goals in six of his eight segments, including his last five.  He had two goals in another segment and four in the other to arrive at his 24-goal total.

If anything, his goal scoring might have suffered for an odd reason that had little to do with his skill.  He recorded a single power play goal this season, that coming late in a power play (1:43 into it) in a 5-3 win over Philadelphia on January 8th.  Vrana would seem to be a natural for being an off-wing trigger man on the power play, but the problem is that he is a left-handed shot on a power play that is “right-handed” with Alex Ovechkin, a right-handed shot, filling that role from the left wing circle where he can unleash one-timers more easily.  Vrana averaged 1:08 per game on power plays this season, seventh-highest among Capital forwards.

Despite that barrier to higher production, Vrana ended the season third on the club in goals, trailing only Ovechkin (51) and T.J. Oshie (25).  He contributed to a noteworthy balance in goal scoring, six Capitals recording between 21 and 25 goals, inclusive.


Fearless’ Take… Jakub Vrana is progressing nicely as a goal scorer in terms of production, engagement, and efficiency.  The obvious improvement is in the production itself, going from three goals in 21 games in his first season to 24 goals in 82 games this season.  But he also is being more assertive as a shooter.  In that first season he averaged 1.52 shots on goal per game.  He improved on that in each of the next two seasons – 1.82 per game last season and 1.96 shots per game this season.  But the increase in shot frequency has not diminished his efficiency.  His shooting percentage of 9.4 percent in his first season improved to 9.8 percent last year and again to 14.9 percent this season.

Cheerless’ Take… One had to like his road production this season: 15-12-27, plus-13 in 41 games, shooting at 19.0 percent.  But the flip side of that is, why couldn’t he approach these numbers on the friendly ice at Capital One Arena?  He was 9-11-20, plus-7, on home ice and shot to an 11.0 percent mark.  He was seventh on the team in home goals scored, tied for seventh in points.  The odd part of it was, three of his four game-winning goals were recorded on home ice.  If he improves in this area in the years to come while maintaining his ability to produce on the road, watch out.

Odd Vrana Fact… Of the 40 players in team history to record at least 20 goals over their first three seasons, only two have a larger share of game-winning goals in their goal totals than Jakub Vrana.  His eight game-winners among 40 goals (20.0 percent) is surpassed only by Sergei Gonchar (seven game-winners among 30 goals – 23.3 percent) and Jeff Halpern (10 game-winners among 40 goals – 25.0 percent).

Game to Remember… January 8th vs. Philadelphia

When the Philadelphia Flyers visited Washington in early January, the Caps were trying to build some momentum, coming off a win against Detroit in the last game of a three-game road trip that broke a three-game losing streak (0-2-1).  Jakub Vrana was coming off a spotty month’s worth of games, going 3-1-4, plus-2, over a 13-game stretch from December 8th through that win in Detroit.  He was also riding a streak in which he had only two goals over his previous 13 home games.

The Caps took a lead early, Tom Wilson scoring just 4:21 into the game.  It was largely a product of speed and hard work by Vrana, though.  Off a faceoff in the Capitals’ zone, the puck skittered into the middle where Vrana jumped on it.  In the neutral zone he chipped the puck past two defenders, then split them to chase it down in the left wing faceoff circle.  In too deep to shoot, he centered the puck for Wilson churning down the middle, and Wilson had only to redirect the pass behind goalie Mike McKenna. 

The Flyers tied the game before the teams went to the first intermission, but T.J. Oshie scored nine minutes into the second period to restore the Caps’ lead.  Two minutes after the Oshie goal, the Flyers tried to exchange the puck between teammates at the left point.  Vrana broke up the play and chased down the loose puck in the Flyers’ end, outracing Sean Couturier and breaking in alone on McKenna.  He pulled the puck to his forehand and flipped a shot over McKenna’s glove to make it 3-1, 11:22 into the period.  Four minutes later it was Vrana again, this time on a power play.  John Carlson started the scoring sequence from the right point, backing off to the middle of the ice before sending the puck to Travis Boyd at the top of the right wing circle.  Boyd relayed it deep to Vrana along the goal line extended to the left of McKenna.  Vrana tried to one-time a pass across to Alex Ovechkin closing from the other side, but the puck hit the inside of McKenna’s right pad and ricocheted into the net to make it 4-1 at the 15:55 mark.  The Flyers would get back within a goal in the third period, but the Caps got a shorthanded empty-net goal late from T.J. Oshie to seal the win, Vrana’s second goal being the game-winner.  It was his third career two-goal game and only three-point game of the 2018-2019 season.

Game to Forget…  April 6th vs. New York Islanders

The regular season finale for the Capitals had no meaning in terms of deciding standing or seeding for the postseason, so many regulars sat out against the Islanders.  The teams played to a scoreless tie over the first period, but the Islanders scored early in the second period to take a lead they would not relinquish.  The Caps never found the equalizer, and the Islanders scored a pair of third period goals, the latter into an empty net, for a 3-0 win.  For his part, Jakub Vrana had a spotless score sheet for his 11:31 in ice time, other than displaying a minus-2 – no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, takeaways, or blocked shots.  A thoroughly forgettable effort.

Postseason…  “Disappointing” doesn’t really cover it for Jakub Vrana in the postseason.  After posting three goals and eight points in 23 games in the 2018 postseason, he did not record a point and had only eight shots on goal in the Caps’ seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round of the 2019 playoffs (he was credited with as many hits as shots on goal).  He had no shots on goal in three of the seven games and one shot on goal in two others.  He and Chandler Stephenson were the only forwards appearing in at least four games who did not record a point for the Caps.

Looking ahead… Jakub Vrana’s entry-level contract expired with this season.  He is a restricted free agent without arbitration rights.  He is something that the Caps have in short supply and perhaps not at all in their system – a player with the potential to be a high-production pure sniper who can consistently post 30 or more goals per season.  That Vrana will be signed to a new deal is all but a betting certainty, but the decision for the Caps to pursue a “bridge” deal or a longer-term extension will be what occupies their thinking. 

In the end…

Jakub Vrana was making fine progress this season.  He shook off much of the inconsistency in effort and production that appeared from time to time in his first two seasons and became one of the more reliable producers for this year’s Capitals.  But then he slammed into a playoff wall in which his contributions were not to be seen.  One player cannot shoulder the blame for a seven game loss, but it could be said of him (as it could for a few other players) that if he had contributed a goal here or there earlier in the series (Game 4, a 2-1 loss, comes to mind), it might not have come down to a Game 7.  It is the bad aftertaste in what was otherwise a rather good season for a still maturing youngster, an indication that there is still work to do in his development.

Grade: B