Friday, July 09, 2021

And now...time for a break

We have some personal administrative matters to deal with over the next few weeks and some medical issues to address, so we're going to take a little break.  We're hoping to return in time for some pithy remarks about the upcoming draft.  And, it will give Cheerless some time to fine-tune his latest road kill recipes and mellow out his moonshine.  Fearless continues to work on the great American hockey novel ("Red Lamp, White Ice, and Blue...something something something").  In the meantime, GO CAPS!!!

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Goaltender: Ilya Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov

“If you’re any good at all, you know you can be better.”
― Lindsay Buckingham

Only once in Washington Capitals history has a goaltender been drafted higher than Ilya Samsonov, who was taken with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft.  Olaf Kolzig was taken 19th overall in the 1989 Entry Draft.  Four goalies, including Samsonov, have been taken among the top 32 picks of the draft (Kolzig, Semyon Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick in 2006, and Jim Carey with the 32nd pick in 1992 being the others).  Three of them have been Vezina Trophy finalists, two of them have won the trophy (Kolzig and Carey).  It is a lot to live up to for a team that has a reputation for drafting NHL-quality goaltenders.

It took four years for Samsonov to make his debut in Washington, and as rookie seasons go, it was impressive.  In 2019-2020 he was 16-6-2, 2.55, .913, with one shutout.  He finished second among rookie goaltenders in wins, fourth in goals against average (minimum: 250 minutes), seventh in save percentage, and he was one of four rookie goalies to post at least one shutout.  But five months between the end of the abbreviated regular season and the start of the playoffs, a delay due to the COVID outbreak, was too much, and the wheels started coming off Samsonov’s development train.  He suffered an off-ice injurylater described as back and neck injuries in an ATV incident, and it cost him any chance of appearing in the 2020 postseason.

And then there was the 2020-2021 season.  He started in two of the first three games and was not impressive in either despite a 1-0-1 record.  He stopped just 46 of 53 shots in the two games (.868 save percentage).  Then, he was quarantined under COVID protocol.  He was out of the lineup for 17 games before returning on February 28th.  He was inconsistent thereafter, as his ten-game splits indicate, even though his win-loss record (12-4-0) was impressive.  And then, to bookend his season, Samsonov was placed on the COVID protocol list once more in early May; he missed the last five games of the regular season.

Fearless’ Take… Five times in 18 starts, Samsonov finished with a save percentage of .950 or better.  It's hard to point to a set of numbers or statistics that put him in a good light this season.

Cheerless’ Take… About those five times Samsonov finished with a .950 or better save percentage, only once did he do it facing more than 30 shots (36 saves on 37 saves in a 3-1 win over Philadelphia on March 7th).

Odd Samsonov Fact… Samsonov did not post consecutive games with a save percentage over .920 in 19 appearances.

Odd Samsonov Fact II… Samsonov was one of six goaltenders in Caps history to start fewer than 20 games and post two or more shutouts (Craig Billington, Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby, Cristobal Huet, and Rick Tabaracci (twice) are the others).

Odd Samsonov Fact III… Ilya Samsonov has more wins over his first two seasons with the Caps (29) than any other goalie in Caps’ history in their first two seasons except for Jim Carey (53 wins over his first two seasons).

Game to Remember… April 22, 2021 vs. New York Islanders.  A late April game against the New York Islanders might have been the best game of Ilya Samsonov’s season, start to finish.  Samsonov stopped all 15 Islander shots in the first period to keep the game scoreless.  Although the shot totals dropped dramatically for the Isles over the second and third periods (ten shots total), he had to be sharp to match Semyon Varlamov at the other end, who stopped all 27 shots he faced in regulation.  The teams went to overtime in a scoreless tie, and both Samsonov and Varlamov turned aside the only shot they faced.  The game went to the Gimmick, where each team scored in the second round of the freestyle competition.  Brock Nelson missed an attempt in the third round, but Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the bottom of the third round to clinch a 1-0 win for Samsonov and the Caps.

Game to Forget… April 1, 2021 vs. New York Islanders.  Three weeks before his game to remember for the 2020-2021 season, Samsonov had a brutal outing against the same Islanders team.  One had a feeling that things were going to be dicey when Samsonov collided with T.J. Oshie just 30 seconds into the game and left in favor of Vitek Vanecek.  John Carlson opened the scoring for the Caps with a goal less thana minute after Samsonov’s departure, but the contest went sideways the Caps shortly thereafter.  New York scored twice on seven shots on Vanecek before Samsonov returned with just over three minutes left in the first period.  The Isles welcomed him back by scoring twice in 22 seconds late in the period and took a 4-2 lead into the first intermission.  Things did not get better.  Casey Cizikas scored for the Isles three minutes into the second period, and the Isles pulled away from there for an 8-4 win.  Samsonov logged 43:34 in ice time and allowed six goals on 24 shots, his .750 save percentage being his worst of the season.

Postseason… Samsonov missed the first two games of the opening round series against Boston but got the call in Game 3 with the series tied at a game apiece.  The Caps took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but they and Samsonov could not hold it, Brad Marchand scoring mid-way through the third period to force overtime.  In the second extra period Craig Smith scored for Boston for the 3-2 win.  Samsonov played well enough (40 saves on 43 shots) to get the call in Games 4 and 5, but he allowed four goals on 37 shots in a 4-1 loss in Game 4 and three goals on 19 shots in the season ending 3-1 loss to Boston in Game 5.

Looking ahead… Ilya Samsonov is a restricted free agent after completing a three-year/$4.425 million contract that was heavy in performance and signing bonuses (it had a $925,000 annual cap hit).  His odd, if not outright disappointing 2020-2021 season confuses the matter of re-signing him.  Not that it is likely he would be moved or allowed to walk, but the matter of compensation has become a riskier matter for the Caps who did not see, as they hoped, Samsonov take the number one goaltender job by the throat.  His off ice issues complicate the matter even further, the open question being whether he has the sufficient level of maturity to be considered a reliable full-time number one goaltender.  He has displayed the talent to play that role, but he has not put together long streaks of elite level play to merit a sense of comfort in his role going forward.  It makes for a lot of uncertainty at the most important position on the ice, something the Caps would just as soon avoid as the window on their Stanley Cup ambitions would seem to be closing.

In the end… The number one goaltending spot is still Ilya Samsonov’s job to lose, and with Vitek Vanecek’s performance in 2020-2021, “lose” is a possibility given how far he fell short of hopes and expectations this season.  Add to that the matter of having to re-sign Samsonov to a new contract, and it will make for an interesting summer that could be followed by a pivotal season in the young goalie’s career.

Grade: C-

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Trevor van Riemsdyk

Trevor van Riemsdyk

“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”
-- Samuel Johnson

When the Washington Capitals signed defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk to a one-year, $800,000 contract last October, it was probably a signing of which few fans, even those among the Caps, took notice.  And that is a bit odd, given that van Riemsdyk was a six-year NHL veteran who appeared in at least 75 games three times in his career.  Then again, van Rimesdyk has flown under the radar in terms of transactions over his entire career.  He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks in March 2014.  He played 158 games over three seasons with the Blackhawks before he was left unprotected for the 2017 expansion draft.  The Vegas Golden Knights selected him, but he was traded the following day to the Carolina Hurricanes with a 2018 seventh-round draft pick for a 2017 second round draft pick.

Van Riemsdyk spent three seasons in Carolina, appearing in 206 games and putting up modest numbers (7-31-38, minus-2, averaging 15:47 in ice time per game).  While he did appear in 49 of 68 games, he seemed to be banging his head on a ceiling, averaging less than 14 minutes of ice time (seventh of eight defensemen) and losing ice time to Joel Edmundson and Haydn Fleury.  When coupled with the contract situation in Carolina, five defensemen signed past the 2019-2020 season and Fleury being an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent, van Riemsdyk found himself an unrestricted free agent without a ticket to the 2020-2021 season in Carolina.

He signed a one-year deal with the Caps at a substantial reduction in pay (from $2.3 million per year to $800,000), and his playing time reflected the diminished status.  He appeared in only nine of the Caps’ first 45 games, posting one point (a goal) and a minus-3 rating while averaging 15:07 in ice time per game.  However, the Caps saw something they liked in him and re-upped him for a two-year/$1.9 million deal in March.  It would be almost a month before he saw action again, but he dressed for the final 11 games of the regular season, going 0-2-2. plus-2, averaging 18:41 in ice time per game.

Fearless’ Take… Trevor van Riemsdyk is neither an offensive defenseman (never posting more than five goals or 16 points in a season) nor a physical defenseman (a high of 31 penalty minutes in a single season and 44 hits).  As the scouting report at put it, “is the owner of a very good shot from the point, plus the projectable size to survive the National Hockey League game. Is also a fairly quick study and can play either side effectively” with the potential to be a “Solid, versatile and dependable defenseman.”  And that would seem to describe van Riemsdyk’s year with the Caps – 20 games, 1-2-3, minus-1, two penalty minutes, 13 credited hits.

Cheerless’ Take… He played in only 20 games, but van Riemsdyk was the only Caps defenseman appearing in at least ten games to finish with a minus on-ice even strength goal differential (minus-1).  Only three times in 20 games did he finish with a plus rating. 

Odd van Riemsdyk Fact… Trevor van Riemsdyk was the only Capital defenseman to register seven shots in a game this season (May 8th vs. Philadelphia).  Since 2005-2006, only seven Caps defensemen have posted at least seven shots in a game at least once.

Odd van Riemsdyk Fact II… It was odd how little impact his performance seemed to have on win-loss results.  In nine games before his contract extension, the Caps were 5-3-1; they were 7-3-1 in 11 games after.  They were 7-3-1 when he skated at least 18 minutes, 5-3-1 when he skated less than that.  They were 5-3-1 when he had two or more blocked shots, 7-3-1 when he had fewer than two.

Odd van Riemsdyk Fact III… Trevor van Riemsdyk recorded more career points with the University of New Hampshire (75) than his brother, forward James van Riemsdyk (74).  Okay, he did it in 35 more games.

Game to Remember… January 30, 2021 vs. Boston Bruins.  A late January game against the Boston Bruins signaled a number of firsts as a Capital for Trevor van Riemsdyk.  There was his getting his first point, his first 20-minute game, his first game with a plus rating. But nothing beats the first goal, especially when it comes in a win.  The Caps scored first on a Nicklas Backstrom goal with less than two minutes remaining in the first period.  Five minutes into the second period, van Riemsdyk doubled the lead.  It was a harmless enough looking shot, but a maze of players between the shooter and the goal made it difficult for goalie Tuukka Rask to pick up the puck off van Riemsdyk’s stick, and the red light was lit…

The Caps went on to beat the Bruins in overtime, 4-3, van Riemsdyk finishing with two hits, two blocked shots, a plus-2 rating, 20:23 in ice time, and that first goal as a Capital on his only shot on goal for the game.

Game to Forget… March 16, 2021 vs. New York Islanders.  It is a generally accepted custom that teams dress six defensemen for an NHL game.  Sometimes, teams will dress seven defensemen as circumstances dictate.  That was the case in mid-March as a the Caps hosted the New York Islanders at Capital One Arena.  Van Riemsdyk was sent out for two shifts in the first period totaling 26 seconds in ice time.  He took another shift early in the second period that lasted 25 seconds.  It would be his last shift of the game.  He ended up skating three shifts for 51 seconds and recorded a takeaway in his shortest night of work for the season.

Postseason… Van Riemsdyk did not dress for any of the five games in the opening round loss to Boston.

Looking ahead… Trevor van Riemsdyk has a newly minted contract for two years at $950,000 per season.  It was a healthy raise for a depth defenseman who, in quieter times, would not be assured of much ice time.  But given the Caps’ situation on defense, where there are several possibilities for losses via the expansion draft (Justin Schultz or Nick Jensen, for example), having a $950,000 insurance policy does not sound like that bad of an idea.  And, van Rimesdyk played well enough, even though his numbers overall were modest, that it would not be unreasonable to think he could take on a bigger role, depending on how the roster shakes out over the summer.

In the end…

When the curtain rises on the 2021-2022 season, Trevor van Riemsdyk will be a 30-year old defenseman with almost 400 regular season games on his NHL resume (384).  He is not a prospect, nor is he inexperienced.  It is unlikely that he would occupy a top-four spot among the defense pairs, but he could serve adequately in a third-pair role if the youngsters the Caps are counting on to take a step forward – Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev prove to be not quite ready for a steady spot with the parent club.  Van Rimesdyk played himself into that mix and that discussion with a better than expected finish to the 2020-2021 season.

Grade: B



Friday, July 02, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Justin Schultz

Justin Schultz

“Life is an adventure in forgiveness.”
-- Norman Cousins

Justin Schultz played for four-plus seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a rival of the Washington Capitals of some note.  In 15 regular season games he played against the Caps in those four-plus seasons, he led Penguin defensemen in scoring (12 points in 15 games) and tied for the lead among Pittsburgh defensemen in power play points (five).  He was equally effective against the Caps in the postseason, going 2-8-10 in 15 playoff games, leading all Penguin defensemen in total points and posting the only game-winning goal recorded by a defenseman in that period.

And then, he was a Capital.  Schultz was signed to a two-year/$8.0 million contract last October after what were two disappointing seasons with the Penguins (2-13-15, even, in an injury-plagued 2019-2020 season that held him to 29 games, and 3-9-12, minus-13, in 46 games last season).  He was a bit sluggish getting out of the gate to start the season, failing to record a point in his first five games and registering only for shots on goal.  But then he broke out with three-straight two-point games, going 2-4-6, plus-5, with ten shots on goal over those three games.  But in the third period of that third game Schultz took a puck to the face the resulted in lost teeth and a few small fractures 

That he missed only four games as a result of the injury seems almost miraculous.  But he came back almost picking up where he left off, posing points in two of three games upon his return.  After sustaining a bit of a slump (one point in nine games), he finished the regular season strong, but in a bit of an odd way.  Schultz posted 18 points in his last 26 games, but 17 of those points were assists.  He was 1-for-31 shooting the puck.  He also missed six of the last ten games of the regular season to lower body injuries.

Fearless’ Take… Schultz had a productive year on offense for the Caps, in a bit of an odd way.  He was the only defenseman in the league to post three or fewer goals, record 24 or more assists, and have a rating of plus-12 or better.  His on-ice goal differential at even strength (plus-14) tied for second-best on the team among defensemen, and his goal differential percentage at evens of 59.2 was best among Caps defensemen.  Ice time mattered as well.  In 25 games in which Schultz skated at least 19:24, the Caps were 19-3-3; they were 11-8-2 when he skated less than that.

Cheerless’ Take… Schultz is a bit of an outlier in this series.  It is hard to find a number or a statistic that one could point to and conclude that this is where he came up short.  We was a solid second pair defenseman who could also play significant second power play unit minutes.  There is the matter of injuries, though, that have worked their way into his record.  Although the early season puck-in-the-face injury was a fluke, Schultz has missed 86 of 207 regular season games over the last three seasons.

Odd Schultz Fact… The Caps were 9-0-2 when Schultz was credited with two or more blocked shots.

Odd Schultz Fact II… Schultz led the league’s defensemen in primary assists per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (0.94; minimum: 15 games).

Odd Schultz Fact III… Washington was 8-2-2 in 12 games in which Schultz did not record a shot on goal.

Game to Remember… April 9, 2021 vs. Buffalo Sabres.  When the Caps shuffled off to Buffalo for an early-April matchup, they were sputtering, going 2-4-0 over their previous six games.  Justin Schultz was a part of that, going 0-1-1, minus-6 over those six games.  The Caps broke out early, though, with Schultz recording the primary assist on a Brenden Dillon goal just 2:39 into the game.  The Caps doubled their lead nine minutes later, but the Sabres got one back late in the first period.  Schultz restored the Caps’ two-goal lead just 28 seconds into the second period, taking a feed off a faceoff win in the offensive end by Lars Eller, skating up into open space left by the Sabres’ defense, and rifling a shot past goalie Dustin Tokarski.  Buffalo closed to within a goal once more mid-way through the second period, but the Caps got insurance mid-way through the third period when Schultz recorded another primary assist, this one on a goal by Jakub Vrana.  That would prove to be the game-winning goal in the Caps’ 4-3 win.  Schultz finished with his only three-point game of the season, two hits, a blocked shot, and a plus-2 rating in 19:45 of ice time.

Game to Forget… January 28, 2021 vs. New York Islanders.  Yeah, let’s forget this one…

Postseason… Schultz did not record a point in the five-game opening round loss to Boston, and dating back to his last two seasons in Pittsburgh he is 1-3-4, minus-8 in 13 playoff games.  He did log a career high 22:24 per game in the 2021 playoffs.  His even strength goal differential percentage of 37.5 percent was disappointing considering how impressive it was in the regular season.  He was the only Capitals defenseman not credited with a takeaway over the five games.

Looking ahead… Schultz has one year left on his two-year deal with the Caps and a $4.0 million cap hit.  While it sounds like a substantial burden on the cap, and it is a $1.5 million reduction from his previous contract, it looks like a value in the season just completed.  Of 24 defensemen age 28-34 (Schultz will turn 31 on July 6th) and cap hits from $3.5-4.5 million, Schultz finished fourth in points, fourth in points per game, eighth in plus-minus rating, and 15th in average ice time.  Going into the walk year of his contract, something to watch for will be his durability.  He would certainly appear for the moment to get the minutes he will need to post attractive numbers, whether that is for a new Caps deal or for his next employer.

In the end…

Justin Schultz had a solid year in the games he played.  In a way, his top-level production seemed to be what the Caps might have expected from Michal Kempny had he been healthy.  And, they are players with similar durability issues.  If both return and avoid absences, while posting numbers on a per game basis Schultz produced this season, it will be a plus for the Caps.

Grade: B+


Thursday, July 01, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”
-- Warren Buffett

Dmitry Orlov was the 20th defenseman taken in the 2009 Entry Draft.  He is one of 18 defensemen of the 70 taken in that draft still active in the NHL.  He is eighth among that active group of defensemen in career regular season games played (567), eighth in goals scored (45), seventh in points (202), fourth in plus-minus rating (plus-77).  He compares well with his draft cohort, but he is also quietly climbing the ranks among defensemen in Capitals franchise history, too, either in or knocking at the door of the top-ten in a number of categories.  Orlov finished the 2020-2021 season 12th in franchise history in games played, tenth in goals, tied for ninth in points, and sixth in plus-minus rating.  He is also tied for second in overtime goals in team history (two), ninth n game-winning goals (ten), seventh in average ice time per game (19:53; minimum: 100 games), second in credited hits (877), fifth in blocked shots (626), and second in takeaways (310).

In 2020-2021, Orlov had what might have been a career year had the schedule been a full 82 games.  As it was, he still doubled his goal total (from four to eight) despite playing in 18 fewer games (51 versus 69 last season).  He had 22 points, just five fewer than last season, he had a plus-minus rating of plus-16, and he had two game-winning goals.  Over an 82-game season, that works out to a 13-23-36, plus-26 season, a season that would have eclipsed his career high in goals (10 in 82 games in 2017-2018), finished one short of his career high in assists (27 in 82 games in 2016-2017), topped his career high in total points (33 in 2016-2017), and would have been topped in plus-minus only by his plus-30 in 2016-2017.

Fearless’ Take… Orlov’s 2020-2021 season started slowly, owing to his missing four games under COVID protocol.  But his ten-game splits thereafter showed steady improvement until the last, abbreviated split.  And, while his overall offensive numbers were impressive enough, when you take away the 18 games to start his season that straddled the four games he missed to COVID protocol, it was even more impressive.  He was 7-14-21, plus-19, with an 11.7 percent shooting percentage over his last 33 games (17 goals and 52 points per 82 games).

Cheerless’ Take… There is the old time on ice thing with Orlov who, like a lot of defensemen with good offensive numbers, have a difficult relationship between time on ice and wins.  Orlov’s was just strange, as if there was a “sweet spot” of ice time.  The Caps were 21-10-4 in 35 games in which he skated at least 18:34 (not bad) and were 2-5-0 when he skated 16:58 or less.  But there were those nine games over which he skated between 16:58 and 18:34.  The Caps won all of them.

Odd Orlov Fact… One would think a defenseman recording a lot of blocked shots in a game would ben on the losing end of many of those games, but Orlov had a different sort of relationship.  The Caps were 5-0-0 when he recorded three or more blocked shots but just 11-8-1 in 20 games in which he had none. 

Odd Orlov Fact II… When Orlov struggled, he struggled, at least with the top end numbers.  He had an even or worse rating in 28 games.  He had one goal and one assist in those 28 games.  Not surprising if you think about it, but it does illustrate the degree to which he contributions matter.

Odd Orlov Fact III… The Caps were 7-2-1 in the nine games in which Orlov took penalties this season.

Game to Remember… May 5, 2021 vs. New York Rangers.  With the season winding down, the Caps visited Madison Square Garden for their last game on the road portion of their schedule, the second of a two-game set against the Blueshirts in Manhattan.  The Caps won the first game of the set, 6-3, two nights earlier, although Orlov was quiet (no points, one shot on goal).  The second game of the set was highlighted by more contributions from the Caps defenseman.  After a scoreless first period, the Caps broke through just 12 seconds into the second period on a power play goal by T.J. Oshie.  The Caps would score twice more in the period, Orlov assisting on both goals.  The second of those assists, on a goal by Nic Dowd, was Orlov’s 200th career NHL point.  The Rangers scored early in the third period, but the Caps scored an empty net goal late, Orlov again with an assist.  New York scored a window dressing goal with 16 seconds left to make the final a 4-2 Caps win.  Orlov finished with his first three-assist game of his career, and his only three-point game of the season and 26:13 in ice time, his second-highest of the season.

Game to Forget… February 1, 2021 vs. Boston Bruins.  After opening the season with a nine-game points streak, the Caps hosted the second of a two-game set against the Boston Bruins at Capital One Arena to open February.  The game opened with the Caps coring the first three goals in the opening 28:35 of the game, but they gave it all back, and more.  Boston scored five unanswered goals skate off with a 5-3 win.  In what was Orlov’s first game back after a four-game COVID-related absence, he posted no points, no shots on goal, one shot attempt, and was on ice for the game-winning goal for the Bruins.  He finished with 15:24 in ice time, his third lowest total of the season and lowest on home ice.

Postseason… In the five-game opening round loss to Boston, Orlov recorded three assists and was a minus-1, the same numbers he put up in eight games in the 2020 postseason.  It extended a disturbing postseason trend for Orlov, who has not scored a goal on 33 shots in 20 postseason games over the last three years (0-10-10, minus-4) despite averaging 23:39 in ice time.  In fact, in six trips to the postseason, the only one in which he did record at least one goal was in 2018, when he had two in 24 games in the Caps’ run to the Stanley Cup.  That would also be the only one in which he finished with a “plus” rating (plus-5).

Looking ahead… Dmitry Orlov has two years to run on a six-year/$30.6 million contract.  Looking at his immediate cohort of defensemen (age 28-32 (Orlov will turn 30 next month), cap hit of $4.5-$5.5 million), he looks like a bargain, ranking second among the nine defensemen in that cohort last season, second in points (second in plus-minus), and doing it with a comparatively light ice time load (seventh of the nine defensemen).  The issue going forward will be if he can, as he did this season, build on the consistency he displayed in production over the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 period when he played in every game and posted point totals from 29 to 33 points.

In the end…

John Carlson gets the attention, especially in the offensive end of the ice, from opponents and media alike.  But Dmitry Orlov has quietly established himself as a solid performer, providing a measure of stability and consistency in production that has gone largely unnoticed.  That is not always a bad thing, but being a player of value, which Orlov has been, regardless of the level of attention he gets, will be an indispensable element in the Caps’ effort to return to the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.

Grade: A-


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Nick Jensen

Nick Jensen

“We cannot make events. Our business is wisely to improve them.”
-- Samuel Adams

They were born 13 days apart in 1990, were unheralded as amateurs (one a fifth round draft pick, the other undrafted and signed to his first NHL contract as a free agent), and posted similarly modest numbers with the teams that drafted them.  They were acquired a year apart by the Washington Capitals, one becoming the unexpected glue that stabilized the defense on the team’s way to the Stanley Cup, the other obtained in an effort to see if lightning could strike twice with a player similar in size and style.

Michal Kempny was obtained from the Chicago Blackhawks in February 2018 for a conditional third round pick in the 2018 Entry Draft.  It was one of the more consequential trades in Caps history, although it hardly seemed so at the time.  Kempny provided stability to the defensive pairs, a key element in the Caps’ run to the Stanley Cup in 2018.  A year later the Caps tried to recapture the magic by trading defenseman Madison Bowey and a second round pick in the 2020 Entry Draft for Nick Jensen and a fifth round pick in the 2019 Entry Draft.  The second bite at the apple was not as nourishing.  Jensen did not have much of an impact on offense over his first season and a half in Washington, and while he had a reputation as a good skater and puck mover, he seemed to struggle here at times as well.  That the Caps would sign him to a four-year/$10.0 million contract upon his arrival in Washington complicated the matter, the impression being, if not a bad deal, then one of questionable value.

And then there was the 2020-2021 season.  Perhaps it was his being paired with Zdeno Chara much of the time, and the veteran’s experience and talent rubbing off on him, but Jensen had a solid year, scoring two goals (breaking a 165-game streak without one) and posting 15 points and a plus-5 rating in 53 games, a scoring line that looked much like that which he had when he was obtained from Detroit in 2019 (2-13-15, plus-1, in 60 games at the time).  It was by no means a dominating season for Jensen, but he was reliable and consistent as a third-pair defenseman.  He was out of the lineup for three games early in the season, the Caps and head coach Peter Laviolette taking a look at Jonas Siegenthaler and Trevor van Rimesdyk a look, and while the Caps went 2-0-1 in those three games, neither recorded a point, and both were a minus-1.  Jensen returned to the lineup for Game 9 of the season and remained in the lineup thereafter, going 2-11-13, plus-4 in his last 48 games.

Fearless’ Take… If you are a John Carlson, you are noticeable in a good way when you put up points or in a bad way when you are a little too close to the action when the other team scores.  If you are a Brenden Dillon, you are noticed in a good way when you lay a big hit on an opponent or in a bad way when you are out of position when the opponents convert a scoring chance.  If you are a Nick Jensen, you have your best moments when you aren’t noticed.  You make the smart first pass out of your own end for a play that might unfold and be converted 30 seconds later.  You might have your stick in the right position to prevent a pass from being attempted, let alone made when defending in your own zone.  Jensen had a season in which much of his play was not noticed, and that was a good thing.  His numbers were middle-of-the-road among Caps defensemen – fifth of eight defensemen in points (14), tied for fourth in goals (two), tied for fourth in plus-minus (plus-5), sixth in average time on ice (17:18), tied for fourth in even strength on-ice goal differential (plus-4), fourth in hits (56), third in blocked shots (65), fourth in shot attempts-for on-ice percentage (50.2). 

Cheerless’ Take… Being physical did not sit well with Jensen.  The Caps were just 7-6-2 in 15 games in which he registered two or more hits (13-4-1 in 18 games in which he had none).  Blocked shots had an iffy relationship to success, too.  The Caps were 12-8-1 in 21 games in which Jensen had two or more blocked shots (14-4-1 in 19 games in which he had none).

Odd Jensen Fact… Jensen played in seven games in which he recorded neither a hit nor a blocked shot.  The Caps were 5-1-1 in those games.

Odd Jensen Fact II… He was not missed when he took penalties.  While he was not penalized often (seven games with penalty minutes, all of them limited to a single infraction), the Caps were 6-0-1 in those games.

Odd Jensen Fact III… Jensen was the only Capital defenseman to dress for at least ten games and not be on ice for a goal scored for or against when the Caps were on a power play.

Game to Remember… March 7, 2021 vs. Philadelphia Flyers.  Players have shooting slumps, stretches of games where they couldn’t put a puck in the lake from the dock.  And then there was the slump in which Nick Jensen found himself.  In 108 games as a Capital before they visited the Philadelphia Flyers in early March he did not record a goal, and he had an overall streak of 165 games without one entering that game, not scoring one since he recorded a two goal game in a 5-3 loss to Toronto in October 2018.  The Caps took a 2-1 lead into the third period against the Flyers before Jensen provided some insurance…

Jensen would make it a memorable week at the Flyers’ expense, scoring his other goal of the season on the same ice sheet in a 5-4 Caps win over the Flyers six days later.

Game to Forget… April 29, 2021 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins.  Games against the Penguins are events, and when things go wrong, one would like to have them forgotten.  Such was the case for Jensen and the Caps in a late April game at Capital One Arena.  The Caps opened the scoring in the eighth minute of the game, but the Penguins tied it late in the first period. The teams exchanged leads in the second period, Pittsburgh taking the lead eight minutes into the middle period and the Caps recapturing it 15 minutes into the period.  But the Pens tied the game in the last two minutes of the second period to generate momentum that they carried into the third period, taking a 4-3 lead mid-way through the frame.  Tom Wilson scored in the last minute to tie the game once more and force overtime, but the Pens earned the extra standings point on a Jake Guentzel goal two minutes into the extra period.  For Jensen it was a difficult game.  He skated only 15 minutes, but he was on ice for three of the Pens’ four goals in regulation.  He had no takeaways, no hits, no blocked shots, and no good memories to take away from this game.

Postseason… It would not be unusual for a player not known for generating much in the way of offensive fireworks to be quiet when the level of competition ramps up in the playoffs.  In that context, Jensen going without a point in five games would not be entirely unexpected.  But this is now three consecutive postseasons with the Caps that Jensen has failed to record a point (0-0-0, minus-3, in 20 playoff games).  That is 0-for-49 in shots on goal while averaging 17:35 in ice time.  His even strength on-ice goals for and against was a mixed blessing.  While he was one of only two Caps not to finish in minus territory in even strength goal differential, and he was on ice for only two even strength goals against (tied with Zdeno Chara for fewest in the five-game series against Boston), he was on ice for only two even strength goals for.

Looking ahead… If one looked at his contract after last season and its $2.5 million cap hit, one would think Jensen was being overcompensated.  Looking at this year’s numbers relative to his cohort (defensemen age 27-33, cap hit of $2.25 – 2.75 million), he would seem to have more value.  The lingering question is how much of his improvement was due to Zdeno Chara’s steadying influence and experience.  If Chara is not back next season for the Caps, will the lessons last?

In the end…

Nick Jensen had what was arguably his best season as a Capital.  The numbers do not jump off the page, but that is the point.  He is not a big points producer, he does not generate the highlight hit, and he isn’t often the skate from end to end sort of player.  He is, and was, a steady, dependable, consistent player when he is at his best.  In a third pair role, he found a comfort level he did not have in his first season and a half in Washington.

Grade: B+


Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Brenden Dillon

Brenden Dillon

“Some guys play with their heads. That's okay. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body.”

-- Vince Lombardi

Players such as Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, or Nicklas Backstrom are extolled for their ability to “think” the game, to see the ice and imagine their options two or three moves ahead.  They probably get insufficient respect for their mental and physical toughness for being able to withstand the punishment they take, often from players like Brenden Dillon.  But then again, players like Dillon might have a reputation for physical toughness but get insufficient respect for their ability to adapt their game to opponent or pick and choose their spots to impose the physical side of their game and rely on their accumulated experience to play angles and position to defend opponents.

Make no mistake, Dillon’s stock and trade is his physical game.  Since he became a full-time player in 2012-2013, he ranks fourth among 202 defensemen appearing in at least 250 games in credited hits (1,519), ninth in hits per 60 minutes (68.23), fourth in penalty minutes (623), fourth in penalties taken (234), and he is one of seven defensemen in that group to have a net penalties drawn to penalties taken of minus-100 or more.

Dillon was not that far off his career numbers or rankings in those categories with the Caps this season.  Among 214 defensemen appearing in at least 20 games, Dillon ranked eighth in total credited hits (143), 20th in hits per 60 minutes (8.08), tenth in penalty minutes (49), and there was that net penalty ranking (minus-8/tied for 170th).

Fearless’ Take… Brenden Dillon might not be an “offensive” defenseman, but when he put up points, they mattered.  Washington won both games in which he scored a goal and went 14-2-0 when he posted at least one point. 

Cheerless’ Take… It’s one thing to be a “defensive” defenseman with modest offensive statistics, but c’mon…the only opponent against which Dillon did not record a point was the Penguins?  And it is not as if this is all that unusual.  Dillon is just 0-2-2 in 24 career games against Pittsburgh. 

Odd Dillon Fact… Brenden Dillon was credited with three or more hits in 24 games.  The Caps had a 12-9-3 record.  They were 10-4-2 in 16 games in which he recorded one or no hits.

Odd Dillon Fact II… New Westminster, British Columbia has sent 15 players to the NHL.  Dillon is the fifth of that group to have played for the Capitals.  Mark Lofthouse, Colin Forbes, Terry Yake, and Ryan Walter are the others.

Odd Dillon Fact III… Dillon traveled well.  He was 2-10-12, plus-21 in 28 road games, but he was just 0-7-7, minus-6 in 28 home games. 

Game to Remember… April 9, 2021 vs. Buffalo Sabres.  When the Capitals get off to a good start, one might look to T.J. Oshie (six first goals in games), Alex Ovechkin (four), or Nicklas Backstrom (four).  Brenden Dillon wound not be high on the list of possibilities.  But that is just what happened in an early-April game against the Sabres at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.  In the third minute, the Sabres found themselves chasing the puck, the Caps moving it around from Lars Eller behind the Sabres’ net to Dillon at the right point, back down to the end wall where T.J. Oshie picked it up and moved it out to Justin Schultz, who found Dillon just inside the Buffalo blue line for a one-timer that found its way through a clot of players and past the blocker of goalie Dustin Tokarski at the 2:39 mark.  It was Dillon’s only shot on goal and shot attempt of the game, but it got the Caps off to a good start on their way to a 4-3 win over the Sabres.

Game to Forget… February 4, 2021 vs. New York Rangers.  When the Caps made their way to New York for their first meeting of the season with the Rangers, they carried a 6-1-3 record in their first ten games, but they also had their first regulation loss of the season, a 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins three nights earlier to break a nine-game points streak to start the season, in their baggage when they arrived in New York.  The Caps dug themselves a hole early, allowing a goal less than two minutes into the contest and were playing catch-up the entire contest.  They did manage to get within a goal at 3-2 11 minutes into the third period on an Alex Ovechkin goal, but what momentum they might have had going into the last half of the third period was dulled by a penalty Brenden Dillon took less than a minute later.  The Caps would not get the equalizer, and the Rangers added an empty net goal in the last minute for a 4-2 win.  But the action did not end at the final horn.  Brendan Lemieux cruised through the low slot to buzz goalie Vitek Vanecek and when they locked up, Vanecek was knocked down.  Dillon came to his goalie’s aid and truculence ensued.  Dillon won this battle, but his line of the score sheet outside of his two penalties was sparse indeed.  In 15:46 of ice time he had one shot on goal and no other marks.

Postseason… Brenden Dillon did something in the 2021 postseason he was unable to do in six previous trips to the playoffs covering 70 games.  He scored a goal.  That came in the second period of Game 1 of the opening round series against the Boston Bruins and proved to be the goal that allowed the Caps to carry Game 1 to overtime when the Bruins tied the game, 2-2, late in the second period.  It would be the only point he recorded in the five-game series loss to the B’s.  At the other end, he was on ice for five even strength goals scored by the Bruins, tied for most on the team, and his minus-4 goal differential on ice at even strength was worst among defensemen.  It was not an unusual outcome.  Since his first appearance in the postseason in 2014, only two defensemen have a worse on ice goal differential at even strength against than Dillon (minus-14) – Roman Josi (minus-20) and Marc Staal (minus-15).

Looking ahead… The 30-year old Dillon has three more years of a four-year/$15.6 million contract to run.  The immediate question is whether his performance matches that compensation level and whether or not the Caps will expose Dillon and that $3.9 million per year contract in the expansion draft.  He is part of a mix of defensemen with different attributes – Nick Jensen and Justin Schultz, for example – that will force the Caps to make a choice on those attributes they find most valuable and/or hardest to replace. 

In the end…

Brenden Dillon is a sort of defenseman that the Caps do not have in abundance on their roster, especially if one assumes that Zdeno Chara will not be returning.  On a team that often plays “big,” he would be the biggest returning defenseman (6’4”/220).  He could be described fairly as a “rugged” defense-first defenseman whereas the Caps have more of the puck-moving/offensive defensemen elsewhere on their roster.  But he has had a disappointing career to date in the postseason, and should he return, that will be a matter to be rectified.

Grade: B-

Photo: Nick Wass/AP