“Whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest.”
-- Charles Dickens
Like folks in most walks of life, most hockey players toil in relative anonymity. “Grinders,” those players who log few minutes, but often intense ones with the greater demands on physical and defensive play, get few lines of press, not a lot of interview opportunities, and not many appearances on highlight reels unless they are the victim of a Connor McDavid end-to-end rush or a blind pass from the stick of Sidney Crosby.
Count Nic Dowd among that population of hockey players. Which is not to say his presence does not have value. Since coming to the Caps as a free agent in July 2018, Dowd is 15-22-37, plus-21, while averaging 11 minutes and change in ice time per game. Not bad numbers for a fourth line center.
His offensive numbers slipped a bit this past season, down to 15 points in 56 games from 22 points in 64 games in 2018-2019, but that was a product of a lower assist total (his seven goals were one short of the total he posted in 2018-2019).
The physical element of his game was raised a notch this season. Dowd was credited with 117 hits, 20 more than in 2018-2019, and his hits per 60 minutes were up almost 31 percent (from 8.83 to 11.56). His penalty minutes per game were also up (from 0.18 to 0.30), as were his penalties taken per 60 minutes (from 0.82 to 0.99).
On the other hand, his ratio of takeaways to giveaways per 60 minutes improved, year-over-year, from 1.32 to 3.14, and his personal shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 improved significantly, from 48.6 percent in 2018-2019 to 54.1 percent this past season.
Stars have to shine, but that is often not enough for sustained success in the NHL. Thus, it is no surprise that Nic Dowd, perhaps a third-level offensive contributor, had points in 12 games this season, and the Caps won ten of them. Further, when the Caps are successful, as with just about any other team, they can afford to roll four lines more often. And thus, it is also of little surprise that the Caps were 27-11-3 when Dowd skated ten or more minutes, 8-4-3 when he skated less than ten minutes. His offensive engagement was helpful too. In 12 games in which he posted at least two shots on goal, the Caps were 10-2-0.
Does physical play matter? Well, the Caps were 9-8-3 in the 20 games in which he was credited with at least three hits. They were 3-2-1 in the six games in which he had at least two blocked shots. And, he has points in 31 of 120 games as a Cap. Grinders have their place, an important place, but let’s tap the brakes a bit, cuz.
Odd Dowd Fact…
Nic Dowd hails from Huntsville, Alabama, not exactly a fertile ground for NHL-caliber hockey players. But the odd thing is, he isn’t the first NHL’er to claim Huntsville as his birthplace. Jared Ross dressed for 13 games with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons.
Game to Remember… March 7, 2020. It took Nic Dowd 158 career games to record his first three-point game in the NHL, a three-assist game in a 6-5 Gimmick Caps win over the Carolina Hurricanes in December 2018. It took him 92 more games to record his second. That came in the Caps’ penultimate game of the regular season, when they visited the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dowd wasted no time getting started. Richard Panik fished a loose puck out of the corner to the right of goalie Matt Murray, sending it along the back wall to Garnet Hathaway. From below the goal line, Hathaway fed the puck out to Dowd, all alone between the hash marks. Dowd one-timed the puck past Murray, and the Caps had the early lead just 1:52 into the game.
After a Nicklas Backstrom goal that put the Caps up a pair, Dowd assisted on a Panik goal with just 1:22 left in the first period to put the Caps up, 3-0. Dowd completed his three-point night and iced the game for the Caps when he and Carl Hagelin exchanged passes on a 2-on-1 shorthanded break, Dowd finishing with a one-timer to put the Caps up, 4-0, on their way to a 5-2 win.
Game to Forget… October 29, 2019. Winning a game when you fall behind twice, and doing in in overtime, on the other team’s rink, one of the marquee venues in the league, is always a big deal. It would be nice to be around at the end, though. When the Caps visited Toronto in late October, they fell behind, 1-0, and then they fell behind again, 3-2. They tied it up, though, to force overtime, where Alex Ovechkin won it four minutes into the extra session. However, the night for Dowd ended early. After just five shifts and 3:34 in ice time (both season lows), he took a hit from Justin Holl at the 14:55 mark of the first period and did not return.
Postseason… Talk about games to forget. Dowd did not register a point in eight postseason games, recorded only seven shots on goal, and had a minus-4 rating while averaging 12;43 in ice time. It is a bit of an issue with Dowd, who in 15 postseason games with the Caps has one point (a goal) and is a minus-5. That second and third level scoring has to show up in the playoffs, too.
Nic Dowd just completed the first year of a three-year/$2.25 million contract. It is not a burdensome contract, even for a fourth liner. The lingering question, though, is whether at age 30, Dowd is at the summit of his productive years. Hoping there is a little more playoff production in him, Caps fans might hope the answer to that question is “not yet.”
In the end…
If you were to look up “fourth line energy player” in the Oxford Dictionary of Hockey Terms (there is no such thing), you might find Nic Dowd’s picture there. He plays hard in both ends, provides the occasional offensive pop, carries a physical edge, kills penalties, gives the top forward lines a break without being a liability. He also comes with a manageable contract. On a club where there are a lot of issues to resolve in this off-season, and even into the next season, Nic Dowd is not among them. That’s a good thing. Now, if he could just provide a little more offense in the postseason.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America