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

Monday, June 28, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Zdeno Chara

Zdeno Chara

“'Age' is the acceptance of a term of years. But maturity is the glory of years.”
-- Martha Graham

Zdeno Chara finished the 2020-2021 regular season as the oldest player in the league, at 44 years old being more than two years older than the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Joe Thornton.  There have been 2,703 skaters to appear in at least one NHL game since Chara was born in Trencin, Czechoslovakia, on March 18, 1977; 201 skaters to dress for at least one NHL game were born after Chara appeared in his first NHL game on November 19, 1997.  But over 1,553 regular season games with three teams over 22 seasons before coming to Washington, Chara – a third-round draft pick (56th overall) by the New York Islanders in 1996 – built a hall of fame worthy career.  And when the Boston Bruins, with whom he built most of that legendary career over 14 seasons, all of which he served as captain, decided to go younger and ask him to take a reduced role, he went the free agent route and accepted an offer by the Caps for a one-year/$795,000 contract last December.

While his top end numbers (2-8-10, plus-5) were not especially impressive, and his even strength on-ice goal differential was similarly unremarkable, but signing Chara was not about numbers that, frankly, have been in decline in recent years.  The Caps got a three-time first team NHL all star, a six-time Norris Trophy finalist (and winner in 2008-2009), a six-time All-Star Game participant, a Messier Leadership Award, and a Stanley Cup championship (2011).  He brought the kind of resume that commands respect and attention in the locker room, and he had the depth of experience and success that could be helpful to young and veteran players alike.  He brought the very “intangibles,” the attributes so difficult to quantify, that any team would consider a benefit. 

Fearless’ Take… Chara had a strange year as far as ice time goes.  It’s one thing for essentially a third-pair defenseman to have high time values when his team is successful, but boy.  The Caps were 33-5-4 in 42 games in which he skated at least 17:08, 3-9-1 in the 13 games he skated less than that amount.  Then there was an odd thing about his shots on goal.  Chara, while not generally thought of as an elite offensive defenseman, is not the player he was at that end of the ice, but quiet nights didn’t seem to hurt.  In 18 games in which he did not record a shot on goal, the Caps were 13-3-2.

Cheerless’ Take… If might qualify as an “odd fact, “ but while Zdeno Chara had only ten points this season, he had at least one against every Caps opponent except New Jersey.  New Jersey?  Yeah…New Jersey.  And he had more shots on goal against he Devils (11) than he had against any other opponent. It is also worth noting that his ice time decreased by month, too – 20:32 in nine January games, 18:33 in 12 February games, 17:41 in 14 March games, and 17:31 in 14 April games before ticking up to 17:55 in six games in May.

Odd Chara Fact… In the “less is more” department, the Caps were 12-3-0 when Chara was not credited with a hit, 13-5-1 when not credited with a blocked shot, 3-0-0 when credited with neither.

Odd Chara Fact II… Chara has got to play somewhere in the NHL next season.  He just can’t go into retirement with “666” career points.

Odd Chara Fact… If he does go into retirement, he will end his career with one round number on his resume – precisely 2,000 career penalty minutes.

Game to Remember… January 28, 2021 vs. New York Islanders. 

A first goal is memorable, whether a rookie’s first NHL tally or a 43-year old’s first with a new team.  The latter refers, of course, to Zdeno Chara, who recorded his first goal as a Capital in a late-January game against the New York Islanders.  Chara got off to a slow start in the offensive end, going 0-1-1 in his first seven games but posting a plus-5 rating to help push the Caps to a 4-0-3 record to open the season.  When the Islanders came to town in late January, they were rude guests, getting out to a 3-0 lead in the first period.  But after being frustrated for the first nine minutes of the second period, the Caps erupted. Conor Sheary scored at the 9:07 mark and scored again just 73 seconds later (assisted by Chara) to get the Caps within a goal.  Garnet Hathaway scored 51 seconds after Sheary’s second goal to tie the game, and then John Carlson scored on a power play barely three minutes after Hathaway to give the Caps the lead.  And then Chara gave the fans and his teammates something special to celebrate…


The goal was Chara’s first as a Capital, becoming the 126th defenseman in team history to record a goal for the Caps (Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk would score their first goals as Capitals later in the season to bring the total to 128 defensemen in team history with goals).  Chara’s second, and last goal of the season, would be memorable as well, coming as it did two games later against his old Boston Bruins club, but unfortunately, while his was the first goal of the game, and the Caps shot out to a 3-0 lead before the game reached the half-way mark, he and the Caps would lose that game to Boston, 5-3.

Game to Forget… May 7, 2021 vs. Philadelphia Flyers. 

In 78 previous career games against the Philadelphia Flyers, Chara had a respectably line – 17-28-45, plus-3.  In fact, of all the opponents he faced to that point, he recorded more goals only against the Pittsburgh Penguins (18 in 82 career games).  But the first of a back-to-back set of games in Philadelphia in early May would be forgettable in a literal sense of the word.  There was just nothing there to remember.  He skated just 15:27, the fifth-lowest ice time of his season.  He had no shots on goal and only one shot attempt (blocked) in 19 shifts, tied for the third fewest shifts he skated for the season.  His only other line on his score sheet was a blocked shot.  He was, however, on ice for two of the Flyers’ four goals scored in a 4-2 loss to Philadelphia.

Postseason… For the first time in 16 trips to the postseason, Chara failed to record a point (0-0-0 in five games).  And, his average ice time per game of 16:16 was, by far, the lowest of his career, only the second time he averaged less than 21 minutes per game (19:47 per game in 2020 with Boston was his previous low).  He was, however, one of only four Capitals (and the only defenseman) with an on-ice even strength goal differential in positive territory (plus-1).  He and Nick Jensen were on ice for fewest even strength goals scored against (two apiece), perhaps a product of getting third pair minutes and responsibilities, but still a respectable number.

Looking ahead… It is hard to envision Chara returning to the Caps with left-handed defensemen (as is Chara) Michal Kempny perhaps returning after losing this season to injury and Martin Fehervary knocking at the door of the parent roster after spending his apprenticeship in Hershey this season, and Trevor van Rimesdyk (a righty, but under a cap-friendly contract under $1.0 million per year for the next two seasons) showing promise in a limited role.  Then again, with more than 1,700 regular season and postseason games over 23 years on his resume, there is the possibility he will call it a career. 

In the end…

Quantifiable data are valuable in comparing players to one another under similar circumstances and against performance standards.  But non-quantifiable information – “intangibles,” if you will – can hint at value beyond numbers.  Zdeno Chara’s numbers were lacking in leaving an impression, especially when compared with his own history as an elite overall defenseman.  But his value in bringing out the better elements of Nick Jensen’s game and his work ethic as an example to teammates cannot and should not be dismissed as lacking value.  In an odd sort of way, his year spent with the Caps stands in contrast to the year missed by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who might have had a similar beneficial effect on the Caps’ young goaltending tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek but for his missing the season with a heart ailment.  Chara’s line on the statistical record of Capitals might not be long remembered, but his influence on teammates might have a more lasting effect.

Grade: B


Friday, June 25, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. 'Til your good is better and your better is best.”
-- St. Jerome

There is some dispute that St. Jerome actually penned this quote, but the sentiment of “constant improvement” seems apropos for a player as important as John Carlson is to the Washington Capitals.  Over the three seasons preceding this one, Carlson established himself as one of, if not the elite offensive defenseman in the NHL.  His 43 goals over those three seasons ranked fifth among all defensemen, and he ranked first in assists (170) and points (213).  His 91 power play points ranked first, as did his game-winning goal total (11). 

And, there was a progress in his production over those three years that made him a to-five vote getter in Norris Trophy voting for top defensemen in each of the three years.  He finished fifth in 2017-2018, fourth in 2018-2019, and he was a finalist in 2019-2020, finishing second in voting overall.  In the chronological and productive prime of his career, Carlson has climbed to the upper reaches of all-time franchise rankings in a number of regular season categories: games played (809/second), goals (115/third), assists (407/first), points (522/first), even strength goals (84/third), even strength points (325/first), power play goals (30/seventh), power play points (192/second), and game winning goals (25/first).

Carlson’s production slipped in 2020-2021, both in total goals/assists/points and in output per game.  While the Norris Trophy finalist worthy baseline is a high bar to reach a second time, it was an off-season on offense for Carlson, who also had to deal with a knee injury late in the season that might have impacted his performance in the late stages of the regular season and the playoffs.  

Fearless’ Take… John Carlson might have had an “off” year when compared to his Norris Trophy finalist season last year, but he still had impressive numbers.  He finished tied for fifth in goals (10), more than both of last year’s finalists, Victor Hedman (nine) and Roman Josi (eight).  He was tied for eighth in assists (34), more than Josi (25).  His 44 points tied for fifth, again more than Josi (33).  And, he finished tied for tenth in power play points (10).  As follow-up seasons go to a career year, it was not bad in terms of Carlson’s top end numbers.

Cheerless’ Take… The Caps allowed 112 goals at even strength this season.  John Carlson was on the ice for 54 of them, far more than any other Capital (Nicklas Backstrom was on ice for 42 even strength goals).  Sure, he is a number one defenseman and number one or first pair defensemen are on ice for a lot of goals against (Brent Burns/68, Set Jones/61, Drew Doughty/55, for example).  But that is three straight seasons averaging at least one even strength goal against on ice per game after never having broken that threshold in any other season of his career.  And, his even strength on ice goal differential (even, 54 for and 54 against) was the third worst of his career.

Odd Carlson Fact… Perhaps it is just odd this happens so often, but being a minutes eater is not necessarily conducive to team success.  The Caps were 25-4-2 in the 31 games Carlson skated 23:36 or less, 9-10-2 in 21 games in which he skated more than 23:36.

Odd Carlson Fact II… John Carlson, Victor Hedman, and Roman Josi are the only defensemen with three seasons in the last four with at least ten goals and at least 50 points.  Two of the three won Norris Trophies in that stretch, one did not.

Odd Carlson Fact III… Despite having three seasons of his career cut short by external factors (a labor/management dispute in 2012-2013 and COVID related issues the last two seasons), Carlson is tied for most 80-game seasons played by a defenseman in Caps history (six, with Karl Alzner).  And, he played in all of the games in two of the seasons that were cut short (48 games in 2012-2013 and 69 games in 2019-2020).

Game to Remember… March 11, 2021 vs. Philadelphia

John Carlson has a thing against NHL teams in Pennsylvania.  In February 2020 his assist on a Carl Hagelin goal in a 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins gave him 475 career points, passing Calle Johansson for first among defensemen in points in franchise history.  In March of this season he hit another milestone at the expense of a team in the Keystone State.  The Caps arrived in Philadelphia on a roll, posting a 9-2-1 record over their previous dozen games.  Carlson was on a bit of a roll of his own, but mostly in setting up others, posting a 1-8-9, plus-2 scoring line over nine games leading up to the contest against the Flyers.  The Caps took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission in the March 11th game in Philly, and then it was Carlson’s turn to do some damage.  Evgeny Kuznetsov led a 3-on-2 rush out of the defensive end and passed the puck forward to Jakub Vrana at the Flyers’ blue line.  Vrana skated the puck down the right wing and backhanded it out of the corner to Carlson pinching in on the left side, leading to this…

It was Carlson’s 500th career point, the first and only Capital defenseman ever to hit that threshold, and he became the third-fastest active defenseman to reach that mark, doing it in 783 games (Erik Karlsson did it in 525 games, and Kris Letang did it in 753 games).

Game to Forget… April 18th vs. Boston.  A Sunday matinee hockey game in Boston turned into a movie – Groundhog Day – for John Carlson.  He was on ice for the Bruins’ shorthanded goal to open the scoring mid-way through the first period, but that was just a hint of what was to come.  The Caps took a 3-2 lead less than five minutes into the second period, and then the opening credits started rolling on Carlson’s movie from hell.  Boston scored the last four goals of the game, Carlson being on ice for each and every one of them, to take a 6-3 decision.  The five goals for which Carlson was on ice scored by the Bruins was not the most goals against on ice in a single game for any player this season, but he could see the top spot from there.  Only three players – the Flyers’ Travis Sanheim (seven) and Philippe Myers (six, in the same game, March 17th against the Rangers), and Patrick Kane were on ice for six or more goals against in a game.

Postseason… Perhaps his knee injury hampered him in the playoffs, but Carlson was rather quiet on the offensive front, posting a pair of assists in the five-game opening round loss to Boston.  Going all five games without a goal extended a drought that dated back to the regular season and covered 20 games overall.  Part of the problem was not getting pucks to the net.  He registered only eight shots in five games, and in three of them he posted only a single shot on goal.  Only three times in his last 13 regular season games was he held to a single shot on goal, and three times he posted four shots, a total he did not reach in any of the five postseason games.

Looking ahead… John Carlson has five years remaining on an eight-year/$64 million contract with a modified no-trade clause (according to, he can submit a 15-team no-trade list next season, that clause becoming a 10-team list for the last four years of his contract).  In terms of his compensation cohort, Carlson is a member of an exclusive club.  Only five defensemen are between 28 and 35 years of age (Carlson is 31) and have cap hits between $7.5 and $8.5 million (Carlson’s is $8.0 million).  Of that group, which includes Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Shea Weber, and Jared Spurgeon, that only Hedman is clearly a superior player at the position.  A healthy Carlson next season would be expected to remain in this upper echelon of players.

In the end…

John Carlson’s season was a complicated one.  On the one hand, he continues to be an elite offensive defenseman whose 2020-2021 numbers would have resulted in a 16-54-70 season on an 82-game basis and would have been, had he reached those totals, been Carlson’s third consecutive 70-point season.  But he was too often an adventure in his own end, or at least present for a significant amount of unpleasantness (54 even strength goals against on-ice in 52 games).  And, his 50.8 percent shot attempts-for on ice at 5-on-5 was decent, but only 88th among 214 defensemen appearing in at least 20 games.  For Carlson, the issue going forward is going to be, now that he is in his early 30’s, whether his defensive game can close the gap and improve his defense to bring it at least a little closer to his elite level of performance in the offensive end of the ice.

Grade: B

Photo: Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”
-- William Shakespeare (Othello, Act II, scene iii)

We tend to be on the wordy side in this space, but if we were to quote every instance in which Tom Wilson was characterized as a dirty player, a player who targets opponents, a player who should be suspended for every hit he makes, we could fill a library.  True, Wilson does play on the edge sometimes, perhaps more often than your average player, and that means crossing that line sometimes.  And there are those who take the time to chronicle every instance.  What it means is that Wilson, now an eight-year veteran with 569 regular season and 82 postseason games on his resume, has a reputation.  And one wonders if that reputation is the dark lens through which fans of opposing teams see him and those in the NHL Department of Player Safety evaluate every incident within a time zone of crossing the line of “dirty” play with a tendency to “over-suspend” him for cases that would draw a far lesser punishment if committed by other players.  That is a discussion for another time, except to say that his “reputation” casts a long shadow over a career over which he has established himself in the top echelon of power forwards – players who not only have a physical edge, but who perform at a high level in a variety of situations. 

Fearless’ Take… Tom Wilson continues maturing as a player who is multi-dimensional.  Many will look at a single dimension and try to pigeon-hole him as a throwback to the brawling ‘70’s, but he finished tied for fifth in goal scoring for the Caps this season (13), tied for fifth in assists (20), fifth in points (33), fourth in power play goals (four), tied for fifth in power play points (eight), tied for second in game-winning goals (four), fourth in credited hits (105), fifth in hits per 60 minutes (8.10), fifth among forwards in blocked shots (25), and sixth among forwards in takeaways (20).  He averaged more than a minute per game on power plays (1:40) and on the penalty kill (1:35).

Cheerless’ Take… The Caps were not very successful when Tom Wilson ran afoul of the rules.  In 19 games in which he was charged with at least one penalty, the Caps were 9-9-1.  They were 19-6-3 in 28 games in which he didn’t spend time in the penalty box.  And the Caps were not particularly successful when Wilson was physical within the rules.  When credited with three or more hits, the Caps were 7-7-3 in 17 games.  Add to that the Caps’ record of 7-6-3 in 16 games in which Wilson logged at least 18 minutes of ice time, and it made for an odd season.

Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson’s goals-per-game have dropped off a bit over the last three seasons (0.35/0.31/0.28), but his points-per-game have increased (0.63/0.65/0.70).  Credit his helpers, which have increased significantly (0.29/0.34/0.43).

Odd Wilson Fact II… While his scoring did not change much after his seven-game suspension in March for his hit on Boston defenseman Brandon Carlo, his penalty minutes did.  In 21 games before the suspension, he compiled 25 penalty minutes (1.19 minutes per game), including 10 minutes in the game against Boston in which he earned his suspension.  But in 26 games after the suspension, he compiled 71 minutes (2.73 minutes per game).  However, 43 of those 71 minutes were recorded in his last five games of the regular season.

Odd Wilson Fact III… The Caps were 7-0-0 in the seven games Wilson was suspended in March.

Game to Remember… May 3, 2021 vs. New York Rangers

Most fans might remember this as the infamous game in which Tom Wilson took exception to New York Ranger players taking liberties with goalie Vitek Vanecek in the form of a series of whacks meant to separate Vanecek from the puck in his crease.  What ensued was unpleasant…

But lost in the chaos in that second period moment, which earned Wilson a pair of roughing calls and a ten-minute misconduct, was that he had an otherwise productive game.  He earned an assist on a goal by Conor Sheary that gave the Caps a 2-0 lead late in the first period.  He logged 1:44 in penalty killing time (he was not on the ice when the Rangers scored their lone power play goal of the contest), apart from the penalty he was rather tame (one credited hit), and he put the final touch of frosting on the cake with an empty net goal in the last two minutes of the contest to finish with what would be his ninth and last multi-point game of the season.  He would be one of four players this season to record a multi-point game while charged with 15 or more penalty minutes, and he would be the only one to do it while logging less than 12 minutes of ice time (11:49).

Game to Forget… May 5, 2021 vs. New York Rangers

Two nights after that memorable game, the Caps and Rangers faced off again to wrap up the two-game set at Madison Square Garden.  It would be a memorable night for T.J. Oshie, who would record a hat trick on the day after his father’s passing.  But for Tom Wilson, it was a game to set aside.  Ten seconds into his first shift of the game, in the first minute of the first period, he answered the call of Brendan Smith to settle scores from the previous game.  Wilson would skate only three more shifts, retiring for the evening after an early second period shift as he left the penalty box after earning a ten-minute misconduct late in the first period.  He suffered an upper body injury that limited his evening to 2:36 in total ice time, by far his lowest of the season.  He left, unsurprisingly, without a mark on his line of the scoresheet except for the 15 minutes in penalties he earned.

Postseason… One goal, one assists, a minus-3 rating in five games.  It was the second consecutive disappointment of a postseason for Wilson, who finished the 2020 postseason 1-2-3, minus-5, in eight games (although his lone goal in last season’s playoffs was a game-winner).  Wilson’s performances in postseasons to date have been less than impressive.  He was 5-10-15, plus-11, in 21 games of the Stanley Cup run in 2018, but otherwise he is 8-7-15, minus-15, in 61 career postseason games.

Looking ahead… Wilson has three years remaining on a six-year/$31.0 million contract ($5.167 million annual cap hit).  Among 16 forwards age 25-30 in 2020-2021 (Wilson is 27) with salary cap hits between $4.75 and $5.25 million, Wilson’s performance was in the lower third in goals scored and ice time, and middle of the pack in points.  And, after a season in which his penalty minutes per game plummeted (from 2.03 in 2018-2019 to 1.37 in 2019-2020), they jumped back over 2.00 per game this season (2.03). although that was largely a product of the truculence displayed against the Rangers in those two late season contests in which he logged 31 of his total of 96 penalty minutes for the season.

In the end…

Tom Wilson has a reputation around the league for being undisciplined, rambunctious, and prone to coloring outside the lines.  Okay, let’s face it, if you’re not a Caps fan, chances are better than even that you believe him to be a dirty player.  It looked as if he was playing himself out of that reputation coming into this season, or at least diminishing it.  But he might not have done himself any favors with his suspension in March or his ill humor against the Rangers in two games in May.  To that add that his production over the last two seasons has plateaued or even slipped a bit, and one could be forgiven for expecting Wilson should be – must be – a more productive player inside the rules when the puck drops on the 2021-2022 season.  It was not a bad season for Wilson by any means, but one is left with the odd feeling that there should have been more meaningful results.

Grade: B