“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
-- Stephen King
In five career seasons coming into the 2020-2021 season, Nic Dowd never recorded ten goals in any of them, never reached the 25-point mark, never averaged as much as 13 minutes per game. He was the quintessential fourth-liner, a player who was counted on to do that hard, gritty work – 446 credited hits in 251 games, 128 blocked shots, and a takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 1.29-to-1.00. But Dowd had a career year in 2020-2021.
Fearless’ Take… 11 goals, career best (first time in double digits). 31 penalty minutes, career high. Three game-winning goals, tied career high (2018-2019 with the Caps). 68 shots on goal, career best. 14:22 in average ice time per game, career high. 56.3 percent faceoff winning percentage, career best. 40 blocked shots, career best. 38 takeaways, career high. He had at least one goal against each of the seven opponents of the East Division. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to find a more effective fourth line center across a variety of measures this season than Nic Dowd. Accounting for his role, he might have had the best season, relative to expectations, of any Capital.
Cheerless’ Take… Bottom six forwards are often referred to as “energy” players who play with a bit of an edge to wear down opponents. In Dowd’s case, that might not have been true. The Caps were just 4-3-2 when Dowd was credited with four or more hits, 7-4-1 when charged with at least one penalty. There was a little stat-padding in his numbers, too. Dowd was 8-2-10, plus-8, in 32 games against the four teams in the East Division that missed the playoffs, 3-2-5, minus-4, in 24 games against the other three division opponents to reach the postseason. And, his road production (1-3-4, minus-4) lagged far behind his home production (10-1-11, plus-8).
Odd Dowd Fact… Nic Dowd was one of 11 players in the league this season to record 12 of fewer goals, have none of them be scored on special teams, but have three or more of them be game-winners (11 goals, three game-winners).
Odd Dowd Fact II… The Caps were 28-4-1 when Dowd skated 13 or more minutes, 8-11-4 when he skated fewer than 13 minutes. It is not all that odd a fact, a fourth liner getting less ice time in games in which his team trails late in games and loses more often, but the difference is rather stark.
Odd Dowd Fact III… Last season, this season – 56 games/56 games, 15 points/15 points.
Game to Remember… March 11, 2021 vs. Philadelphia. When the Caps visited the Philadelphia Flyers in March, Dowd was in the midst of what was perhaps his worst offensive slump of the season. In his previous 15 games, he was 1-0-1 (tied for 19th among 24 skaters to dress for the Caps over that stretch), minus-3 (tied for 18th), he recorded no hits in five of those games and no blocked shots in eight of those contests.
The Caps carried a 3-1 lead late into the second period against the Flyers when Dowd took a pass from Zdeno Chara at his defensive blue line, turned and skated up the left wing boards. Carrying the puck into the Flyers’ zone, he backed off Flyer defenseman Travis Sanheim, circled through the left wing circle around Sanheim, and stuffed the puck under goalie Brian Elliott from the top of the blue paint to give the Caps a 4-1 lead heading into the third period. That goal by Dowd would prove important as the Flyers closed the gap to 4-3 mid-way through the third period. But in the last minute of regulation, Caps goalie Ilya Samsonov left the puck for Dowd below his own goal line. Dowd collected the biscuit, turned, and fired the puck the length of the ice on one hop into the empty Flyer net to give the Caps a 5-3 win. Dowd was credited with the game-winning goal, and his empty netter gave him his only two-goal game of the season.
Game to Forget... February 14, 2021 vs. Pittsburgh. For about ten minutes, the Caps’ visit to Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day might have been memorable. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the sixth minute to open the scoring, but thing went downhill for the Caps starting five minutes later. Bryan Rust and Brandon Tanev scored 32 seconds apart to give the Penguins the lead, and Nic Dowd was on ice for both of those goals. Jakub Vrana scored early in the second period to tie the game, 2-2, and restore some hope for the Caps, but the home team scored another pair of goals four minutes apart to take a 4-2 lead. Nicklas Backstrom got the Caps back within one late in the period, but Washington could not find the equalizer in the third period, the Pens scoring a pair of empty net goals late in a 6-3 win.
For Dowd, it was a thoroughly forgettable game. He finished with only 9:10 in ice time, his second lowest of the season. He finished with no shot attempts, no credited hits, no takeaways, no blocked shots, took a penalty, and he lost six of 11 faceoffs (45.4 percent). He skated only three meaningful shifts in the third period, all of them in the first half of the period, before finishing up the game with a mop-up shift after the second of the Penguins’ two empty net goals to seal the win.
Postseason… On the good side, Dowd tied for the team lead in goals in the five-game opening round loss to Boston. Of the bad side, having your fourth line center tie for the team lead in goals – two in all (one of the only game-winning goal in the series for the Caps) – is not generally conducive to a playoff series win. Making things worse, Dowd was tied with linemate Garnet Hathaway for that team lead in goals, and that duo were the only Caps to record any goals and finish the series with a plus rating (Dowd was plus-1, Hathaway was plus-2). His overtime game-winner in Game 1 against the Bruins broke personal ten-game postseason streak without a goal. Odd Dowd postseason fact… in 20 career postseason games, Dowd has yet to record an assist.
Looking ahead… Nic Dowd will be in the walk year of a three-year/$2.25 million deal in 2021-2022. Looking at his current deal in the context of centers with cap hits of $750,000-$1,000,000, ages 28-34 (Dowd is 31), he looks like quite a deal for the Caps at the moment. But will he, like his predecessor at fourth-line center, Jay Beagle, price himself out of being re-signed by the Caps after next season? Dowd has grown into his role with the Caps, becoming a sort of jack-of-all-trades sort of bottom six forward. It is not an irreplaceable spot on the roster, but bottom six production has been an issue with the Caps from time to time, and how Dowd performs in that role next season could be an important and underrated factor in the team’s success.
In the end…
Nic Dowd is a rather typical bottom six forward in terms of how he realizes success. He does not have the pure goal scoring abilities of others on this roster, he plays with a physical edge from time to time but is not an extraordinary sort in terms of intimidation, he is unlikely to show up on any ballots for the Selke Trophy as the leagues top defensive forward. But he can contribute in any of those areas, a valuable characteristic when one of his other attributes is silent. The question is whether or not he had his career year one year too soon in terms of maximizing the value of his next contract, or if he can squeeze a bit more production out of his game in 2021-2022 before he is either extended by the Caps or hits the free agent market. As a player who gives evidence of accomplishing more with hard work than natural talent, betting against him might be a bit premature at this point.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America