Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Washington Capitals 2021-2022 Previews -- Forwards: Nic Dowd

Nic Dowd

 “The only thing that should surprise us is that there are still some things that can surprise us.”
-- Francois de La Rochefoucauld

When you do not get a full-time job as an NHLer until age 26, average six goals and 16 points a season over your first four full seasons, and do it averaging barely 11 minutes a game, one might be forgiven if you are pigeon-holed as a fourth line “energy” player.  But then there was 2021-2022 for Nic Dowd.  Dowd posted 11 goals in 56 games, obliterating his previous career high (eight in 64 games with Washington in 2018-2019), three of them game-winners, tying a previous career high (2018-2019).  He also had a career high in ice time, averaging 14:22 per game, almost two minutes more than he averaged with the Los Angeles Kings in 2016-2017.  He also proved to be an adept faceoff man, winning 56.4 percent of his draws (another career high), 15th in the league among 147 players taking at least 250 faceoffs.

Odd Dowd Fact… The Caps were 10-2-0 when Dowd won at least ten faceoffs, 15-2-0 when he won at least 65 percent of his draws.

Odd Dowd Fact II… Nic Dowd is not the only NHL player ever to hail from Huntsville, Alabama.  Jared Ross (2008-2010) is the other one.

Fearless’ Take… Accounting for role, there might not been a Capital last season who filled his expected role as well as Nic Dowd last season, and frankly, he has filled that role as a fourth-line center who contributes some timely offense quite well in his three years in Washington.  He has also done it quite economically, with a cap hit of $750,000 per seasons (he is entering the last year of his current contract).  Dowd is one of five players in the NHL over the last three seasons (his tenue in Washington to date) to appear in fewer than 200 games, score at least 25 goals, and do it with an average of less than 12 minutes per game.  

Cheerless’ Take… Dowd has a bit of an odd engagement with the “grittership” aspects of the game.  Last season the Caps were 21-5-2 in 28 games in which he was credited with at least one hit, 15-10-3 in 28 games in which he was not.  On the other hand, the Caps were 6-3-0 in games in which he was not credited with a hit, but they were 2-3-1 when he had five or more. 

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…

  • 200 games as a Capital (currently 176)
  • 100 career NHL points (78)
  • 300 career shots on goal (299)
  • 4,000 career minutes (3,585)
  • 3,000 career faceoffs taken (2,918)

The Big Question… Can Nic Dowd continue to contribute meaningful minutes from a fourth-line position?

In the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones notes about the wear and tear on his body, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”  Nic Dowd might be 31 years old when the new season dawns, but he has only five full seasons in the NHL, just over 300 regular season games (307), and fewer than 4,000 minutes logged (3,585) on his resume. Getting bottom-six support was a hallmark of the 2017-2018 Stanley Cup championship team.  The Caps had five forwards on that squad average less than 12:30 minutes of ice time per game while still posting double digits in points (Jay Beagle (22), Devante Smith-Pelly (16), Brett Connolly (27), Chandler Stephenson (18), and Alex Chiasson (18)).  Getting that kind of support will be an important ingredient in getting the Caps to the postseason once more.

In the end…

Can the Caps reach the postseason without a 10-goal, 20-point season from Nic Dowd?  Sure, they could, but the road is much easier if he continues to make the sorts of contributions he has made in three years as a Capital, and to make such contributions in the postseason would replicate the formula that the Caps used in 2018 to win a Stanley Cup.  There is little reason to think Dowd will not tack on another season in which he makes contributions in the offensive end of the ice that are a bit more than one might normally expect for a fourth liner and in the defensive end of the ice in terms of being able to win draws and kill penalties (2:17 in shorthanded ice time per game last season, second most among forwards).  He has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Caps over the past few years, but his production is turning more toward expectation than surprise.

Projection: 78 games, 10-7-17, plus-3

Washington Capitals 2021-2022 Previews -- Forwards: Lars Eller

Lars Eller

“The most reliable way to forecast the future is to try to understand the present.”
-- John Naisbitt

Nicklas Backstrom is often held up as an example of consistency and reliability in his on-ice performance, and it is a reputation well-deserved.  But let us include Lars Eller among those players that the Caps can rely upon for consistency from game to game and season to season.  Dating back to the 2013-2014 season with Montreal through the abbreviated 2019-2020 season, Eller never missed more than five games in a season, ranged in goal scoring from 12 (in 2013-2014 and 2016-2017) to 18 (in 2017-2018), jumped in point production from a 25-27 point range in his last three years in Montreal and first year in Washington to a mid-to-high 30’s point producer in three seasons before last year, and posted shots in a range of 137 to 163 over the period (with one outlier – 115 shots in his first season with the Caps in 2016-2017).  Last season, Eller was still consistent in his per-game production, his goals per 60 minutes (0.7) and assists per 60 minutes (1.3) settling comfortably in his range of values as a Capital (0.6-0.9 in goals per 60 minutes, 0.7-1.3 in assists per 60 minutes) but he did miss a dozen games (11 to injury, one for personal reasons).

Odd Eller Fact… When Lars Eller scores a playoff goal, the Caps win. They are 8-0 in postseason games in which Eller scored a goal.  Three of them were game winners, including the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in the 2018 postseason.

Odd Eller Fact II… Eller had not scored a goal in his last 15 postseason games.

Fearless’ Take… Any NHL team is bound to have some drama over the course of a season, a disgruntled player, players battling slumps, losing streaks, whatever.  But for the Caps, Lars Eller seems to be the “No-Drama Feller.”  He just shows up every night, provides a reliable level of performance that the team can count on.  And his versatility, an ability to man the middle on any of the top three lines in a pinch, makes him even more valuable.  The trick this season will be in avoiding having to test that proposition as the Caps look to get another solid season from Nicklas Backstrom and a “no drama” year, save for perhaps a dramatic improvement in performance from Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Cheerless’ Take… There was an odd stat in Eller’s line last season – shooting.  From 2011-2012 with Montreal through 2019-2020 with the Caps, Eller never averaged fewer than 6.1 shots per 60 minutes and in each of the three seasons preceding last season averaged at least 7.3 shots per 60 minutes.  But last season that average dropped to 5.8 per 60 minutes.  He was somewhat more efficient in the shots he did take (11.6 percent shooting versus 10.0 percent over his first four years with the Caps), but the result was an odd balancing effect that kept his goals-per-60 minutes squarely within the range of his career production.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…

  • 800 career NHL games (currently 798)
  • 400 games as a Capital (356)
  • 200 points as a Capital (161)
  • 100 assists as a Capital (94)
  • 1,500 career shots on goal (1,395)
  • 500 career penalty minutes (481)

The Big Question… Can Lars Eller coax a 40-plus point year out of this season?

Lars Eller has been flirting with the 40-point mark for several years, posting 38-, 36-, and 39-point seasons before slipping to 23 points (in 44 games) last season.  He has never had a 40-point season in his career.  The key here might be in better finishes.  He was 1-0-1 in his last nine games in 2017-2018 when he finished with 38 points, 1-0-1 in his last eight games in 2018-2019 when he finished with 36 points, and 2-2-4 in his last 12 games in 2018-2019 when he finished with 39 points (in an abbreviated 69-game season).  The Caps might need Eller to have a better finish to safely secure a postseason slot in a tightly contested Metropolitan Division race.

In the end…

Lars Eller continues a tradition of reliable, consistent two-way performers at the center position in Caps history – Bengt Gustafsson, Mike Ridley, Michal Pivonka, Dale Hunter, Nicklas Backstrom.  His versatility has only enhanced his value to the Caps, but this season might be served better if there is less “churn” in his positioning among the top three lines and more his remaining a reliable, consistent, upper-echelon third line center.  To the extent he does so will be an indirect indicator that things are going well on the top two lines with regard to production and the absence of drama, things the Caps would like to ensure as they pursue another postseason run.

Projection: 79 games, 16-23-39, plus-1