Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Washington Capitals: 2021--2022 By the Tens -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“Great effort is required to arrest decay and restore vigor. One must exercise proper deliberation, plan carefully before making a move, and be alert in guarding against relapse following a renaissance.” 

-- Horace

When the 2020-2021 season ended for the Caps, the question was less “if” than it was “when” center Evgeny Kuznetsov would be traded, right down to possible destinations.  We have to admit to being in the “when” camp back then.  That Kuznetsov was not traded is a lesson in why media (and bloggers) are not general managers of hockey teams.  After a disappointing season that extended a career arc of diminishing production since his star turn in the 2018 playoffs, Kuznetsov came into the 2021-2022 season appearing rejuvenated and committed to producing at a high level consistently. 

Fearless’ Take… 24 goals, most since he had 27 in 2017-2018.  54 assists, most since he had 56 in 2017-2018.  78 points, most since he had 83 in 2017-2018.  Eight power play goals, tying a career high.  19 power play assists, most since he had 23 in 2017-2018.  27 power play points, most since he had 30 in 2017-2018.  More than 20 minutes of ice time per night (20:17), most of his career.  This season, he was tied for second in goals (24, with Tom Wilson), second in points (78), second in power play points (27), first in shorthanded points (five), second among forwards in average ice time (20:17).  Only forward to average more than three minutes per game on power plays (3:44) and more than a minute per game killing penalties (1:07).  Led team in overtime ice time per overtime game (1:44). Only Capital to be called upon to take a turn in every Gimmick game played by the Caps (eight).  While his offensive numbers did not quite measure up to his 2017-2018 season, he might have displayed a more well-rounded game this season than in that one.

Cheerless’ Take… Kuznetsov was not a particularly effective possession player.  Despite a 73.9 percent offensive zone starts share at 5-on-5, second-highest on the team, his shot attempts-on ice percentage at 5-on-5 was relatively weak (49.7).  His ice time did not track much with Caps success, the team going 21-14-10 when he logged at least 20 minutes, 22-11-1 when he was under 20 minutes. 28-15-6 15-10-5.  And then there were those faceoffs.  There were 167 players taking at least 250 draws this season.  Kuznetsov finished 149th in winning percentage (43.5).

Odd Kuznetsov Fact… Only two forwards in the league (Jonathan Huberdeau and Adam Lowry) were on ice for most shorthanded points for than Kuznetsov (six).

Odd Kuznetsov Fact II… Kuznetsov had four game-winning goals this season, all of them on home ice.

Odd Kuznetsov Fact III… By now, Kunzetsov’s lack of faceoff success is not news, but while he won ten or more faceoffs in 12 games this season, the Caps were just 6-4-2 in those games.  He lost ten or more draws 25 times, and the Caps went 15-6-4.  

Game to Remember… March 11th at Vancouver.  When the Caps visited Vancouver in March, they were wrapping up a three-game road trip to Canada’s western provinces. They split the first two games, a 5-4 win in Calgary and a 4-3 overtime loss in Edmonton.  For his part, Evgeny Kuznetsov entered the game against the Canucks with a four-game points streak (1-3-4), the Caps going 3-0-1 in those games.  Kuznetsov opened the scoring in the game’s sixth minute.  Kuznetsov started the scoring sequence when he took a pass from T.J. Oshie at the Vancouver blue line, skated through the left wing circle, and fired a shot that went wide into the right wing corner.  Nick Jensen recovered the puck along the right wing wall and sent the puck back around the end boards.  The puck struck a stanchion behind the Canucks’ net and popped out in front where Kuznetsov was skating through the low slot.  He batted the puck out of mid-air past goalie Thatcher Demko on the stick side, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead 5:34 into the game.  Less than a minute later, Kuznetsov and the Caps had their second goal, this one on a power play.  He took a slingshot pass from John Carlson in his own end and skated the puck to the Vancouver blue line, where he slid it to Carlson at the right point.  Carlson fed Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer from the left wing circle that Demko stopped, but could not control.  Kuznetsov was waiting at the top of the crease, and as he was being whacked by defenseman Tyler Myers, he pushed the puck the last couple of feet past Demko and into the back of the net to make it 2-0, Caps, at the 6:17 mark.  At the time, it was a bit of a mixed blessing, since Kuznetsov’s guiding the puck the last couple of feet denied what might have been Ovechkin’s 767th career goal, which would have broken a tie with Jaromir Jagr for third-place all time in career goals.

The Canucks came back, however, and took a 3-2 lead early in the third period.  The Caps drew even on another power play.  Carlson, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov were engaged in a three-man passing drill at the perimeter of the offensive zone when Ovechkin snapped a shot that Demko once more stopped but failed to control. A scramble in front of Demko ensued, and the puck squirted out to his left.  Kuznetsov darted in from the right wing wall to jump on the loose puck, but his he whiffed on his first attempt to convert.  He did not miss on his second, using his superior hand-eye coordination to shoot the puck off Demko’s left pad as he was skating past the goal post, tucking it behind Demko to tie the game and complete his hat trick.  The Caps completed the comeback when Lars Eller scored just 42 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 victory.  For Kuznetsov, it was his second career hat trick and his fifth three-point game of the season.

Game to Forget… February 28th vs. Toronto.  The Caps closed out February with their first game in DC after a perfect 4-0-0 road trip.  They then laid an egg against the Maple Leafs on home ice.  The Leafs and Caps exchanged goals to start the game, but after the Caps tied it on a Conor Sheary goal 16:23 into the period, Toronto scored twice in a span of 1:09, the latter goal coming with just 1.6 seconds left in the period to take a 3-1 lead into the first intermission.  The Caps came back, though, scoring once in the second period and again, on a shorthanded goal by Tom Wilson 1:44 into the third period.  The Leafs would score late in a period again, though, taking the lead on a Rasmus Sandin goal with 3:23 left in regulation.  The Leafs added an empty net goal for a 5-3 win.  Kuznetsov had a brutal game, taking a pair of minor penalties, winning just five of 14 faceoffs, and going minus-4 for the only time in the regular season and the fourth time in his career he did so, his first time on home ice.

Postseason… Kuznetsov’s postseason had an uneven quality to it.  He posted two goals in six games after going without one in three games in last year’s playoffs.  His three even strength points tied for second on the team (Nicklas Backstrom had four), and his 16 shots on goal were tied for third on the team.  On the other hand, he had a minus-3 goal differential at even strength, and those three even strength points for which he was on ice at even strength were the only even strength points for which he was on the ice in the series against Florida.  He also had seven giveaways to two takeaways, and his 42. 7 faceoff winning percentage ranks 58th of 65 players taking at least 50 draws.

Looking Ahead… Kuznetsov has three years remaining on his contract that carries a $7.8 million annual cap hit. At the level of production he provided this season, that might be a bit of a bargain.  Of 12 centers with cap hits between $7.0 and $8.5 million this past season, Kuznetsov finished sixth in goals, second in assists, fourth in points, and second in average ice time (source: capfriendly.com)  But that’s the issue, will Kuznetsov continue producing at his 2021-2022 level, or was this season a one-off in what has been a disappointing trend in production? 

In the End…

By appearances, Kuznetsov had more focus and determination, and he just seemed happier playing hockey this season.  Having reached his 30th birthday and about to embark on his tenth NHL season in 2022-2023, he sits squarely in what should be the prime of his career.  For the Caps to keep that competitive window open just a bit longer, he is going to have to build off this year’s effort and play like a very talented player in his prime.

Grade: A-


Monday, May 30, 2022

Washington Capitals: 2021--2022 By the Tens -- Forwards: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby

“The first step, my son, which one makes in the world, is the one on which depends the rest of our days.”
-- Voltaire

The Washington Capitals employed 11 rookie skaters this season, tying the number they skated in 2013-2014 and 2005-2006 and most since the Caps iced 14 rookie skaters in 2003-2004.  Axel Jonasson-Fjallby was one of the 11 rookie skaters the Caps dressed this season, and for a fifth-round draft pick (147th overall in 2016), it was a pretty good year.  He did not stand out in terms of offensive numbers, but he was given a range of responsibilities that will serve him well as his development continues.

Fearless’ Take… You could call his numbers, for the most part, modest.  He ranked sixth of 11 Caps rookies in goals (two), sixth in points (four), fifth in shots on goal (29), fifth in credited hits (18), fifth in blocked shots (eight).  But there was one area in which he stood out a bit more – penalty killing.  “AJF” averaged 42 seconds per game in shorthanded ice time, second among rookie forwards (only two seconds per game less that Beck Malenstyn).  His offensive game might take some time to come around, but he already has been getting defensive responsibilities rookies do not often get.

Cheerless’ Take… It is early in his career, but Jonsson-Fjallby shared something with the player he might someday be replacing.  His shooting percentage (6.9) was eighth of nine rookies recording at least one shot on goal.  It is almost exactly that of Carl Hagelin’s shooting percentage in his three-plus seasons with the Caps (6.7).  Of 90 forwards recording at least 25 shots in their rookie season, Jonsson-Fjallby’s shooting percentage ranks 72nd.  His personal shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.0) ranked eighth of the 11 rookies, too.

Odd Jonsson-Fjallby Fact… In 11 games in which he skated at least 12 minutes, the Caps were 9-1-1; they were 5-6-1 when he skated less than 12 minutes.

Odd Jonsson-Fjallby Fact II… He is the third skater in Caps history with a hyphenated last name, joining Devante Smith-Pelly and Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre.

Odd Jonsson-Fjallby Fact III… Jonsson-Fjallby had two goals this season, both against the New York Islanders, one at home and one in New York.  Semyon Varlamov was the victim in goal for both.

Game to Remember… March 15th vs. New York Islanders

When the Islanders came to town in mid-March, Anthony Mantha got the Caps off to a good start with the game’s first goal in the 13th minute of the first period.  The Isles would comeback with a pair of goals in the second period to take a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes.  In the 11th minute of the third period, Dmitry Orlov intercepted a pass in his own end and worked is way up ice, leaving a pair of Islander defenders in his wake to enter the offensive zone on a 2-on-1 with Jonsson-Fjallby.  He slid a pass past the stick of defenseman Ryan Pulock, setting up Jonsson-Fjallby for a one-timer that beat goalie Semyon Varlamov past his blocker on the short side for his first NHL goal, tying the game at 2-2.  The teams exchanged goals to push the game to extra time, where the Caps won, 4-3, in a Gimmick.

Game to Forget… April 29th at New York Rangers.  The last regular season game of the season for Jonsson-Fjallby and the Caps left a bad taste in his and their mouths.  For his part, Jonsson-Fjallby skated just 9:47 for the game, one of six games out of 23 he played that he logged less than ten minutes in ice time.  He had just one crooked mark on his line of the score sheet, a single shot attempt (shot on goal), and he finished a minus-2.  What was particularly odd about his game was not that he skated only 15 shifts, third fewest among the 18 skaters for the Caps, but that five of them ended in penalties, none of which were charged to him.

Postseason… Jonsson-Fjallby did not play in the postseason.

Looking Ahead… Jonsson-Fjallby is entering the final year of a two-year deal that carries a $750,000 cap hit in 2022-2023, after which he will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent.  Almost ten years younger and with a cap hit $2.0 million less than Carl Hagelin for next season, he is an attractive alternative to take over Hagelin’s spot on the fourth line, especially given Hagelin’s uncertain future after suffering an eye injury this season.  What makes his future more intriguing is that there is evidence his offense will improve.  In his last three seasons with Hershey in the AHL, he was 38-34-72 in 136 games, a 23-21-44 scoring pace per 82 games.  If he can make progress toward that level of production, and assume a regular role in penalty killing, he can do his part to keep the Caps’ fourth line productive.

In the End…

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby took a bit of a detour before suiting up for the Caps.  Although he was drafted by the Caps, the big club put him on waivers for purposes of reassignment last October.  He was claimed by the Buffalo Sabres, but visa complications gummed up the transaction, and he returned to the Caps on a waiver claim a week after the Sabres claimed him.  He seems, for the moment at least, to have a home in DC, where he could assume a regular role for the Caps next season.  He could be quite a value addition for a player taken as a fifth-round draft pick.

Grade: B

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Washington Capitals: 2021--2022 By the Tens -- Forwards: Marcus Johansson

Marcus Johansson

“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood… back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame… back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.“
— Thomas Wolfe, book You Can't Go Home Again

Marcus Johansson was selected by the Washington Capitals as the 24th overall pick of the 2009 Entry Draft.  He played seven seasons for the Caps, posting 102 goals and 290 points in 501 games.  He was then traded to the New Jersey Devils, which started a long winding road for Johansson – five teams over four-plus seasons – before the road led back to Washington last March for his second tour with the club.  

Fearless’ Take… Johansson played in just 18 games in his return to DC.  He was just 3-3-6, minus-4, in those 18 games, but the Caps did go 3-1-2 in the six games in which he posted points.  They were 5-3-0 in the eight games in which he logged two of more shots on goal.  His 53.5 shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 was fifth among Caps forwards over the 18 games he played.

Cheerless’ Take… About those six games with points.  The Caps won the first three, then they went 0-1-2 in the last three.  Johansson skated more than 14 minutes ten times.  The Caps went 4-6-0.  He was a minus-2 in goal differential-on ice at even strength.  He was charged with nine giveaways but credited with only two takeaways.

Odd Johansson Fact… Johansson’s last game with the Caps in his first tour with the club was a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that eliminated the Caps from the playoffs.  From that lineup, the following are still with the team – Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Lars Eller, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, T.J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson.

Odd Johansson Fact II… Johansson neither drew nor took a penalty in his 18 games with the Caps, the only Capital to do so.  Among players appearing in at least 65 games overall this season, only Seattle’s Riley Sheahan had fewer penalty minutes (two in 69 games) than Johansson (four in 69 games).  Since he came into the league in 2010-2011, no player with 750 or more games has been charged with fewer penalty minutes (112 PIMs in 753 games).

Odd Johansson Fact III… Of 52 players to take at least 250 faceoffs in Caps history, Johansson ranks 51st in winning percentage (41.9 percent on 2,080 draws), ahead of only Travis Boyd (39.5 percent on 365 faceoffs).  However, he was 10-for-18 (55.6 percent) in his 18 games with the Caps to finish the season.

Game to Remember… April 18th at Colorado.  Johansson played in only 18 games for the Caps and recorded only three goals, but his second with the team in his return deserves remembering.  In a 2-2 game mid-way through the third period against the Avalanche, Johansson drove a stake in what was, to that point, a nine-game winning streak for the Avs.  What would be the game-winning goal sequence started when defenseman Jack Johnson sent an ill-conceived pass through the middle that Logan O’Connor could not accept cleanly.  Conor Sheary collected the loose puck, circled, and found Johansson in the right wing circle for a one-timer that beat goalie Darcy Kuemper over his glove on the short side, to give the Caps a 3-2 win.

Game to Forget… April 3rd vs. Minnesota.  This was another of those games in which a player’s effort becomes forgettable because there is nothing in it to remember.  In this one, Johansson had 14:35 in ice time, but in it, he had only one shot attempt (shot on goal), no hits, no takeaways, no blocked shots, a giveaway, and he was on ice for two goals against in a 5-1 loss to the Wild.

Postseason… Johansson did have a game-winning goal in the six-game series against Florida, in Game 3 (the Caps’ last win of the series), his only goal of the postseason. He had one assist, also in Game 3.  He finished a plus-1 for the series and had one shot on goal in four of the six games.  His postseason was “one” that was okay, but not remarkable in any particular way. 

Looking Ahead… It is hard to think that the Caps will make re-signing Johansson (an unrestricted free agent to be) a priority.  He will be 32 years old when next season starts, and his production since he left the Caps after the 2016-2017 season has not jumped off the page (42-75-117, minus-75, in 252 games, 9-20-29, minus-26, this season spent mostly with a struggling Seattle team).  His $900,000 cap hit this season would be affordable if was the basis for a new deal, but the Caps have similarly affordable – and younger – options to evaluate in a bottom six forward role.

In the End… Johansson was the Caps’ “big splash” at the trading deadline, but it caused hardly a ripple.  He is not the player he was in his first tour with the Caps.  Both parties would seem to be going their separate ways at this point.

Grade: Incomplete (too few games to grade)