“By appreciation, we make excellence in others our own
Once upon a time, when statistics were kept on stone tablets, fourth line players were lumbering, skill-challenged, edgy players whose principal purposes were to give their more skilled teammates a breather and to wreak havoc on the ice, either by righting wrongs or by trying to inspire their teammates with crunching hits and fisticuffs.
Those days are gone. Fourth line players, while not possessing the skills one typically associates with first or second line forwards, are a multi-dimensional sort of player in the contemporary NHL. One could argue that even with their modest ice time, their contributions as depth players and their abilities to play a two-way game are essential to a team’s success. For the Washington Capitals, the fourth line was one of the season’s bright spots, and center Nic Dowd might have been the gem in that fourth line for the Caps this season.
Last season, Dowd set a career high in goals with 11 in just 56 games, a respectable 16-goal pace over 82 games. This year, it was points, with 24 in 64 games, a 31-point pace over 82 games. Those numbers might be more impressive given that he averaged barely 14 minutes per game over the two seasons. He was fourth among Caps forwards this season in credited hits (139) and hits per 60 minutes (9.13). Among Caps forwards appearing in more than 15 games, he was fourth in takeaways per 60 minutes (1.84) and was second in that group in blocked shots per 60 minutes (3.48). His plus-9 goal differential at even strength ranked fourth among all Caps forwards. His 53.7 faceofff winning percentage led all Caps forwards taking more than 75 draws and was the second-highest winning percentage of his career (56.3 percent last year with the Caps being his best). If Dowd wasn’t the best fourth line center in the league, he could see that spot from where he stood.
Pump the brakes there, cuz. He ain’t Gretzky. He ain’t even Brent Gretzky. OK, that’s unfair, he’s a lot better than Brent. But what was up with the penalties? He set a career high with 44 PIMs. Not a lot, but still quite a jump from his previous high (31 minutes) that was set last season. And in the 19 games in which he drew at least one penalty, the Caps were 8-5-6. And getting physical did not work out so well. The Caps were 10-8-7 in the 25 games in which he registered at least three hits, perhaps not surprising since hits are often an indicator of poor possession numbers. Not that Dowd’s personal possession numbers were bad, but his 50.4 percent shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 was not eye-popping.
Odd Dowd Fact… Nic Dowd was one of three skaters in 2021-2022 to post at least one power play point, at least one shorthanded point, record a rating of plus-10 or better, and score at least ten goals while averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time and appearing in at least 50 games (Jesper Fast and Pierre Engvall were the others).
Odd Dowd Fact II… Since Dowd came to Washington in 2018-2019, he is one of two players in the league over that span, from that season to this, to score at least 35 goals, post at least 75 points, record a rating of plus-35 or better, and do it while averaging less than 13 minutes per game. The other player? His linemate Garnet Hathaway.
Odd Dowd Fact III… Five times this season, Dowd recorded neither a hit nor a blocked shot. The Caps went 4-1-0 in those games.
Game to Remember… April 16th at Montreal. Nic Dowd was closing in on a personal milestone when the Caps visited Bell Centre in Montreal in mid-April. His career point total stood at 99 points. Perhaps a modest milestone – 100 career points – he was chasing, but a for a fourth liner playing in his 364th career game, reaching that career milestone would be a meaningful moment. He hit the 100-point mark for his career in fine fashion, opening the scoring for the Caps on a goal that seemed typical for a fourth liner, setting up in front of the Canadiens’ net and redirecting a long-distance drive from Dmitry Orlov…
Dowd later added an assist on what would be the game-winning goal from Garnet Hathaway in a 8-4 win over the Canadiens. It was the sixth multi-point game of Dowd’s career and, oddly enough, his second in the span of three games, his having gone 0-2-2 in a 9-2 pasting of the Philadelphia Flyers on April 12th.
Game to Forget… November 8th vs. Buffalo. It is an unexpectedly difficult task to find a really unforgettable game from Dowd this season. He did not finish worse than minus-1 in any game this season, and only twice was he on ice for more than one goal against at even strength, twice being on ice for two goals at evens. But there was that one game against Buffalo in November. He was already on the mend from a leg injury when he lasted just one shift into the second period before suffering another leg injury that ended his evening with just seven shifts in 4:37 of ice time. He did record a pair of hits and split two faceoffs as the Caps went on to a 5-3 win over the Sabres, but he would miss five games with the injury.
Postseason… Dowd’s postseason was rather unremarkable. He did post a goal and an assist in six games, but he was a minus-3, the third postseason in four trips (all with the Caps) that he finished on the minus side of the ledger. His splits were noteworthy, though, in that he was 1-1-2, minus-1, with six shots on goal on home ice, while he went scoreless and a minus-2 with only two shots on goal in three games in Florida. It was not unusual. Dowd finished this postseason with a 3-1-4, minus-2, career playoff scoring line in 14 games on home ice but just 1-0-1, minus-5, in 12 playoff games on the road.
Looking Ahead… Dowd is not an elder stateman at this point in his career, but he will turn 32 years old on May 27th. He was one of 14 players to dress for the Caps this season having reached or passed their 30th birthday. He does have the benefit of having played in only seven seasons and 371 regular season games over his career to date. There is no reason to believe, given the consistency of his performance with the Caps since his arrival and less mileage than most 32-year old players might have. The Caps will have some serious roster issues to address in this off-season. Dowd and his role with the club going forward should not be one of them.
In the End… You have to respect the consistency and the production of a player, even in a fourth-line role, that Nic Dowd brings night in and night out. Accounting for context and what the expectations might be for a fourth line center, his season was among the best of any Capital this season. Now, if only he could bring that level of consistency and performance to the offseason, the Caps might have the pleasure of deeper playoff runs than they have had recently.