Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Washington Capitals 2022-2023 Previews -- Forwards: Carl Hagelin

Carl Hagelin

“Nothing is certain except death and taxes”
-- Benjamin Franklin


He’s not dead, and he probably pays his taxes on time.  But as for the near future on the ice, things are somewhat uncertain for Carl Hagelin.  After nearly losing his left eye from taking a stick blade to that eye in practice last March, he has apparently been cleared for contact as the team conducts informal practices in advance of training camp that will start on September 22nd.  Although he still has hurdles to clear

Hagelin will be entering his 12th NHL season, and while he was once a player with some offensive pop from a bottom six forward role, he is not that player any longer, or at least at the moment.  He has carved out a role that emphasizes speed, defense, and penalty killing.  On a team with as much offensive depth as the Caps have, at least when healthy, having a defensive specialist is not to be underestimated or underappreciated.  

Hagelin’s offense, however, has had a certain two-sided character to it.  In his first seven years, split between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, he posted a scoring line of 88-134-222, plus 83, a per-82 game pace of 15-23-38, plus-14. In four seasons since then, his production fell to 22-52-74, plus-36, an 8-19-27, plus-13 pace per 82 games.

Odd Hagelin Fact… In 11 seasons in the NHL, Hagelin has never had a negative on-ice goal differential at even strength.  His worst finish in this category was plus-6, which he recorded three times (2015-2016 split between Anaheim and Pittsburgh; 2018-2019 split among Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Washington; and 2020-2021 with the Caps).  Bonus: Hagelin has played 713 NHL regular season games and never recorded a power play assist.

Fearless’ Take… His 0.34 goals against on-ice per game at even strength was the fewest of any season in his career, breaking his previous low (0.41) set the previous season with the Caps.  It is unfortunate he did not produce more on offense; the Caps lost just twice in regulation when he recorded at least one point (8-2-1). 

Cheerless’ Take… Those even strength on-ice goals against per game are nice, but there is also the penalty killing part of defense, and it bears noting that three of the five worst seasons of his career in on-ice power play goals per game have been spent with the Caps, including the 0.21 goals he recorded this past season (fifth worst of his career).  That he was offensively challenged in 2021-2022 is not exactly news, but geez.  His 1.13 points per 60 minutes was the worst of his career.  His 0.19 goals per 60 minutes was worst of his career by a mile, less than half that of his next lowest (0.39 in 2020-2021 with the Caps).  And then there was his shooting efficiency.  He had three goals on 71 shots – 4.2 percent, the lowest of his career.  But how low was that?  There were 401 forwards with at least 50 shots on goal.  Hagelin finished 390th in that group in shooting percentage. 

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2022-2023

  • 200 games as a Capital (he has 187)
  • 300 career points (296)
  • 300 career penalty minutes (293)

The Big Question… Can Hagelin do what he does as well and do what he doesn’t better?

The good news (if you are optimistic) or the hope (if you are uncertain) is that Hagelin cannot be as unproductive on offense as he was last season.  Of course, improvement could depend on how well he recovers from one of the scariest injuries imaginable.  Getting any improvement from him on that side of the puck is part of an “all hands” need for the Caps as they try to negotiate the early part of the season without some key components on the offensive side of the puck in Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson.

On the other side of the puck, Hagelin does not impress us as the sort of player for whom wear and tear is a big issue.  He is not a physical defender, relying more on speed, opportunity, and experience to be an effective defender.  And it will be important for him to maintain a level of effectiveness at even strength and, as a player who was second among forwards in shorthanded ice time per game last season, limit opponent’s scoring in those situations.  That takes on added importance when one realizes Wilson averaged 1:36 in shorthanded ice time last season, and that is a big chunk of time that will not be available to start the season.

In the end…

Perhaps more than most of the players on the far side of 30 on this roster, Carl Hagelin, who turned 34 in August, can push back the calendar a bit.  He does not play the sort of game that wears a player down.  The freakish injury suffered in a practice session aside, Caps fans might expect Hagelin, if he has recovered fully by Opening Night, to log a lot of games and provide stability on the defensive side of the puck.  His offense almost has to improve to give the Caps a more solid claim on a postseason spot.  With the holes created by injuries elsewhere, there can’t be a gaping hole of ineffectiveness from a player logging 15 minutes or so a night.  Hagelin being in the walk year of his current contract ($2.75 million cap hit), he has added incentive to produce on both sides of the puck, since the next contract he signs could very well be his last in the NHL.  More than most Caps, it seems that the 2022-2023 season will be one of uncertainty for Carl Hagelin.

Projection: 5-12-17, plus-8

Washington Capitals 2022-2023 Previews -- Forwards: Lars Eller

Lars Eller

“Press forward. Do not stop, do not linger in your journey, but strive for the mark set before you.”
-- George Whitefield

Lars Eller scored the biggest goal in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise, the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2018.  That is a hard thing to live up to, as if his career would just – or should just – take off from there to ascend to greater heights.  And when it did not, and it didn’t, it would be tempting to say that Eller was in decline.  He wasn’t and isn’t.  At least not so clearly as some might think.  In eight full seasons in the NHL with St. Louis, Montreal, and culminating with his 2017-2018 season, his second in Washington, Eller’s scoring line per-82 games was 14-16-30, minus-4; he averaged 14:39 in ice time per game and shot 10.1 percent.  In four seasons with the Caps since that Stanley Cup season, his scoring line is 15-24-39, minus-1; he averaged 16:31 in ice time per game and shot 10.0 percent.  And, he proved to be very versatile, moving up to man the first or second line center positions from his third-line perch when circumstances dictated.

Last year was something of a step back for Eller (13-18-31, minus-4), but then again, he had to deal with not one, but two instances of COVID-related absences that cost him nine games (he missed one other game with a lower-body injury).  He also had his ice time cut back in what had the looks of the start of a trend.  His 16:07 in ice time per game was down from 2020-2021 (16:21), which was down from 2019-2020 (17:01).

Odd Eller Fact… You would think that when a bottom-six forward lights the lamp, Eller being mostly a third liner, the team would do well.  Supplemental scoring and all that.  But not in Eller’s case.  The Caps were just 6-4-2 in the 12 games in which Eller had goals last season.  On the other hand, being a helper had its benefits.  The Caps were 10-1-5 in the 16 games in which he had assists.

Fearless’ Take… Eller had an unusual season.  You do not normally think of him as a physical player, and while he is no Tom Wilson in that regard, his 4.91 credited hits per 60 minutes was a season high in his six years with the Caps.  He was on ice for 47 even strength goals for, second-highest total for a season with Washington.  He was productive as a playmaker, his 0.73 primary assists per 60 minutes being second-best for a season as a Capital, a significant improvement over 2020-2021 (0.54).

Cheerless’ Take… Eller had a “sandwich” season in 2021-2022.  Over his first 42 games he was a respectable 8-14-22, plus-2, a rather typical level of production.  The Caps were 21-13-8 over that span.  And in his last 11 games, he was 4-4-8, plus-6, although that did not correspond to team success, the Caps going 5-4-2 in that season-ending stretch.  But Eller had a 19-game run in which his game came unraveled – 1-0-1, minus-12.  The Caps wee 10-8-1 over that span.  With regard to the upcoming season, Eller will turn 34 years of age along about the time the Caps are off to the links after they are eliminated in the second round (May 8th)…

Fearless… ”You just can’t help yourself, can you, cousin?”

Cheerless… As I was saying, Eller will turn 34 years old next spring.  He’s going into his 13th full season in the league and has more than 800 games on his resume.  The same questions, or concerns, apply to him as they do to a number of other Caps.  Will age start catching up with him?   

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2022-2023

  • 500 games as a Capital (he has 428)
  • 200 points as a Capital (192)
  • 100 goals as a Capital (80)

The Big Question… Will Eller be a Capital at the end of 2022-2023?

Time waits for no player, whether that player is on the back nine of his career or that player is trying to move up the development ladder.  Eller is in a contract season, his current five-year/$17.5 million deal expiring at the end of the upcoming season.  While he was not being pushed especially hard from below on the depth chart last season, their might be a stronger push this season with centers Connor McMichael or possibly Aliaksei Protas moving into a position to compete for the third-line center spot.  Arguing in his favor to complete his contract as a Capital is the team’s “win now” approach, and this could be the last season in which such a strategy is credible (the team has many expiring contracts on its roster).  Eller has experience – almost 900 regular season games in his career (870), plus almost 100 postseason games (96).  He has been a reliable half-point per game player, and he is versatile enough to play any of the top three center spots, at least on a limited term basis.

The matter is not entirely in Eller’s hands, though.  His fate could rest on where the Caps find themselves in the standings in February.  This team looks much like last year’s – not a division favorite but a good bet to secure a playoff spot.  The wild card there could be injuries that leave the Caps in a diminished competitive position (they will start the season with two valuable pieces – Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson – rehabilitating from surgeries).  If the Caps start slowly or have a mid-season slump, finding themselves on the outside looking in for playoff eligibility come the trading deadline, Eller could figure heavily in the Caps’ moves.

In the end…

Solid, reliable, consistent, versatile.  Those have been the hallmarks of Lars Eller’s career in Washington.  He would have been and would be a valuable member of the team even if there wasn’t “the goal.”  The Caps are in a hard place, given his skill set, which the team is not now in a position to replace easily.  There are players who could grow into the role, but that would take time and would look like “retooling,” if not outright “rebuilding,” and that is not the posture the Caps are assuming at the moment.  It does add more urgency for Eller to have a productive season, especially in light of the thinner lineup the Caps will have to start the season.

Projection: 75 games, 16-20-36, plus-2