The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at what a revamped Caps' penalty kill look like.
The biggest area of weakness for the Capitals in 2018-19 was the penalty kill, which finished at 79.2 percent. That was tied for 23rdin the NHL. Only one playoff team – the Colorado Avalanche - was worse.
Can you win that way? Sure. The Boston Bruins finished second in the Atlantic Division despite a PK at 79.9 percent and were Stanley Cup runners up. The margin between where the Capitals fell and the middle tier teams was only about one percentage point. But it is still an area that can and should be improved.
The Capitals goalies have to be better here. Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley had a combined save percentage of 83.6. That was third-worst in the NHL (29th) and not too many playoff teams live in that neighborhood. The Carolina Hurricanes were 23rd at 84.9 and the Toronto Maple Leafs were 22nd(85.5).
So start there. But Washington can also make life easier on its goalies. First, maybe take fewer penalties in the first place. The Capitals took 277 minors last year. That was the sixth-most in the league.
It remains to be seen if the tactics will change on the PK. But the personnel will definitely be different. Defenseman Matt Niskanen led all Capitals in PK ice time at 221:31, but he was traded to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas. John Carlson was second on the team (207:04). He is back, obviously. Brooks Orpik was third among defenseman in shorthanded minutes (138:58), but he retired.
In all, there were 228 players with 100 minutes of PK time last season. According to the website Natural Stat Trick, Lars Eller was 163rd (19.51) and Tom Wilson was 76th(14.04) in expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA). They were also Washington’s top two forwards on the PK and are back again.
Niskanen struggled at 24.96 expected goals against. That ranked 209thout of the 228 players who were above the 100-minute threshold. Carlson was 181st(20.93). No surprise that big-minute defenseman will rank lower on this list, but that Niskanen number was way too high.
But Niskanen is gone now so a late addition at the trade deadline should play a much bigger role on the PK this time around. Nick Jensen was second on the Detroit Red Wings with 166:19 PK minutes in just 60 games there. Overall, he ranked 152nd(18.84) in expected goals against playing for two teams in two different systems. His PK minutes were close to Carlson and Niskanen, too, so the comparison is fair.
One player who should probably see even more ice time on the PK is Nic Dowd. He ranked sixth in the NHL in expected goals against (9.17). Again these are all players with at least 100 minutes short-handed and, while not a rate stat, that number in those minutes is more than enough to earn more ice time shorthanded.
Dowd (105:45) was very good at doing what was asked of him. So was forward Chandler Stephenson (12:03), who ranked 48thamong the 228 players with 100 minutes of PK time. But Stephenson (113:22) is awaiting an arbitration hearing and it’s unclear if he will even be back with the Capitals given they are over the salary cap right now.
Washington has a plan for that, though. Even during an injury-plagued season where he played for three different teams, forward Carl Hagelin was 14thin expected goals against on the PK (9.86). A knee injury limited Hagelin’s overall PK time (113:04), but even at age 31 next month his speed on the penalty kill helps.
The Capitals admittedly didn’t see much of a boost after acquiring Hagelin from at the trade deadline from the Los Angeles Kings. They were 22ndin the NHL before he arrived (78.6 percent) and with him, the success rate only ticked up to 79.2 in his 20 games. But they’re excited to have him in the toolbox for a full season.
So Eller, Wilson, Hagelin and Dowd are all good options. But there is better depth now, too. Garnet Hathaway played 128:36 on the PK for the Calgary Flames last year. The free-agent signing ranked 62ndin expected goals against (13.25).
Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov was pretty good in his PK time (112:33) with 9.58 expected goals against, 10thin the NHL. And Michal Kempny was 34th (11.24) in almost equal ice time (117:25). But Gudas is likely to see big minutes here. He logged 202:28 for the Flyers in 2018-19 and was just ahead of Carlson at 178thin the rankings (20.79).
Remember, the players who topped 200 PK minutes are almost all defensemen. Only five of the 32 players who were above 200 were forwards. Of those 27 defensemen, Carlson and Gudas ranked first and second in expected goals against. It’s a small list, but not many players are asked to play that much on the PK.
Swapping Niskanen for Gudas, having Hagelin and Jensen for a full season and adding in-depth players better suited to the role should help the Capitals improve its penalty kill this season.
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