ARLINGTON, Va. -- John Carlson is in the midst of what could be a Norris Trophy campaign. He is an elite blueliner and has proven himself to be one of the top two-way defensemen in the NHL. He also barely comes off the ice. With an average ice time of 24:38 per game, Carlson ranks tied for 10th in the NHL in average time on ice.
For most teams, the current Norris frontrunner would be running the penalty kill, but not for the Capitals. Though Carlson does average 1:33 of shorthanded ice time per game, that is nowhere close to the team lead. The real leader on the blue line in terms of the penalty kill is Jonas Siegenthaler who is averaging a whopping 3:09 of shorthanded ice time per game. His partner on the team’s third defensive pair, Radko Gudas, is second among the team’s defensemen with 2:44.
“I think it says a lot about our depth and talent that we have and guys that can do different things and fill different needs,” Carlson said. “They've been awesome, whether it's been 5-on-5 or on the PK all year.”
The penalty kill was recognized as an area of need for Washington heading into the offseason. The Caps ranked 24th in the NHL last year with a kill rate of only 78.9%. To bolster the PK, the team re-signed forward Carl Hagelin and signed other players who could play a role on that unit such as Garnet Hathaway and Richard Panik.
On defense, the team turned to an unlikely candidate to lead them, Siegenthaler, who was entering his first full season in the NHL.
“I didn't expect to start the season on the first PK unit, but it's a good feeling,” Siegenthaler said. “It kind of tells you I'm doing a good job. I just try to do the same work every PK and keep it up like that.”
Siegenthaler was a cap casualty for most of the season last year. Though good enough to play in the NHL, he was waiver exempt and was sent to Hershey to save cap room.
Heading into this season, the team identified Siegenthaler very early on as a player who could have a major role on the penalty kill.
“I think it started kind of in the preseason,” he said. “[The coaches] came up to me, they told me, you got really good PK in the preseason. I think it just kind of happened. I remember the first couple games I wasn't on the first unit. I think after those maybe seven-game mark, they started to put me in the first unit with [Gudas]. I think they were happy how we handle it.”
According to head coach Todd Reirden, the desire to put the third defensive pair together on the penalty kill was by design.
“It's something we talked about this summer and one of the ways we could improve our penalty kill was by trying to have personnel that could be more penalty kill specific,” Reirden said, “Also could free up John and [Dmitry Orlov] to do some more of the heavy-lifting 5-on-5 and then 4-on-4 situations, late-game opportunities, behind the goal and play them together sometimes as we have this year.”
Carlson is already in the top 10 in the league in ice time despite playing only 1:33 on the penalty kill. If he had to lead the penalty kill, based on Siegenthaler’s playing time, that would be an additional 96 seconds per game which would give him the most average ice time per game in the entire league, just a few seconds over Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators.
What’s the difference between Chabot and Carlson? Chabot does not have a postseason to prepare for. That extra ice time adds up by the end of the season.
When the Caps get sent to the penalty box and the penalty kill takes the ice, however, they do not lean on their top defensemen to get the job done. Instead, they turn to the third pair. By not loading up minutes on their top four, that keeps the defense fresher for the rest of the game and for the rest of the season.
But you have to be able to get the job done.
With Siegenthaler and Gudas leading the way on the back end, the Caps’ penalty kill ranks second in the NHL at 84.7%. Their success allows Reirden the flexibility to leave guys like Carlson on the bench.
“If I need John to be out there to kill a penalty, he can do it and he's done it well whether it's 5-on-3 in those situations, he'll be out there sometimes,” Reirden said. “But it's a luxury to be able to have other guys who can fill in and really thrive and make their living by killing penalties.”
“It feels good to help the team, to see the progress compared to last year,” Siegenthaler said. “I'm just trying to do my job on the PK. We always have a good pre scout, the coach and the coaching staff, they're doing a good job before games. Basically I just got to do whatever they tell me. It's been good so far this season. Hopefully we can keep it like that.
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