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Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

When Capitals training camp opens in September, there will not be much intrigue when it comes to the top-nine on offense. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik, and Jakub Vrana—assuming he is re-signed—will make up the team’s top three lines.

But with two new additions to the roster through free agency, it appears Todd Reirden is going to have to make a decision as to who plays on the fourth line.

The fourth line was an area in which the team needed to improve and general manager Brian MacLellan was aggressive in addressing that need giving the team at least five players battling for three spots in the lineup. Here’s a breakdown of the only real roster battle offensively for the Caps heading into next season.

Locked in

Nic Dowd

Last year the departure of Jay Beagle made fourth-line center one of the few spots up for grabs in training camp. That is not the case this year. Dowd won the job and seems pretty entrenched in this role moving forward as he was given a three-year extension. The offensive upside is limited as his eight goals last season were a career-high, but his 22 points matched Beagle’s production from the year prior so it is not as if the offensive output of the fourth line has taken a step back with Dowd.

Dowd was also a regular on the penalty kill and he was the only center on the team to have a faceoff win percentage of over 50 at 51.9-percent.

Pencil him in

Garnet Hathaway

When you break down the Caps’ moves this offseason, it is pretty clear the goal for MacLellan was to improve the team defensively. Hathaway’s career-high in goals is 11, which isn’t bad for a fourth-liner, but the real asset he brings is his defensive acumen. He averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per game last season with the Calgary Flames.

But the real reason Hathaway appears to essentially be a lock to play a significant role on the fourth line next season is his contract. You do not sign a fourth-line player for four years at $1.5 million per year if you think he is going to spend most of the season as a healthy scratch. That’s a significant contract for a player with his role so it is clear the team envisions him being a regular in the lineup.

The guys who need to impress in training camp

Brendan Leipsic

Hathaway’s contract is a dead giveaway as to what the team envisions his role is going forward. Leipsic was also a free agent signing, but his deal is only for one year and $700,000. MacLellan seems to love going for those low-risk contracts and this is the latest example.

Washington will be Leipsic’s fifth NHL team in his three-year NHL career. In 126 career games, he has 13 goals and 48 total points. His best season offensively came last year as he set career-highs in goals (seven) and points (23) with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

The thing about Leipsic to keep in mind is that this was a move MacLellan did not have to make. After the team signed Panik and Hathaway, many assumed the team was done. At that point, the team appeared to have a full offensive roster with 12 forwards under contract plus Chandler Stephenson qualified as a restricted free agent. Yet, MacLellan decided to sign Leipsic anyway which all but ensures that someone is going to be moved before the start of the season. The team is just too close against the cap to carry two extra forwards and someone will have to be sent to Hershey or traded.

This is not a move you make unless you are not satisfied with what your fourth line options are. Leipsic will have to earn his spot in training camp, but I would give him the inside track over Stephenson and Travis Boyd at this point.

Travis Boyd

Boyd’s 2018-19 season had its ups and downs. His first full season in the NHL got off to a rocky start as an injury kept him out of the lineup for all of October, thus ending any chance he had of beating out Dowd at fourth-line center. It may have been moot anyway as Boyd appears to be more of an NHL wing than a center, but that versatility can be an asset.

Boyd’s offensive numbers were reasonably good with five goals and 15 assists in 53 games. MacLellan’s moves this offseason, however, show that he wants the fourth line to improve defensively and that was a real struggle for Boyd. His 5-on-5 high-danger chances for percentage in 2018-19 was the lowest on the team at 39.52-percent and was among the worst in the NHL. When you watch him play, it does not appear that he has adjusted to a bottom-six role very well as he continues to use ineffective offensive moves that, while they may have been successful in college and the AHL, he just does not have the skill to pull them off at the NHL level. It is frustrating for a team when the fourth line turns the puck over because Boyd tries a spin move in front of the net that is easily stopped by the defense and pushed up and out of the zone.

Boyd needs to stop playing like a top-six AHL forward and start playing like a bottom-six NHL forward because that is what his skill dictates his NHL future will be.

On the outside looking in

Chandler Stephenson

Stephenson has great speed and can be an effective penalty killer, but it is hard not to see the additions of Hathaway and Leipsic as an indictment of his play. In 2017-18, he scored six goals and 12 assists with a plus-13. In 2018-19, he managed just five goals and six assists and was a minus-13 despite getting comparable ice time from the season before. His stats were not the result of a reduced role, just reduced effectiveness.

It is not just the free agent moves that show you he may be in trouble. Look back to last season when the team acquired Hagelin. One of Hagelin’s best assets is how effective a penalty killer he is. That is supposed to be an asset of Stephenson’s as well. Prior to the team trading for Hagelin, Stephenson averaged 1:54 of shorthanded ice time per game. After? Just 0:58. His shorthanded ice time dropped by almost a full minute which suggests the coaches may not have been all that thrilled with his play on the PK last season.

Prospects

If MacLellan felt he had prospects ready to fill out the roster, he would have done that instead of turning to free agency. It would have been a cheaper alternative both in terms of salary and term. But MacLellan instead went for veteran players and bluntly explained that decision afterward.

“We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line,” he said on a conference call on the opening day of free agency. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about where the team sees its forward prospect depth.

If there are any prospects who can make a push for a spot on the fourth line next season, there are two to keep in mind. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is a player with a similar skillset to Hagelin. He has NHL speed and can be a solid penalty killer and bottom-six player.

The second is Shane Gersich, a fast player who came straight to the Caps after signing out of college in 2018, but who spent the last season in the AHL with Hershey.

Jonsson-Fjallby left early in the season to return to his native Sweden last year and has only 16 games of North American experience. It is hard to imagine he will be ready to make the jump to North American’s highest level out of training camp. Having watched Gersicih play in the playoffs, he looks like a player still very much in need of another year in the AHL to adjust to playing in the pros.

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Marcus Johansson is headed to the Sabres and yes, he was too expensive for the Capitals

Marcus Johansson is headed to the Sabres and yes, he was too expensive for the Capitals

Marcus Johansson has finally signed and no, he is not coming back to Washington. Despite some reported interest from the team early in the offseason, the price tag was always expected to be too high to make a return to the Capitals. On Saturday, that proved true.

Johansson signed a two-year, $9 million deal with the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday in a deal that will give him a cap hit of $4.5 million per year.

After their first-round exit, general manager Brian MacLellan had plenty of time to consider what offseason adjustments the team needed to make in order to compete for the Stanley Cup again in 2019-20.

As the playoffs wore on, Johansson continued to impress with his key contributions for the Boston Bruins. In all, he scored four goals and seven assists in 22 games as the Bruins fell just one win short of the Stanley Cup.

With offensive depth being the most glaring need for Washington, a reunion with Johansson seemed to make a lot of sense...until you considered his price tag.

As he was excelling on the game’s biggest stage, it was expected that Johansson would be able to cash-in on his next deal. Though the length of the deal is not all that high at two years, the cap hit is.

Had the Caps signed Johansson to the same deal at $4.5 million per year, that would have given Johansson the fifth-highest cap hit among Caps’ forwards, a steep price for a player who would have been penciled in for a third-line role.

Adding him also would have forced the entire house of cards that is the Caps’ salary to come crashing down.

The Caps signed free agents Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipisic. The total combined cap hit of those three players next season is $4.95 million. For just $450,000 more than the cost of Johansson, the Caps filled out the rest of their roster and improved the team’s penalty kill and team defense.

Signing Johansson would not have left the team with that kind of flexibility and it is hard to imagine how the team’s bottom six would have ended up better overall by committing so much of its limited cap space to one player.

Once you start to realize how desperately the Caps needed to upgrade their overall team defense, making several small moves to address that makes a lot more sense than the one bigger-name addition.

Signing with Buffalo is also a move that makes more sense for Johansson as well. He will almost certainly get a top-six role with the Sabres as opposed to a third-line role in Washington. That will better allow him to parlay this deal into a bigger deal in two years.

Because of that, MacLellan’s recent tactic of overpaying in term length in order to keep cap hits low would likely not have interested Johansson who clearly has his sights set on that next big contract.

At $4.5 million per year, that’s just not a move that would have made sense for Washington.

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The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

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The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

One of the biggest needs for the Capitals heading into the offseason was forward depth, specifically the fourth line. By whatever metric you want to use, it just was not good enough in 2018-19.

One of the obvious problems was the lack of offense. In seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington scored 20 goals. Five of those goals came from the bottom-six and one of those was an empty netter. That’s not good enough.

The Capitals were busy on Monday with a number of signings and look like they will have a new fourth line with the addition of free agent forwards Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.

The most important question a team should ask itself in the offseason is if it got better and, at first glance, you may not see how Washington improved with these signings. Brett Connolly, who scored 22 goals last season, and Andre Burakovsky are both gone. Richard Panik, who was also signed Monday, will play on the third line. He scored 22 goals once in his career, back in 2016-17 with the Chicago Blackhawks when he was playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Hathaway and Leipsic’s career-highs in goals are 11 and seven respectively.

So did the Caps actually get better or did they have to just settle for what they could afford given the team’s salary cap constraints?

Offensively it seems unlikely that Washington’s new additions will match the production of the players the team has lost, but Brian MacLellan was looking to improve the team in other ways this offseason.

When evaluating the team, the offensive struggles of the fourth line were obvious. Less obvious were the team’s defensive struggles. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps did. Washington held the third worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to more goals in the back of the net as well. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

Yes, Matt Niskanen had a down year and that’s why he and his $5.75 million cap hit is now in Philadelphia. But the forward lines play a role in team defense too and it is pretty clear MacLellan was searching for players with a proven track record of shot suppression to address that weakness.

MacLellan tipped his hand as to how he hoped to improve the team earlier in the offseason when he elected to extend Carl Hagelin. The team did not have enough cap room to re-sign both Connolly and Hagelin and MacLellan chose to extend the speedy penalty killer with limited offensive production in Hagelin over Connolly who scored 22 goals and 46 points last season. It should come as no surprise then that Hathaway is a strong penalty killer who averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per night last season with the Calgary Flames.

So while the Caps may be losing offensive production this offseason, they have gained a new-look bottom six that looks much more defensively formidable. They also added key pieces to the penalty kill and return Hagelin who, when he was acquired at the trade deadline, instantly became Washington’s best penalty killer.

A cynic will say the direction the team took this offseason is a product of their cap space. It is often easier to focus on defense than offense because defense is harder to quantify. A 20-goal scorer is almost always more expensive than a shutdown forward.

There is no doubt that money played a factor in the team’s moves this offseason, but the direction MacLellan took looks like it was borne of necessity, not penny-pinching. Team defense was as glaring a weakness as depth offensive production was last season and you have to keep in mind that the offensive superstars are getting older. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are all 31 or older. That is half of the top-six. These three are not going to continue to produce at such a high level forever. When a team built around its offense starts to lose that offensive production, things can collapse pretty quickly. The team had to improve defensively or it would have to rely solely on an aging offensive core plus Braden Holtby in net to carry them. Now, on paper at least, Washington looks like a stronger team defensively heading into 2019-20.

So yes, Caps look like they have gotten better, just not the way you probably anticipated.

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