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With Brooks Orpik nearing return, Capitals' defensive pairs coming into focus

With Brooks Orpik nearing return, Capitals' defensive pairs coming into focus

When the Capitals were contemplating whether to trade for Kevin Shattenkirk, General Manager Brian MacLellan sought out Brooks Orpik’s opinion.

Orpik and Shattenkirk played together in the Olympics in 2014.

“I vouched for him hard,” Orpik said. “It’s a tough transition for a lot of people when they get traded at the deadline. That was something Mac and the coaches were a little worried about, but he’s got the kind of personality and demeanor where I think he could go to any of the 30 teams and fit in right away.”

Although Shattenkirk was paired with Nate Schmidt in his Capitals’ debut Tuesday against the Rangers, the team’s long term plan is for the former Blues’ star to skate alongside Orpik, who is working his way back from a nagging lower body injury.

Shattenkirk and Orpik were a tandem in Wednesday’s practice.

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“I watched the game [Tuesday] night and I think we played a little bit together in the last Olympics,” Orpik said. “I also know him pretty well off the ice from [Sochi] and I see him quite a bit in Boston in the summer.”

The off-the-ice familiarity helps. But what Coach Barry Trotz really likes about the Shattenkirk-Orpik pairing is its balance.

“They can complement each other because one is a physical defender and the other is a poised puck moving defender…who has more of an offensive flair,” Trotz said.

With Karl Alzner-John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen forming the other two tandems, each of the three pairs has a lefty and a righty.

“The three pairs we have, they really have good balance,” Trotz said. “They got a little bite to them, a little bit of weight to them, a little bit of offense, some defense. I like our three pairs.”

The pair that’s going to be under the spotlight in the coming days and weeks, though, will be the newest one: Orpik-Shattenkirk.

One practice in, Shattenkirk said he felt some chemistry with Orpik.

“I’ve fortunately been able to see him play firsthand in the Olympics,” Shattenkirk said. “So I know the type of style he brings. He’s a steady, steady guy back there and I know he’s always going to be there to be in a support role for me. Until we get into games and play together it’s going to be a little bit of a process but I’m looking forward to it.”

Orpik echoed Shattenkirk’s sentiments.

“Anytime you get a new partner it’s a little bit of an adjustment,” Orpik said. “You just try to get better every game. You’d wish for it to happen a lot quicker than it does but you just try to stay patient.”

With 20 games remaining in the regular season, the two will have ample time to get on the same page prior to the playoffs, which figures to be a defining moment of the Alex Ovechkin Era.     

“This is probably our best chance to win in here,” Orpik said, asked what message management sent to the dressing room by acquiring Shattenkirk. “Everybody is aware of what our situation is going into free agency this summer. I don’t think it’s an indictment on anyone who got bumped out of the lineup. I think it’s just trying to maximize what we already have here. [Shattenkirk] is obviously a pretty good piece to add to what we already have.”

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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

There were many incredible aspects to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, but one of the best was how fans took over the streets in the Stanley Cup Final. Little did we know that a future Cap was among the faithful outside of Capital One Arena.

Forward prospect and Herndon, Va. native Joe Snively was signed as a college free agent in March 2019. He is an alum of the Little Capitals local youth hockey program and, not surprisingly given his background, he grew up as a Caps fan.

For all Washington fans, June 7, 2018, is a day that will never be forgotten as it was the day the team won its first Stanley Cup. We all have our own story of where we were that day and how we watched. Snively is no different.

“I was downtown DC outside the arena watching on the big screen,” he told Mike Vogel in an interview at the team’s development camp.

“It was a great feeling,” Snively continued. “At that time I didn’t know I’d have the opportunity to sign with the Capitals and it was an amazing feeling. I’ve been a Caps fan ever since I started watching hockey and it was great to see them after all those years in the playoffs to win the Cup. It was amazing.”

The Alex Ovechkin era is important to Washington hockey not just because he brought the city a Cup, but because of the increased interest at the youth level. Interest early on should increase the sport and the team’s popularity. That, in turn, should lead to more youth participation which should lead to a more competitive youth program and homegrown talent entering professional hockey. The increased interest from that should further boost hockey in the region thus repeating the cycle.

Snively is just the first example.

It kind of makes you wonder how many other future Caps were in that crowd watching the team win the Cup.

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

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 the next three 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 a power play that dipped out of the top 10 last season. Can a unit that has been so consistent for so long get back to that top level? 

This comes back to tactics more than personnel. The same players are back who have been part of this unit for years. Alex Ovechkin is the ultimate weapon in the left face-off circle, John Carlson mans the point, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov do their thing on the half wall and below the net and T.J. Oshie is the trigger man in the slot. 

Those five players all had 227 minutes of power-play time last year or more. Ovechkin had 17 goals which is about standard for the best ever. Kuznetsov came next with eight goals and 13 assists. Backstrom had four goals, but 17 assists. Carlson had two goals and 27 assists. 

Oshie missed 13 games so his numbers are a little down, but in the games he did play he still hit six goals and eight assists. Tom Wilson was Oshie’s primary replacement in that bumper position and he had three goals. 

Not too bad for Blaine Forsythe’s group. He’s the assistant coach who has run the power play the past five years. You can’t argue with the track record. Unfortunately, the expectations for Washington’s power play are massive given that talent level and it’s fair to say it fell short at 12thoverall in the NHL at 20.8 percent.

Again, 49-for-236 isn’t bad. It’s just the talent level says it should be better. The Capitals were seventh in 2017-18 (22.5 percent), fourth in 2016-17 (23.1 percent), fifth in 2015-16 (21.9 percent), first in 2014-15 (25.3 percent), tied for first in 2013-14 (23.4 percent) and first again in 2012-13 (26.8 percent). The last time Washington finished outside the top 10 on the power play was in 2011-12 when it cratered to 18th (16.7 percent). 

There are a few issues that could be tweaked. The Capitals managed just 236 power-play chances. That tied for 16thin the league. To even break into the top 10 in that category they’d need 16 more penalties drawn. 

Only three times after Oct. 22 did they score two power-play goals in the same game and never more than that. How does that even happen? They had two or more power-play goals four times in the first eight games alone, including four on opening night. After that? It was one and done, 

Kuznetsov is one of the best in the game at getting the puck into the offensive zone. Fans loathe it, but the drop pass – or “the slingshot” – has become an effective way, when used properly, to get the puck into the offensive zone on the power play. It just didn’t seem to work all that well for Washington last year. 

One wonders if Forsythe will make some tweaks there. Kuznetsov was often the player on the receiving end of the drop passes, which can keep the penalty kill off balance, but can also waste precious seconds when it doesn’t work. Then you have to regroup and try again. 

It’s not going away, though – even for those who want to slingshot the drop pass to the moon. It’s used all over the league. Some teams like to use two players as options when coming up ice using the slingshot. That’s easier to defend in some ways, but it also gives your team a certain level of unpredictability. 

Maybe teams have just become better at defending the Capitals on the PK simply because they have had the same personnel and coaching for years now. Opposing coaching staffs have hours of video on this group to break down and analyze. 

But there’s no reason to change too much. That Ovechkin one-timer is the ultimate weapon and you don’t want to stifle the creativity of players like Backstrom or Kuznetsov.

Maybe quicker unit changes would help keep players fresh. Ovechkin is almost always going to be out there for the full two minutes and it would be silly to take that shot off the ice. But developing a more reliable second group might help, too. 

Last year’s “second” unit by ice time was Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Wilson, Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov/Matt Niskanen. Connolly is gone via free agency. Niskanen is gone via trade. One wonders why Andre Burakovsky was hardly used (18:25), but he’s gone, too, in a trade. 

Will be interesting to see if Forsythe can come up with a more reliable second group centered around Ovechkin, Eller and Vrana, who deserves more power-play time even if he’s buried on this roster, and Wilson as the big body in the middle. Richard Panik was fifth on the Arizona Coyotes in power-play minutes last season (146:16) so maybe he has a role there. 

The very best Washington power plays in recent years had secondary players like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams around before the salary cap cleaved that depth. The Capitals were still a very good power play in 2018-19, but they could use more of that. These are minor changes that could get them back toward the very top of the league and helps take pressure off its 5-on-5 play. 

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