Prior to the trade deadline, the overall consensus in the hockey world – one which was regularly all but confirmed by the general manager himself – was that the Caps were not planning to make any big, swing-for-the-fences moves come February 28.
"We've got good chemistry, which is important,'' GM Brian MacLellan told Pierre Lebrun back in January. "It seems like our lines are all settled in here. Everyone is comfortable with their roles, the coaches are comfortable. So it has more the feel right now of something you don't want to mess with ... at all, in my mind, because it's running smooth right now. So I'd be more inclined to do nothing.”
It wasn’t hard to believe that this would be the case. After all, the Caps didn’t have a ton of room to maneuver under the salary cap without removing a piece of the existing roster, and the existing roster was performing well. All signs pointed to the fact that MacLellan would again opt for adding depth over a big name.
So it was something of a surprise when Washington began to be mentioned as one of the teams interested in highly coveted UFA-to-be Kevin Shattenkirk… and it was an even bigger surprise when it became official on the eve of the deadline: Shattenkirk was headed to the Caps.
“Washington kind of came out of nowhere in my mind,” Shattenkirk said. “It was a team that I didn’t even really have in my head.” - Washington Post, 2/28/17
Despite the fact that the Caps didn’t seem to need Shattenkirk, at least on paper, the trade was almost immediately lauded as a move that made the already-potent Caps an even bigger threat to win their first Cup – and it was hard to argue otherwise.
Here was a deadline deal that upgraded the team without taking away a significant piece of the roster (no offense, Zach Sanford), and improved a defensive corps that was already among the best in the NHL. It made the power play that much scarier, inserting another right-handed shot to the point as a setup man for the Ovi-spot (and a pretty decent power-play presence in his own right). And not to be overlooked, bringing Shattenkirk to DC kept him away from New York and Pittsburgh - both of whom were more in need of an upgrade on the blueline, and both of whom were in on the bidding for Shattenkirk’s services. As MacLellan said in the immediate aftermath, “[I]f there was one guy we were going to pursue that could make our team better, it was him.“
So yes, it seemed like the trade was another fine piece of work by Brian MacLellan (even with conditions built into the deal that were enough to make one’s eyes cross).
Still, at that point it was all just on paper; if we’ve learned nothing else as Caps fans, it’s that you never know until the games are played. Now with 13 games as a Cap under his belt, we can start to see just what kind of an impact the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk has had on the 2016-17 Caps.
We can look at this potential impact from two angles: the individual, i.e. how well he’s performed since arriving in DC, and the team, i.e. what has his arrival meant for the team as a whole.
Let’s start with the individual side.
Since making his debut for the Capitals, Shattenkirk has put up 11 points (all assists) in 13 games, tied for fifth-most among all NHL defensemen since the trade deadline (and tied for first in helpers), despite playing in fewer games than the guys ahead of him (more on that in a bit). That works out to a points/60 rate of 2.58, well above his career rate of 1.71 points/60 (all situations, per Corsica). He may not have scored a goal yet as a Cap, but he’s generating offense - even if it means bouncing pucks off of his teammates and into the net.
And while Shattenkirk is piling up the points, his underlying shot metrics are looking good as well. Check out his 25-game rolling Corsi-For percentage (CF%) this season (the red line indicates when he was traded to DC):
Obviously some of this is to be expected simply by leaving St. Louis, a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of possession, and joining one of the best - and small sample size caveats do apply, to say nothing of his favorable deployments at five-on-five:
Skating in the Caps’ nominal third pairing, he’s faced weaker competition and started more shifts in the offensive zone (and fewer in the defensive zone) than his top-four teammates, but not dramatically so (and, of course, he’s often been out with lesser-quality teammates as well). With that context noted, it may be no surprise that Shattenkirk is currently rocking a team-leading CF% of 55.31 at five on five, which over the course of a full season would be a career high for him, and his individual shot- and shot attempt-per-60 rates are well above where they were while with the Blues.
That offensive upside naturally translates into defensive upside, as he leads all Caps’ blueliners, or is near the top, in Shots-For percentage (SF%), GF%, Scoring Chance-For percentage (SCF%) and high-danger CF% at five on five.
In other words, with Shattenkirk on the ice, the Caps have the puck a lot... which means the other team does not.
That’s a (brief) snapshot of his game at five-on-five... but what of his reputation for being a stud on the power play? Well, he’s lived up to it and then some, picking up six of his 11 points with the extra man - that’s tied with Alex Ovechkin, and trails only Marcus Johansson (7) and Nicklas Backstrom (10) among all Caps since his arrival. He’s become a key piece of the team’s rapidly improving power play, and has racked up 50:54 of power-play ice time over the last month (3:54/game), which leads all Caps’ defensemen in that department; the next-highest is Carlson, checking in with roughly 20 minutes less over that same span.
All signs point to a successful start for Shattenkirk in DC, at least at an individual level - but he’s hardly operating in a vacuum. So what kind of an impact, whether direct or indirect, has Shattenkirk’s addition had on the team as a whole?
The most obvious place to start is perhaps the biggest negative in his tenure so far, and that’s in the fact that the addition of Shattenkirk has pushed Nate Schmidt out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.
With the team seemingly loathe to break up the top two defensive pairs, Shattenkirk has slotted in next to Brooks Orpik in pretty much every game - which means Schmidt, who up until the deadline had been having a great season (and was a key contributor to an equally great season for Orpik), is forced to watch from the sidelines. It certainly gives the Caps more depth, as Schmidt is more than capable of filling in if there’s an injury (or a suspension), but for Schmidt himself it’s obviously not ideal.
That said, it seems to be working out just fine for Orpik and his new defensive partner. In just under 145 minutes of five-on-five time together, Orpik and Shattenkirk have skated to a very impressive 57.6 CF% (again, context), and a score-adjusted CF% of 58.9, which ranks them sixth in the League among duos with more than 140 minutes played (per Corsica).
(Orpik and Schmidt are just a few slots behind at 57.7% in a whopping 556 minutes, one spot ahead of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov at 57.5. Now if they could only get John Carlson and Karl Alzner on track....)
Shattenkirk and Orpik have been on the ice for as many goals-against as goals-for so far (three apiece), but if the ice stays tilted in the Caps’ favor when the duo is out there, that’s likely to start moving in the right direction.
It’s working out just fine for the team’s power play, as well, with Shattenkirk now a fixture on the Caps’ first unit and charged with setting up, among others, Alex Ovechkin. Since the deadline, the power play is operating at a third-best 28.3%, with three multi-goal games (they had just eight in the 61 games prior) and 15 goals total.
Top 15 5v4 five man units in the NHL, minimum 30 minutes. pic.twitter.com/44Xwf5UfFx— dellowhockey (@dellowhockey) March 31, 2017
That’s not all on Shattenkirk, of course (and, as the chart above notes, “not John Carlson” may in and of itself been a bit of a boost to the extra-man unit); after much hand-wringing the power play was starting to come around after the new year. Still, it’s hard to deny that he’s been a catalyst for many of those goals, with primary helpers for five of his six power-play points - and two of those passes landing perfectly in the wheelhouse of some guy named Alex Ovechkin:
It’s only been a month, but so far it looks like, after a very brief adjustment period, Kevin Shattenkirk is fitting in just fine. He’s chipping in offensively, driving the power play to be an even scarier entity than it was before, and generally just solidifying the team’s blueline group as one of the best in the business.
As with everything else when it comes to these Caps, the real test lies ahead in the playoffs - but for now, the big move appears to be paying big dividends.