We have been taking a look at things to look for as the 2018-2019 season unfolds for the Washington Capitals. There was the matter of whether a short off-season has a price for the defending champion, and there was the question of whether career years can be the new normal for players.
Now we are going to turn the question on ourselves and the perils of prognosticating. You will note in the Caps Clips of August 16th, dear reader, that there is a link to a post my cousin Cheerless penned one year ago on that date. In it, he waxed pessimistic about what the Caps would have to replace from 2016-2017 in the 2017-2018 season. The general tone was that the losses in personnel from the previous season were too many and too deep to fill, that Father Time might tap Alex Ovechkin on the shoulder and remind him that all good things come to an end (or start to decline), and that the same Father Time had not yet spread his magic dust on a group of youngsters to make them steady contributors.
If you are thinking ahead to the 2018-2019 season and what to look for, it might help to take a look at what happened to poor Cheerless’ observations and the pitfalls of prognosticating this early in the scheme of things…
Karl Alzner averaged 3:03 per game in shorthanded ice time in 2016-17 (tops on the club among defensemen) for a top-ten team in penalty-killing. Who gets those minutes this season?
What happened?... Among defensemen playing in both the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons, those minutes were largely split between Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik. Orlov played in all 82 games in both the 2016-2017 and the 2017-2018 seasons, but his penalty killing ice time jumped from 14 seconds per game to 1:59 per game, a 1:45 per game increase. Orpik, who played in 79 games in 2016-2017 and 81 games in 2017-2018, saw his shorthanded ice time increase from 2:24 per game to 3:04 per game, a 40 second increase. Those two saw their combined shorthanded ice time increase by 2:25. They got miscellaneous contributions, like 51 seconds a game for eight games from Aaron Ness that they didn’t get in 2016-2017 and 29 seconds a game from Michal Kempny in the 22 games he played after coming over in trade late in the 2017-2018 season. And, the Caps did manage to shave more than 18 minutes of total PK time off their 2016-2017 total (from 465 minutes to 447 minutes, a 3.9 percent reduction). Still, the Caps penalty kill lost ground, dropping 3.5 points (from 83.8 percent to 80.3 percent).
The Caps had 11 players with ten or more goals last season. Three of them (Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik) – the third, fourth, and 11th-ranked goal scorers – are gone. Altogether, six players (those three, plus Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner, and Kevin Shattenkirk) accounting for 68 of 261 goals scored (26.1 percent of the total) are gone. Where do the goals come from to make up for the loss, or do the Caps even need all of them?
What happened?... Remarkably, perhaps, the Caps made up all but five of those 68 goals in 2017-2018, finishing with a total of 256 goals. Where did the 63 goals they did make up come from? There were 17 skaters dressing for both the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons. In the former, that group combined for 190 goals. They increased their total to 232 this season, an 18.1 percent increase. And of that, Alex Ovechkin accounted for 38.1 percent of the increase (up 16 goals from 2016-2017). But Ovechkin merely offset the drop in T.J. Oshie’s production (down 15 goals). So, we might look to others as the reason for the increase, and the pleasant surprise here is how youth stepped up. Evgeny Kuznetsov was up eight goals. Jakub Vrana was up 10. Dmitry Orlov was up four. Tom Wilson was up seven. Chandler Stephenson posted the first six goals of his career. That quintet, on whom much depends in the years to come, had a combined year-over-year increase of 35 goals
And it is not as if others with improvements are on the back side of their careers. John Carlson, Lars Eller, and Matt Niskanen had a combined 14-goal improvement, year-over-year. Add to that the contributions of new arrivals (rookies and free agents) like Alex Chiasson, Christian Djoos, and Devante Smith-Pelly (a combined 19 goals), and the goals lost were made up as a team effort.
If either or both of Madison Bowey or Christian Djoos are not ready for prime time, what is “Plan B” for the defense?
What happened?... It took a while for the Caps to find their “Plan B,” but they found it. Or perhaps more appropriately, they sprung it late in the season. And the lesson here is, sometimes the shiny object isn’t the most valuable. Getting the gem of the 2017 trading deadline in Kevin Shattenkirk did not have the intended results, that being that he was the “last piece” the Caps needed to solve the Stanley Cup puzzle. This year, value was found in an unremarkable deal made with the Chicago Blackhawks, sending a conditional third round draft pick in exchange for Michal Kempny. He became the glue that finally solidified the Caps defensive pairs, and he meshed well with John Carlson over the last few weeks and over the course of the postseason.
Alex Ovechkin will be 32 years old on opening night. Since the 2005-06 season, 11 different players have recorded 35-goal seasons at least once at age 32 or older, but only two players (Daniel Alfredsson and Teemu Selanne) have done it more than once. Is “30 goals” the new normal for Ovechkin, and will that be a floor or a ceiling?
What happened?... Time eventually will rob Alex Ovechkin of his profound skill as a goal scorer, but he seems to have a unique ability to stare down Father Time. Six seasons ago, he posted his second consecutive full NHL season with fewer than 40 goals, the first time he did so. Some were pronouncing him, at age 26, slowing down. He followed that up with a 32-goals-in-48 games record in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season. After he scored 33 goals in 2016-2017, more were asking if time was catching up to Ovechkin at age 31. Cheerless was hardly alone in thinking perhaps so. So he went out and potted 49 goals in playing all 82 games. And by the way, the 82 games played was the first time he had consecutive seasons with that many games played since his second and third years in the league, when he was in his early 20’s. There will come a time when 30 goals is the new normal for Ovechkin, but that was certainly not the case in 2017-2018, and we are loathe to offer an opinion on whether Father Time will pay him a visit this coming season.
Related... if Ovechkin is a 30-35 goal scorer, does that make it imperative that T. J. Oshie reproduce his 33-goal season of 2016-17? Given that Oshie has never played a full-season’s worth of games and has played in more than 70 games only five times in nine full NHL seasons (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), although he has done so in three of the last four, is this or should this be a concern?
What happened?... Oshie had bouts with the injury bug in 2017-2018 that affected his goal scoring, his total cut almost in half from the previous season, from 33 to 18. But he did come on late, scoring six goals in his last 11 games in what was a prelude to his postseason (eight goals in 24 games). Makes one wonder what the Caps might be like if both Ovechkin and Oshie are “on” in 2018-2019.
Brooks Orpik will be 37 years old on Opening Night. A total of 20 defensemen since 2005-06 have appeared in at least 70 games at the age of 37 or older, but only eight have done so more than once. Orpik appeared in 79 games last season. Can he reproduce that total and give support to the young defensemen coming up, or after 901 hard games of NHL regular season play, will he hit that 70-game mark?
What happened?... Well, he did play more games than the previous season (81 to 79). And, he played more minutes, almost two more per game (19:22 versus 17:47). He was not as effective in them, at least in terms of his numbers. Never much of an offensive presence, he was still off a bit this past season. For the second straight season he did not record a regular season goal (third time in four seasons), and his assist total was down from 14 to 10. Then there was the 41-point swing in the wrong direction in plus-minus (from plus-32 to minus-9, his worst since his rookie season with Pittsburgh in 2003-2004 when he was minus-36) and the more than eight point swing in the wrong direction in his shot attempts-for percentage at even strength (from 52.56 percent to 44.21 percent, numbers from NHL.com).
What is harder to measure, what might be available only anecdotally, is what effect his experience might have had on the likes of Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and perhaps even Michal Kempny when he joined the team. That is something hard to evaluate from outside the walls of the locker room.
John Carlson is in the “walk year” of his current deal with the Caps. He has also missed 36 of 164 games over the last two seasons after five straight seasons playing every regular season game. Does he rise to the occasion and put himself in position for a big payday (and hopefully help push the Caps deeper in the postseason), or has he become a reasonably productive, but injury-prone player?
What happened?... “Rise to the occasion?” Carlson blew through the roof. His was the very definition of what a player hopes to accomplish in the walk year of his contract, post career bests in a lot of statistical categories and lead the entire league in points by a defenseman. And he did it while dressing for all 82 games, the first time he did that since 2014-2015.
Jay Beagle had a career-high 13 goals last season. Will the fourth line combine for 13 goals this season?
What happened?... If the adage “every year is different” rings true, it certainly seems so for the difference between the fourth line the Caps iced last year and this past season. As the 2016-2017 season was winding down, the Caps’ fourth line as often as not included Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, and Daniel Winnik. That trio accounted for 32 goals that season (including those 13 by Beagle). However, Winnik departed for the Minnesota Wild as a free agent, and Tom Wilson was moved into the top-six forward group for the 2017-2018 season.
The fourth line to open the season for the Caps had Beagle centering incoming veterans Tyler Graovac and Devante Smith-Pelly. One might have been forgiven if this trio looked a bit underwhelming, goal scoring-wise. As a group, their career bests totaled 34 goals, suggesting they would need to strike it rich once more to hit the previous year’s total for the Caps’ fourth line.
What made things even more confusing was that Beagle would eventually center a different pair of wingers. In Game 82, he centered rookie Chandler Stephenson and another newcomer, Alex Chiasson. As a trio, their goal scoring came up short in total compared to the previous year (22), but they served as evidence that it’s an 82-game season, and it’s not how you start it, but how you finish it. And that would end up being a trio that contributed 5 goals in 24 postseason games. Not among the leaders, certainly, but considering that the Caps got little to nothing from the bottom six in the 2017 postseason, it was a welcome contribution, indeed.
The Caps dressed nine defensemen last season, a low number by contemporary standards for a full season (especially when one considers that one – Kevin Shattenkirk -- was brought in via trade, not promoted from within). Three of those defensemen are no longer in the organization (Shattenkirk, Alzner, and Nate Schmidt). The Caps are already looking at giving youngsters a long look. But after Taylor Chorney, assuming he is the seventh defenseman, who are the depth guys in Hershey that the Caps might have to count on?
What happened?... As it turned out, the Caps could not even count on Chorney for too long. He dressed for 24 games, was placed on waivers in February, and was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets. It might have made a dependable pipeline from Hershey more necessary, but the Caps did have a lucky rabbit’s foot when it came to health. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson appeared in all 82 games, and Brooks Orpik missed only one all season. Matt Niskanen did miss some time – 14 games – but it was generally a case of not needing that pipeline.
Or did they? By February, even with the Chorney waiver, the Caps were thin, or at least not where they needed to be for the coming postseason in terms of icing a dependable trio of defensive pairs. Christian Djoos showed flashes of potential, but was still a rookie, and Madison Bowey gave indications he needed more seasoning. The Caps dipped into the trade market and acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerebek to try and improve the bottom pair. Jerebek was a marginal improvement, but Kempny proved to be a diamond in the rough. His numbers did not pop off the page, but he seemed to ease into a comfortable chemistry with John Carlson, gave the Caps a good skater at that position, and solidified the entire defensive squad on the eve of the postseason. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The men’s ice hockey tournament at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games is scheduled for February 10-25, 2018. The Caps will play eight games – almost ten percent of their regular season schedule – in that window, including games against Detroit; a four game road trip with stops in Winnipeg, Minnesota, Chicago, and Buffalo; and a home game against Tampa Bay. Are they a good enough team to withstand an absence from, let’s say, Alex Ovechkin (should he make good on his intention, or at least fulfill his hope, to play for Team Russia) to make the postseason?
What happened?... The Caps still went just 3-3-2 in those eight games, with Ovechkin, who was a rather remarkable 6-6-12 in those eight games.
So, what did we learn, other than not to let Cheerless near a keyboard? We learned that it is really hard to take the lump of clay you have in late August and see what lovely work of art it might become by June. It will be molded, re-shaped, added to, and subtracted from over the course of an 82-game schedule. Something to remember as the prognostications start appearing for the 2018-2019 season and as the new season begins.