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In Defense of Trevor van Riemsdyk

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A look at a near afterthought that’s suddenly front-of-mind

NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals
A classic net-front Clusterbuck...
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When free agency opened last October, the cap-strapped Caps (try saying that five times fast) did what they could to strengthen their roster, signing a veteran goaltender to compete for the starter’s job, a depth forward on a two-way deal, and a handful of defensemen. That group of blueliners included their most expensive new acquisition, Justin Schultz (two years, $8-million), as well as Trevor van Riemsdyk, Paul LaDue and Cameron Schilling, each on a one-year deal and at a combined NHL cap hit of $2.2 million. The stable of rearguards got even more crowded just before New Year’s with the addition of Zdeno Chara (one year, $795,000).

Chara and Schultz fit in on the Caps’ blueline immediately, while LaDue and Schilling helped solidify AHL Hershey’s defense. Van Riemsdyk, on the other hand, has been in the somewhat unenviable position of “extra defenseman,” expected to be at NHL speed when called upon, despite going more than a month in between actually getting in a game (something that he’s done twice already this season).

Despite limited playing time (just ten games at that point), the Caps liked what they’d seen from the 29-year-old right-hander enough to extend him back in March with a two-year, $1.9 million pact.

Fast forward to today (just four more games-played later) and van Riemsdyk is making a push to be one of the club’s regular defenseman. Here are the Caps’ seven defensemen at five-on-five:

via NatStatTrick

If not for an unsustainably low (especially for this team) on-ice shooting percentage, TvR’s numbers are more or less what you’d hope for from him - solid across the board, and particularly in scoring chance percentages (more on that in a minute).

Van Riemsdyk has also been a monster on the penalty kill:

via HockeyViz

Okay, so let’s pump the brakes a bit. These are small samples. Still, there’s one particularly interesting aspect of van Riemsdyk’s play so far, and it’s come largely as he’s swapped in for an ailing Justin Schultz in the Caps’ second pair. Let’s take a look...

via MoneyPuck

That... is something. Or maybe that is nothing. It strains credulity to suggest that Trevor van Riemsdyk is the Brenden Dillon whisperer... but maybe? If there’s any “there” there, it’s worth exploring because maximizing the Caps’ defensive pairs had become an exercise in minimizing Brenden Dillon’s impact. With the Caps’ other two pairs humming along on the north side of break-even, if the second pair could join them, that would obviously be a good thing. And if it’s as narrow a decision as van Riemsdyk versus a healthy Schultz, one has clearly been better than the other so far this year:

via Evolving-Hockey

Again, context matters and there’s not a lot of it here. Ultimately, a choice between Schultz and van Riemsdyk is a classic choice between offensive- and defensive-minded defenseman (though Schultz’s offense has dropped off quite a bit after a strong start), with perhaps a bit of the “sunk cost” fallacy thrown in.

Regardless of which way Peter Laviolette goes (and it’s perhaps worth noting that the Caps are 6-0-0 against the Islanders this year with TvR in the lineup), what the Caps have in Trevor van Riemsdyk is a very solid defensive defenseman that should be a regular for the next two seasons... if not sooner.