Fresh off signing a seven-year, $40.25-million deal, Matt Niskanen’s boxcar stats were due for some regression in 2014-15. In 2013-14, he had a career high in PP ice time and PDO, both of which were likely to drop in Washington. Both did and, predictably, his offensive production regressed. Yet, Niskanen’s first year in Washington was solid. But it also left me wanting more.
Over the past season, we’ve seen Marcus Johansson go from a talented set-up man into the Caps third leading goal scorer. Andre Burakovsky has gone from an 19-year-old babyfaced rookie into, for a while, the team’s top-line right wing. In the past two weeks, those two have added more facets to their game. In the 2015 playoffs, Johansson and Burakovsky have become physical forces on the ice. But instead of going for needless checks that only put them out of position as so many players do, Marcus and Andre pick their spots, using their bodies to bump opponents off the puck or maintain possession.
“You never want to approach a game looking for hits,” Brooks Orpik, who was third in the league in that stat during the regular season, told me Wednesday. “If you do that you’re gonna be out of position.”
“We can’t try to be a skill team all the time,” he added. “If you are a big team, you have to use that to your advantage.”
With 14 minutes left in game two, the Rangers’ Derick Brassard found himself all alone in front of Braden Holtby. With Matt Niskanen and Jay Beagle in the rear view, Brassard scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
Here’s a view of Brassard all alone, just before the goal. Niskanen (blue arrow) and Beagle (black arrow), look like they’ve completely blown their assignments on this goal, meanwhile John Carlson (red arrow) is hanging out up by the blue line.
(Note the color assignment of the arrows, they’ll be used throughout.)
But, if the entire sequence leading up to this play is taken into account, it becomes hard to find any fault with Niskanen on this goal.
Matt Niskanen is usually a pretty steady player who doesn’t look for big hits. But when he does look to lower the boom, boy is it brutal.
Late in the second period of game six, former Capital Mikhail Grabovski tried to carry the puck behind Braden Holtby‘s net. Instead, he was crushed with a beautiful shoulder-to-shoulder hit by Niskanen.
On Thursday night, Adam Oates was back behind the bench at Verizon Center for the first time since being fired at the end of last season. Much has changed since then. On this night, the Capitals were playing with sticks that were familiar to them and their coach was not giving his players the cold shoulder. But the most important change, at least on this night, came on defense. Oates instituted a defense system that required blueliners to give up the puck almost immediately after gaining it. This led to forced passes and a myriad of odd-man breaks against. It turned former Norris Trophy nominees like Mike Green into subject of ridicule. The Capitals defense, on the whole, was very bad.
This year, however, things are different. In offseason, new general manager Brian MacLellan added some much needed balance to the Capitals by signing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to big money deals. New coach Barry Trotz has also freed up its defensemen, allowing them to carry the puck when necessary. This has led to a resurgence for Green, who has 39 points this season. Other blueliners have also chipped in. Through 73 games, Karl Alzner had more than doubled his career high in goals and surpassed his career high in assists.
One of the biggest differences between the Caps under Barry Trotz and the Caps under Adam Oates is the role of defensemen in offense. In February, Alex Prewitt described that role like this:
Blue-liners in Coach Barry Trotz’s system hold the freedom to pinch inside the offensive zone, collapsing onto pucks along the boards to keep possessions alive, but they also are asked to do their fair share of long-range flinging.
Last week, I looked at how badly the Caps’ forwards other than Alex Ovechkinstruggle to generate shot attempts. But with Prewitt’s insight on the role of defenseman in Trotz’s system in mind, here’s a look at shot generation from the Caps defensemen, from a bit of a different angle.
There’s a glossary at the bottom, so be sure to check that out if the chart doesn’t make sense. We’re going to look at what percent of the overall shot attempts by Caps defenders each regular blue liner takes, as well as how effective each defensemen is at getting his individual shot attempts through and getting them on net.
While we use shot attempts as a proxy for meaningful puck possession, this doesn’t mean that all shot attempts are of equal value during game play. Generally, an unblocked shot attempt is preferred to one that is blocked, and a shot on goal is preferred to a shot attempt that goes wide. With that in mind, here’s a look at the six Caps defenders who have a sample size worth looking at.
Some have pointed to Johnny Boychuck‘s 7-year, $42-million extension with the Islanders as a floor of where Green’s negotiations should begin. It’s a decent comp, but I’m going to dig a little deeper to look for salary comps for Green.
Curtis Glencross just nabbed his first point as a Washington Capital, a power-play goal against the Minnesota Wild. Glencross reeled in a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov and beat Devan Dubnyk top-shelf, which is where mama hides the cookies.
Nicklas Backstrom has been insanely good this year. Today has been no different. For the Caps’ first goal, he took the puck in the Caps defensive zone, skated around four different Islander players in the offensive zone, and put a perfect pass into Matt Niskanen‘s wheel house. Niskanen unleashed the Niscannon, going top shelf.