Through the first nine games of the season, defensemen for the Capitals have accrued 15 assists. That comes to 38 percent of the total number of assists for the entire team. All six d-men who have suited up for the Caps have gotten at least two assists; only six forwards can say that. Even Karl Alzner has gotten on the scoreboard, recording the only two goals scored by Capitals defensemen this season.
This has all been by design (minus Alzner scoring). Washington’s defensemen have been more active in the Capitals offensive game on the rush and in the zone. Barry Trotz has been stressing the need to work the puck from high-to-low in the offensive zone for his entire tenure in Washington, and he — along with assistant coach Todd Rierden — doubled down on that point in training camp.
Here are the three things I’ve noticed that have made the Caps defensemen more productive this season.
On both shots and shot attempts, the Capitals have generated a higher percentage of their chances from a defenseman’s blade early this year than they did last.
The Caps have also been more aggressive especially when the opponent’s wingers collapse on the net or play a bit more staggered.
We saw a great example of that with Marcus Johansson’s goal against the Vancouver Canucks.
If the Caps defender on the wall does not have a clear path to the net, he will often pass it over to his partner to set up a shot from the middle of the ice. This gives the forwards more time to get to the front of the net and moves the entire opposing team including the goaltender. In this case, after the puck was passed back to Niskanen, Johansson had just enough time to get to the front of the net for the tip.
The Capitals have scored a high percentage of their goals from in tight this season (see Marcus Johansson’s goals from within 17 feet) and continuing to get the puck to the net with bodies in front will produce more offense.
The Caps defenders have never been shy about joining the rush under Trotz, but they have turned it up another notch this season. There have been few offensive rush chances that did not include a defenseman so far this year, whether it was Matt Niskanen, John Carlson or Nate Schmidt.
Not surprisingly, Schmidt hinted to the fact that he would be joining the rush more often this year during the preseason.
“The thing Todd (Reirden) and I talked about at the beginning of the year was to make sure I’m skating and keeping my feet moving and try to be an extra guy on the attack all season long,” Schmidt said in camp.
Nate Schmidt with the great carry in, and Justin Williams scores his first goal since March 28 of last season pic.twitter.com/urWyCQkgjr
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) October 20, 2016
Schmidt has already been able to facilitate offense this season off the rush, and the Caps will be able to generate more offense with their defensemen if Schmidt and his defensive brethren keep it up.
The Caps have been getting the tight high cycle going with their defensemen much more often recently, and it has produced more than a couple of good scoring chances.
It is especially effective when the opposing team pressures the point a bit more in the defensive zone. If the point man is not open to a direct or indirect pass to get shots from the point, the Capitals forwards will actually cycle with the defensemen to get them going in the offense and relieve a little pressure.
Let’s take a look at the cycle during the Capitals recent tilt with Edmonton.
As Kuznetsov comes up the boards with the puck, Matt Niskanen recognizes the cycle opportunity and takes the path closest to the boards to switch with Kuznetsov. Two Edmonton players go with Kuznetsov as he slips a quick drop pass to Niskanen. The second forward, Andre Burakovsky, curls to the net and looks for the pass from Niskanen. These types of switches force quick decisions by the opposing teams defenders and often either create space or a breakdown.
The high cycle is going to produce a goal soon. It is just a matter of time.
Whether joining the rush, taking clappers from up top or joining the cycle game, all of the Capitals defensemen have been key in creating offense for the team this season. Though, I doubt Brooks Orpik will continue to have the same amount of points as John Carlson for too much longer.
Photo: Jamie Squire
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