Just in case you, like me, have been disconnected from the hockey world for the last two days, here’s all you really need to know: Brian MacLellan has done it again.
One year after he acquired Michal Kempny at the trade deadline to launch a successful playoff run, the general manager has once again assembled a contender.
MacLellan has made four moves in the last couple days:
These changes address the 2018-19 Caps’ biggest problems: defense, transition play, speed, and discipline. But taken as a whole, they answer a question the front office might have been asking themselves, “What if we have to go through Tampa?”
Though he’s initially slotting in on the fourth line, Carl Hagelin could reasonably line up anywhere among Caps forwards. I like him on the fourth line, where he will immediately quell the trashfire down there. A composite of the Caps bottom line plays defense about 55 percent of the time, allowing their opponents a bracingly high 12 high-danger chances per hour.
Hagelin should mellow that out. Using Hockeyviz’s isolated impact visualizations, we can see that Hagelin (left) slows opponents by 13 percent, whereas a current Caps fourth liner, e.g. Travis Boyd, lets opponents increase their offense by 21 percent.
But I could also see Hagelin fill in on the third line if they falter, or even up in the top six to add defensive dependability to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s offensive potency. As we’ve seen many times, Hagelin is a fast, aggressive forechecker who doesn’t add risk — a perfect complement for Kuznetsov’s deficiencies. Whether playing big minutes or just augmenting the fourth line, Hagelin will stabilize the Caps in the neutral zone — not to mention the penalty kill.
Hagelin’s downside, specifically his low scoring, does not bother me at all.
Scoring goals is not in the top 20 of worst Caps’ woes. Alex Ovechkin has forty of them, Jakub Vrana has had a breakthrough season, Tom Wilson’s offense is finally arrived, and Brett Connolly is always good for 15. They didn’t need more offense; they just needed to play offense more. They got that in Hagelin, and they got it cheap.
Back on defense, Nick Jensen may prove to be the steal of the 2019 deadline. Jensen is a moneyball-style pickup: an underappreciated, affordable, mid-career player who does everything well without getting much credit. His dashboard stats are nothing special, but Detroit has always driven play better when he was on the ice.
Head coach Jeff Blashill seemed to know what he had in Jensen, increasing his ice time from barely 16 minutes a night last season to more than 20 in 2018-19 and putting him against the toughest competition available. Jensen’s dependability may be exactly what Todd Reirden needs to lower the leverage on Matt Niskanen‘s troubled minutes, of which there are currently 22 a night.
Brian MacLellan called Nick Jensen a “reliable modern-day defenseman.” I think that’s an amusing description for a defender who succeeds in a throwback, stay-at-home, Langway-esque fashion — except with less hitting. Jensen’s role is to prevent or stop the opponent attack and then reactivate the offense, but he doesn’t get involved in that offense past center ice. According to Corey Sznajder, Jensen led the Detroit defense in carrying the puck into the neutral zone, but he is still in the bottom quartile of D-men by shot-attempt rate, with virtually no end-to-end attempts at all. I call that a conservative play style, and it is exactly what the Caps need to quell the rush-goal mania that’s been plaguing the team since the all-star break.
Adding Jensen to the lineup does not come without risk though. When the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk two years ago, his appearances came at the cost of Nate Schmidt, then a promising, underused player, rather than Karl Alzner, a big-minute veteran who could no longer keep up. I worry that Jensen will have a similar effect on Christian Djoos and Brooks Orpik. Orpik, 38, has done well in a small role this season, but sheltering him has come at the cost of Niskanen’s workload.
The other downside of getting Jensen is a bit more complicated. In addition to draft picks, the trade meant the Caps had to part with Madison Bowey, a 23-year-old defender who had not developed as hoped. Bowey committed minor penalties at a higher rate than any defender in the league (1.69 per hour, minimum of 400 minutes) while also allowing opponents a higher rate of high-danger chances than 90 percent of defenders. Bowey’s assignment to Hershey in the spring of 2018 was a sad necessity for the team’s eventual championship run; his trade in 2019 might do the same.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I get the feeling folks have the wrong idea about how the Caps are doing this season. When the Caps have a bad game, our comments are packed with people saying Todd Reirden should be fired. But if you compare the Caps of 2018-19 to the team that became champions last season, they’re in exactly the same spot.
But maybe that’s not actually a good thing, as the 2017-18 Caps had significant problems, especially on defense. In that respect, they weren’t too different from today’s Caps.
Let’s hope that’s true. Because last year’s trade deadline was the start of an enchanted run for Washington. In addition to some system adjustments, a modest change to the roster — more modest than this year’s moves — turned last year’s Caps into a far more dangerous team.
And then they became champions.
Here we go.
Headline photo: Bruce Bennett
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