This article is written by RMNB Crasher Peter Fraedrich.
The Washington Capitals have had a wild season, to put it mildly. With close to $30 million in salary cap tied up on some form of injured reserve at some stages, it has been up to the “regular guys” to step up and take on larger roles this season.
New additions to the team like Dylan Strome, Erik Gustafsson, and Sonny Milano have shown their talent along with young pups like Aliaksei Protas and Alex Alexeyev. But, the one player that I think has had a great impact on the Caps, but has flown under the radar is Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
The Capitals acquired NAK off waivers from Toronto on November 5 after the forward failed to register a single point for the Leafs in six games. After a rough start to his Washington tenure, which included a three-game suspension for a high hit on the Lightning’s Cal Foote, NAK cemented himself, for a time, in the lineup as a high-energy puck hound who isn’t afraid to take some shots – both at opposing players and on net.
While his contributions don’t necessarily show up on a traditional stat sheet — NAK has six points (2g, 4a) in 22 games played with a plus-minus of plus six and 29 penalty minutes — he’s the kind of player that makes his teammates better. The Capitals as a whole play better when he’s on the ice. And it goes beyond just the eye test; the stats from “deeper” analytics like the ones at HockeyViz back up his game.
This is probably best exemplified by his impact on Lars Eller:
Via Hockey Viz
When NAK and Eller are paired on a line together, they play more responsible defense and the team sees a marked decrease in an opponent’s expected goals. With the two on the ice at five-on-five, the Caps also see 60.1 percent of the shot attempts compared to just 51 percent when Eller is away from NAK. This is exactly what you want to see from a Caps third line and exactly what you get when you put NAK out there: fast, opportunistic hockey with a strong forechecking presence. The other team simply does not have the puck a lot when NAK is on the ice.
When Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson came back on January 8, NAK was one of the first guys out of the lineup. But after a few games sidelined, he’s back. Now, Aube-Kubel has been lining up beside Dylan Strome and Alex Ovechkin on the top line. It seemed absurd at first, but he doesn’t look all that out of place.
NAK’s style of hard-nosed hockey pairs well with Strome’s more fluid style of play. His physicality and speed open the ice for Ovi. He helps generate more scoring chances for both Ovi and Strome. It’s been two games, but the line has seen positive differentials at five-on-five in both scoring chances (+7) and high-danger chances (+4).
When putting NAK’s contributions in the context of the rest of the team, a picture starts to emerge of a hard-skating puck hound that will do the dirty work on the forecheck. It’s important to the success of the team to have guys that can fill that role when other players, especially board battlers like TJ Oshie or Nic Dowd, go down with an injury.
As the season progresses and Aube-Kubel gets more comfortable in Peter Laviolette’s system (keep in mind he was picked up off waivers from Toronto and he’s learning the system as he goes), I anticipate we’ll start to see more scoring production from NAK as well. He has two goals in his last four games, which might be an indicator that his comfort level with the team’s scheme is rising and he’s starting to build tangible chemistry throughout the Caps’ lineup.
First goal as a Cap pic.twitter.com/q6laVw7h3q
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) January 6, 2023
Should Aube-Kubel continue to impress with his play (and putting up some more points definitely won’t hurt his cause), the Capitals are going to find themselves needing to make another big decision this offseason in addition to the 15 other free agent decisions they already have.
At age 26, NAK is one of the younger players in the starting lineup and could have more years of good hockey ahead of him. And, at only $1M against the salary cap, he’s a bargain for what he brings to the ice and could easily be stashed in the minors if his skill erodes.
You could make an argument that compared to some of the Hershey guys waiting in the wings to get called up full-time, players like Beck Malenstyn or Garrett Pilon, Aube-Kubel is overpriced. Malenstyn and Pilon each make around $750k – but you have to keep in mind that Aube-Kubel not only has more regular-season NHL experience under his belt but also won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche last year. (He also nearly broke the trophy too.)
If the Caps want to continue to make the playoffs through the twilight of Ovi’s career, they’re going to need depth guys like NAK who have been there, done that, and know what it takes to win in the postseason at the highest level.
And at sub-$2M AAV Aube-Kubel can be one of those guys.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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