At season’s outset, Washington was a clear favourite for the Stanley Cup, along with Pittsburgh. Throughout the season, Columbus and Minnesota emerged as favourites, as well. The rise of Minnesota was expected under Boudreau, but Columbus rose quickly on the back of Bobrovsky and a lethal powerplay. With the Metropolitan division clearly the NHL’s strongest, Washington needed to make a splash.
Ovechkin, the franchise cornerstone, is aging. Oshie will likely be lost to free agency this summer and Kuznetsov is due for a raise from his current $3M AAV. Let’s not forget Washington will also lose a pretty talented player to expansion this year, most likely. The window is now for the Caps.
Shattenkirk makes a very deep defense corps, even deeper. When healthy, the Caps D lines up as:
- Alzner – Carlson
- Orlov – Niskanen*
- Orpik/Schmidt – Shattenkirk
* Shattenkirk & Niskanen can switch
Consider this: according to the numbers, Washington has 3 D (Carlson, Niskanen & Shattenkirk) in the top-25 in Points/60 at even strength. That is a D-man on each pairing capable of producing at an elite level. With the playoffs an inevitable grind, Washington can afford to compensate for injury or scoring droughts from one of their D. In a tough division where Columbus relies on a rookie (Werenski) & Pittsburgh relies on the oft-injured Letang, this is a key differentiator for Washington.
Where Shattenkirk will make the biggest impact is on the powerplay. Washington’s powerplay sits 6th in the NHL, but 5th in the East behind Toronto, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Columbus. While the Lightning & Sabres likely will not make the playoffs, Toronto may, and Columbus will. Shattenkirk sits 3rd in the NHL in PP Points/60 for D, behind Hedman & Werenski (over 100 mins). He is 3rd in PPG/60, behind Weber & Parayko. Undoubtedly, Shattenkirk will see time on the top PP unit (he should!). With 7 PP goals (2nd in NHL D-men) this season, Shattenkirk is a major reason for the success of the St. Louis powerplay & his presence on the point forces opponents to contend with many options. Looking at Ovechkin and Shattenkirk’s PP heat maps, courtesy of Micah McCurdy, Shattenkirk and Ovechkin can not only co-exist, but, be lethal on the PP.
Between the two of them, they’ve generated almost 300 PP shots. Looking at the heat map, it is clear where Ovechkin sets up (no surprise). Shattenkirk’s shots are generated from the top, but he has a propensity to sneak down and penetrate the PK box. His set-up plays perfectly into the Caps PP set-up; here’s how I see it setting up now:
On the Caps 1st unit, the puck runs through Backstrom (19) on the 1/2 wall. With Shattenkirk (22) at the top and Ovechkin (8) in his usual area, it presents two right-handed, one-timer options for Backstrom. Based on Ovechkin’s proven success on the PP & teams continuing to fail in their attempts to stop it, the defender would have to make a choice. Backstrom, one of the NHL’s most gifted passers, would easily recognize the ‘choice’ and capitalize on the open one-timer option (green arrows represent pass to one-timer). Oshie (77) and Backstrom can play catch as well, forcing the LW and LD down, opening up the lane for the one-timer to Shattenkirk or Ovechkin.
By having Shattenkirk on the 1st PP unit, it allows Carlson & Orlov to play on the 2nd unit together. Trotz could elect to include Niskanen in there as well, whatever combination has the most chemistry. I am not a proponent of 2 RD on the PP, but Niskanen’s PP numbers are very good this year. A righty-lefty pairing on the 2nd unit allows for one-timers on both sides. With Williams or Eller at the net, it gives Kuznetsov the ability to work the puck on the wall, as well as open himself up for a shot. Carlson on the 2nd unit means less attention is paid to Kuznetsov, leading to more space for him. Having a different look on the 2nd unit is an advantage for the Capitals, as it forces teams to adapt mid-penalty kill to a separate structure. Keep in mind, Trotz may choose to use Shattenkirk on this unit, keeping Carlson on the top unit, but that would be squandering a major opportunity.
In the playoffs, when the margin for error is razor thin, simple adjustments and different looks are all a team needs to generate the scoring opportunity. Shattenkirk’s proven ability to drive a powerplay is a welcome addition to the Caps. It is reasonable to expect an increase in shots, as well as scoring chances. Many nights, teams focus on shutting Ovechkin down (unsuccessfully). With Shattenkirk as another weapon, the forwards on the PK are forced to choose which passing lane to take, meaning one is open for the shot. It is a new look for the Caps, it takes pressure off Ovechkin and allows Backstrom to control the play.
Expect teams to adjust to the Caps PP, but not without consequence. Should teams press up towards the top, Backstrom can use Oshie & Johansson below the icing line as options to create opportunity. Washington’s top unit with Shattenkirk, are responsible for 33 powerplay goals, Ovechkin with 12 (2nd in NHL). Backstrom is 2nd in the NHL with 19 powerplay assists. Combine the three, Washington’s top PP unit boasts the 2nd most effective players in PPG, PPA and PPG by a D-man in the NHL. That is tough to defend, even for the league’s best penalty kills.
The Caps are all-in this season, for good reason. They’ve got arguably the deepest D core in the NHL, the NHL’s most lethal powerplay shooter in Ovechkin and one of the NHL’s best powerplay D. Add in a Vezina-calibre goaltender in Holtby, three lines capable of scoring, the Caps have ticked all the proverbial boxes. That’s a recipe for playoff success.
Due to the nature of the playoff match-ups, I’d say the best playoff series will likely occur in the 2nd round with some combination of Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus. The Caps are going to be a fun team to watch, especially if they continue to score 5+ goals at home on a regular basis.