After taking a look at what Peter Laviolette might do with his line combinations at five-on-five, let’s take a dive into the special teams and break down the penalty killing unit for the Washington Capitals. What do the Caps need to do to this season to be effective on the PK? Who will be the team’s primary killers?
As a team known for having a potent offense, the Capitals’ penalty killing a season ago was one of their best efforts in recent memory; an 84 percent effective penalty kill was good for fifth-best in the NHL. A year before that, back in the 2019-2020 season, the Caps saw their penalty killers post a respectable 82.6 percent, good for sixth in the NHL.
Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, this recent rise occurs around the time that Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd came to DC during the 2018-2019 season. Before that, the PK had been a struggle for this team; even in their 2017-2018 season where the Caps won it all, they finished with a mediocre 80.3 percent which was good for fifteenth-best in the league.
Even with Zdeno Chara likely not returning, the Capitals have the players to be an effective group when short-handed. There’s just one problem: they can’t stay out of the box. If the Capitals want to improve their penalty killing from a season ago, they need to do just that. There is simply no question about it, this team needs to be more-disciplined.
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Peter Laviolette is an elite-level coach and the Capitals are an experienced group of proven winners on the ice. There should be no forgiveness this season for “bad penalties”. Despite posting a penalty minute differential of +11, good for 12th in the league in Laviolette’s inaugural season, the Capitals had earned themselves 516 penalty minutes which puts them with the sixth highest total in the league. Unacceptable.
Not only does this put a lot of strain on your penalty killers, it also breaks up the flow of the game. Taking guys like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov off of the ice for extended periods of time or putting them in situations where they have to kill penalties will derail tempo and play right into the hands of the opposing team.
Look no further than Tom Wilson; while he doesn’t wear the ‘C’ or any of the ‘A’s on his sweater, he’s a leader in the clubhouse. He’s come a long way as a player, but he needs to take the next step, again, and clean up his game further than he already has.
Wilson is a smart-guy, he understands that plays he makes or hits he lands will be watched with a keen-eye. Whether or not you agree with the calls that the officials make against him, there’s no denying that his league-leading 96 penalty minutes from a season ago are far too high. In 2019-2020, Wilson accumulated 93 penalty minutes while playing in 21 more games.
Tom Wilson is a tough, physical player who incites fear, and he should 100 percent continue to play with that style. However, he’s also one of the best players on the ice and his average time-on-ice dropped from 18:16 in 2019-2020 to only 16:32 a season ago. You can contribute that, at least in-part, to the amount of time he spent in the box. This is not to say that Tom Wilson was the only reason the Capitals were a highly-penalized team.
A lot of the times the Capitals’ wound up short-handed last year was because of so-called “lazy penalties”: like hooking, holding, or tripping. The coaching staff needs to correct these types of penalties throughout the lineup. With that said, Tom Wilson, a talented penalty-killer himself, simply cannot account for nearly 20 percent of his team’s penalties.
Inevitably, when the Capitals do go short-handed, these are the guys that Peter Laviolette will want to turn to, given they aren’t the guys who are sitting in the box. The forwards on the kill will be the same group of guys that we’re accustomed to seeing. However, the group is going to be different on the back-end.
Chara led the Capitals a season ago with 2:41 of average time-on-ice during the PK and Brenden Dillon saw an aTOI of 1:47 a season ago when short-handed. With neither of those players on the team, the 2021-2022 Washington Capitals penalty killing unit will look different.
PK1: Nic Dowd, Carl Hagelin
PK2: Lars Eller, Tom Wilson
D Pairing 1: Martin Fehervary, Nick Jensen
D Pairing 2: Michal Kempny, John Carlson
Nick Jensen will play an important role and be the mainstay on the penalty kill. He averaged 2:38 of short-handed time a season ago. John Carlson averaged 1:55 when short-handed and will likely see a larger role when short-handed this season. Aside from that, the Capitals have question marks. In an ideal world, Michal Kempny returns to his pre-injury form and helps anchor the PK. In 2019-2020, he averaged 1:35 of penalty killing time. Even with Kempny playing well, that still leaves only three defenseman.
The rookie, Martin Fehervary, has the skillset to be an excellent penalty killer. Putting him with Jensen on the PK to start the season will allow the Capitals to see if he’s up to the task, and putting him with Jensen puts him in the best possible pairing to succeed.
If Fehervary struggles in this role, the Capitals could look to Dmitry Orlov to step up. Orlov, not typically someone who kills penalties, will be asked to step up in a big way. A season ago, he averaged only 36 seconds of ice while short-handed. That number could dramatically increase if Fehervary isn’t ready.
Ultimately, the Capitals’ penalty killing unit is worse than it was a season ago. To off-set that, the Capitals need to work harder and dictate the pace of the game at even-strength so as to not put themselves in situations where they have to kill an excessive amount of penalties. It is Peter Laviolette’s job to ensure this happens.