Capitals’ Defense is Keeping Them Atop the NHL Standings

At the start of 2021-22, the Washington Capitals had some questions to answer about their blue line. A majority of the defense was aging and accounted for a little less than $24.4 million against the franchise’s salary cap. Veterans such as John Carlson and Nick Jensen needed to step up, as well as rookies and bargain skaters.

Nick Jensen Washington Capitals
Nick Jensen, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Despite giving up three goals against the Anaheim Ducks last night, the blue line has responded as one of the top defenses in the league. It’s one reason the Capitals have the most points (38) in the NHL at the moment.  

Capitals’ Defense Deserves More Credit

Over the summer, Brenden Dillon was traded to the Winnipeg Jets which left a hole on the left side of the ice. Rookie Martin Fehervary was slotted into the lineup since opening night and has had a solid debut campaign thus far. With the uncertainty that surrounded Michal Kempny—who currently skates for Washington’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hershey Bears­­—the team needed veteran leadership from within, players to show their potential and a little outside support.

Goals AgainstGoals Against/Games PlayedPenalty Kill %Shots Against/Games Played
NHL Rank10th4th12th3rd
Capitals Defensive Stats for 2021-22

Carlson and Dmitry Orlov are having good seasons to start. Both rank in the top five for the Capitals in points and average time on ice, and Orlov’s plus-14 rating is fifth and Carlson’s plus-8 is sixth. First in that category at plus-20 is Jensen who has stepped up tremendously. That rating is good for fourth in the NHL, second among defensemen.

Jensen’s Play is a Nice Surprise

Jensen has been revitalized this season so it would appear. From opening night against the New York Rangers, he has been skating with speed and finishing his checks. From an offensive standpoint, he has already recorded nine points in 26 games. That may not seem like a lot, but in his seven-year career thus far, his highest point total has been 15. Of those nine points, three have been goals, which is one shy of his career-best four in 2016-17, while a member of the Detroit Red Wings.

He also ranks second on the team in average ice time while short-handed, spending 2:24 per game on the penalty kill. First is Trevor van Riemsdyk at 2:26. This is the 30-year-old’s second season with Washington and it’s a make-or-break campaign. He isn’t an unrestricted free agent until after next season, but general manager Brian MacLellan needs to start thinking of the future now, and it would be better if van Riemsdyk proved his worth sooner rather than later. He did not skate last night against the Ducks due to COVID protocols.

Related:  Capitals’ Third-Period Collapses Leave Room for Improvement   

His absence called for Matt Irwin, 34, to play in his second straight game. The veteran journeyman was signed by the Capitals in the offseason and made his team debut on Dec. 4 versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. Other defensemen such as Dennis Cholowski have also had to step in due to injuries, such as Justin Schultz who missed time last week. Cholowski has averaged 13:36 of ice time in four games played this season, posting a minus-4 rating.

Fehervary and the Future

No player has been asked more of than Fehervary. The 22-year-old has skated in all 26 games for the Capitals, registering five points (2 goals, 3 assists) and a plus-8 rating. However, his average time on ice for a rookie has proved that head coach Peter Laviolette trusts the young Slovakian. Fehervary averages 19:08 a game, 17:38 spent at even strength (3rd on team) and 1:28 on the penalty kill (7th on team). His ice time will only increase, especially when given more power-play opportunities in the future.

The other defenseman that is expected to be a big part of Washington’s future is Alexander Alexeyev. In 17 AHL games so far this season, he’s recorded three assists and has a minus-4 rating, but flourished with Salvat Yulaev Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2020-21. In 55 games played, he put up 16 points with a plus-3 rating. Based on Laviolette’s moves thus far, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Alexeyev is recalled at some point to gain some NHL experience.

Defense Moving Forward

Fehervary has provided the blue line with hope moving forward so there is no rebuild, but rather just a transition. Carlson will remain the anchor and leader at least through 2025-26 if the team doesn’t have a collapse and he is moved at some point during the rest of his contract. After those two players, it gets a little iffy.

PlayerAgeAnnual SalaryUFA/RFA
John Carlson31$8 Million2026-27
Dmitry Orlov30$5.1 Million2023-24
Justin Schultz31$4 Million2022-23
Nick Jensen31$2.5 Million2023-24
Dennis Cholowski23$900,0002022-23
Martin Fehervary22$791,6672023-24
Matt Irwin34$750,0002022-23
Trevor van Riemsdyk30$950,0002023-24
Michal Kempny31$1.375 Million2022-23
Capitals’ Defensemen Contracts

The next two summers are going to be difficult for MacLellan. At the end of this season, Schultz is an unrestricted free agent, as are Kempny and Irwin. Chowlowski is a restricted free agent. Jensen, Orlov, and van Riemsdyk are unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2023.

It’s assumed that Kempny and Irwin will not be resigned, but management also must be prepared to only retain Jensen, Orlov, or Schultz. Schultz’s fate may already be decided considering his $4 million cap hit. If it comes down to Orlov and Jensen, it will all depend on their progression next year. Both will demand more money, but Jensen may be the better value, especially considering that the offense has four unrestricted free agents that summer as well, and Washington will most likely want to extend Tom Wilson for what will seemingly be a major payday for the winger.  

Related: Capitals Must Continue Goalie Rotation of Samsonov and Vanecek

If Alexeyev is eventually recalled, perhaps at the turn of the year, then his play may make the decision to let Schultz walk a little easier. Or Washington could just do what they did with Fehervary and insert Alexeyev into the lineup at the start of 2022-23 and take it from there.

There are difficult decisions ahead, but, as of right now, the blue line is exceeding expectation—and concentrating on making a run at the Stanley Cup. If they continue their play, that’s a very realistic goal.

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