Capitals’ Role Players Must Step up to Have a Long Playoff Run

Now that the All-Star break has come and gone and the players had their fun, it’s time to get back to figurative and literal business. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson represented the Washington Capitals in Las Vegas for the long weekend to showcase their skills and also help the Metropolitan team win the mini-tournament. Because of their play this season, they’re two skaters that can help carry the Capitals into the playoffs.

That’s not enough, however. Neither are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie. The Capitals must have their role players step up if the team has any shot at breaking their poor to average play of late and gaining momentum entering the postseason.

Capitals Need More From Third- and Fourth-line Vets

Las Vegas served as a distraction over the weekend. That’s what the city is for in general: to be entertained and forget about life for a while – to paraphrase Billy Joel. That was well in the realm of fair use. The panic was grounded for a few days.

Related: Capitals’ Stanley Cup Hopes Get Boost From Kuznetsov’s Resurgence

As easy as it is right now to drift into anxiety and uncertainty about the Capitals’ season and future, which has become a favorite pastime of the fanbase, there’s still a few weeks to get back to dominant form like they had to start the season. Some players have provided confidence not to fret, but others need to increase their production and better their performance.

Blue Liner Schultz on the Block

The defense heading into the season had some presumed issues, but with the emergence of Martin Fehervary and the resurgence of Nick Jensen, the blue line has been a pleasant surprise. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been impenetrable. John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov have played fine, but Justin Schultz is someone who has declined after a solid first campaign in Washington last season.

Justin Schultz Washington Capitals
Justin Schultz, Washington Capitals (Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images)

In 2020-21, Schultz skated in 46 games, registering 27 points and a plus-12 rating while averaging 19:01 of ice time. This season, he has just 11 points with a zero rating and averages 17:29 of ice time through 42 games. That is a seemingly significant drop in production from the veteran who is in a contract year.

Schultz is one of three Washington defensemen who are unrestricted free agents this summer (Matt Irwin, Michal Kempny). Realistically, all three won’t be back in Washington. Schultz was a $4 million cap hit this season, which was the third-highest among blueliners. The 31-year-old has the opportunity to win another Cup and perhaps increase his market value with better play in the next five months. If his performance remains sub-par, he may even be a trade piece at the March 21 deadline.

The Fourth Line

During 2020-21, Washington’s fourth line was a luxury. Nic Dowd, Carl Hagelin, and Garnett Hathaway played in all 56 games during the pandemic-shortened season and produced timely goals and gritty play, propelling the team into the playoffs. Yet, they aren’t players who should be carrying a team, and that’s why the Capitals suffered yet another early postseason exit.

The trio is all in their early-30s, and with the reassuring play of the franchise’s youth, this invaluable grouping is leaning more toward replaceable. Dowd signed a three-year, $3.9 million contract extension in November, but Hagelin and Hathaway currently are a combined $4.25 million cap hit and are both unrestricted free agents after next season.

As the old saying goes, “the best ability is availability.” Dowd has missed 13 games this season, and when he does play, his penalty minutes have been up. The forward has spent 24 minutes in the box so far, which is already the fourth-highest mark of his eight years in the NHL – and 2021-22 still has 35 games left (fingers crossed). He’s only eight penalty minutes away from setting a career-high in something that shouldn’t be bragged about. On the other hand, his offensive production is at a high pace for his standard. Imagine what it could be if he was on the ice more.

Nic Dowd Washington Capitals
Nic Dowd, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Unfortunately, like most things in life, everything is a trade-off. Hagelin’s production has dropped. He only has eight points through 45 games while averaging around the same amount of ice time he has during his four years in D.C. Like Schultz, Hagelin is tinkering on the edge of maybe being moved at the deadline.

Hathaway, Eller Increasing Production

Hathaway has been playing well this season. His points are up and his penalty minutes are down. Considering he has a reputation of a troublemaker at times, this is very promising. His 14 points are the eighth-most on the Capitals and he’s on pace for a career-high 27. The forward has only one season in his seven-year NHL career where he’s had less penalty minutes than games played. He has a chance to make this his second.

Another bright spot on the roster is Lars Eller, but nothing is new there. For example, he’s winning 48.5% of his faceoffs this season, which is right in line with his career average of 49.5%. The forward is as consistent as ever when it comes to production. In fact, his point total has increased all but one year during his five years in Washington – he dropped from 38 to 36 in 2018-19, but since he had the Stanley Cup-clinching goal, that two-point slide can be overlooked. This season, he’s on pace to record 43 points – the best of his 13-year NHL career. Eller, 32, is an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Capitals Need More

As of right now, Schultz and Hagelin are playing themselves out of D.C. and Eller and Hathaway are providing some much-needed support to the top-six. With that in mind, and this applies to Dowd as well, they need to do even more.

In regard to Schultz and Hagelin, it’s not unrealistic that both skaters could possibly be moved at the trade deadline. Washington is in the market for veteran goaltending and additional scoring, so rumors would imply.

Related: Capitals Desperately Need a Good February

This week, the Capitals have games against Columbus and Montreal, and four of their next six contests are against teams in the bottom third of the NHL in point percentage. Nothing against those opponents, but if Washington ever had a stretch to figure things out, now’s the time. And it starts with each player discovering how to personally contribute to the team moving forward.

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