Ode to Oshie: The Versatile Caps Power Forward

As the regular season winds down and the playoffs encroach, now is the perfect time to sing the praises of Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie. I am hardly the first to laud the American-born winger. In 2014, he went from bubble Olympian to household name after his four-for-six performance in the shootout against Russia to seal the victory on enemy ice in Sochi.

He arrived in Washington via a trade with the St. Louis Blues in exchange for fan favorite Troy Brouwer. Last spring, he played an indispensable role in the Caps’ Cup run, before reducing the hockey world to tears when describing what the Cup win meant to him and his family in light of his father’s ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s.

However, rather than discuss his potential star power, today, let’s celebrate what I consider an under-appreciated aspect of Oshie’s game: his versatilit.

Oshie plays on both special teams for the Capitals and has shown an ability to fit in on any trio of Washington forwards. With an average ice time of 18:37 this season, he does not play an exceptional number of minutes, but he is unique in contributing to all facets of the game.

On the Penalty Kill

When the Capitals’ penalty kill is on the ice without Oshie, they surrender shots at a rate 10% below league average; with Oshie, that number falls to 29%. To get a sense of is value while short-handed, here’s a clip from Game 5 of the Pittsburgh Penguins series from last spring. At the 4:49 mark, the Penguins are not on a power play, but they have their goalie pulled.

As you can see, the puck filters to a waiting Phil Kessel at the point. Oshie immediately collapses on Kessel, taking away his time and space. Then, while dropping to a knee, Oshie employs the same hand-eye coordination that makes him one of the league’s best in the shootout to strip the puck off Kessel and fire it all the way down the ice into the empty net. This clip showcases the traits that make Oshie an excellent defensive-zone player, his willingness to get dirty with the high-end skill to knock the puck off an opposing player’s stick.

On the Power Play

On the power play? On the Caps’ vaunted 1-3-1 man advantage, Oshie plays in the “bumper” spot in front of the net. His versatility is perfectly suited for this role where he often must open himself up for one-timers, slide in front of the net to screen the goaltender, distribute the puck from his central position to the open man elsewhere, or clean up the mess in front of the net to finish.

The core of the Capitals’ dominance on the power play has been the combination of Nicklas Backstrom’s passing and Alexander Ovechkin’s scoring touch. After those two, the other pieces have often been interchangeable, but I would contend that Oshie represents the most dangerous “bumper” threat they have ever had at their disposal because of the different ways in which he can menace a penalty kill.

Take this goal from Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final as an example:


Here, Oshie settles into a soft spot in the Lightning’s coverage as Nicklas Backstrom patiently awaits a passing lane to open up. The moment Alex Killorn moves his stick, creating the opportunity for a pass, Backstrom puts the puck perfectly into Oshie’s wheelhouse. Oshie beats Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevsky with the shot because his release is devastatingly quick, without any drop-off in accuracy.

When you think of the Washington power play, your first thought is always of Alex Ovechkin’s powerful one-timer from his office, but the Caps’ system is so effective because of the variety of options available to their two elite passers (Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov) along the half-wall. The difficulty of defending this many options has made the 1-3-1 a preferred tactic in the league. In many cases, Backstrom and Kuznetsov have not one but three potential one-timers available to them: Ovechkin’s of course, but also that of Oshie in the slot and John Carlson at the point.

Oshie’s Game 6 goal from the Lightning series showcases how dangerous his lightning-quick release and surgical accuracy can be from the high slot, but this goal from Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights shows Oshie’s unique combination of skill and tenacity at the net mouth:

At first glance, this play may not look like much. Like most power plays, the Caps are at their best working once they have established their 1-3-1 structure in the offensive zone. Here, the Caps choose to attack on the rush. Backstrom feeds Kuznetsov who takes a quick wrister, which, though a relatively low-danger chance on its own, produces a juicy rebound out into the slot.

Oshie, who is driving the net at top speed, pounces on the rebound, kicking it to a position where we can tap it in with his blade. Again, it may not look like much, but the ability to deftly redirect the puck to a suitable shooting position with his skate before hammering it home all while making a top-speed drive to the net is enviable to most NHL players, epitomizing Oshie’s unique and diverse skillset.

At Five-on-Five

At five-on-five, Oshie’s dogged forechecking and seemingly boundless energy make him the Caps’ spark plug on a nightly basis. Over the course of a grueling 82-game regular season, every team and player is prone to nights when they just don’t seem engaged, but not Oshie. On nights when the team appears uninspired, you can always count on seeing number 77 buzzing around the ice, making his opponents’ life hell.

I don’t think hitting is a great evaluator of a player’s effectiveness. If you spend all game hitting, it probably means you are chasing the puck rather than possessing it and building a threat to score, but Oshie is one of the best in the game at throwing hits that help his team build possession. Consider this sequence, also from last year’s Tampa series:

Oshie delivers a bone-rattling body check on Cedric Paquette, but this check is not just for the sake of sending a message. Instead, it helps the Caps regain possession of the puck and initiate the cycle, with any possible message sending as an afterthought.

Plays like this one help explain how Oshie can deliver just under two hits a game on the season while retaining a 2.9 relative Corsi-For percentage: selective hitting aimed at securing the puck is an undervalued tool as the league moves away from “heavy hockey” that priveleges size toward a possession-based game favoring skill.

Oshie celebrates after beating Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the shootout at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)

In the end, Oshie’s combination of grind and skill help him stand out on a star-studded Capitals roster. Even in pregame warm-ups, he grabs your attention, as a trainer tosses him pucks that he catches and then juggles, chasing them around the neutral zone like a golden retriever after a frisbee.

Once the game gets underway, Oshie’s fast hands and energetic style contribute to every aspect of a Washington victory. If you turn on the Capitals this spring, I guarantee Oshie will jump off the screen. Knowing the finer points of his game will help you uncover one of the most effective players in the league.