COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — By bringing defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk aboard this week, the Washington Capitals beefed up their blueline with a scoring threat rare for the position.
The Capitals defensemen weren’t exactly struggling. But Shattenkirk brings an offensive ability that few in the league have matched this year. Shattenkirk was fourth in the NHL in points and power play points by defensemen when the St. Louis Blues sent the impending free agent to Washington Monday.
In 190 minutes on the power play this year with the Blues, Shattenkirk registered 20 points. The Capitals’ three most-used defenders have 27 points with the man-advantage—in nearly twice as much time on the ice.
The Capitals tend to lean on their talent up front and use four forwards and one defenseman on the power play (some teams prefer the three-forward, two-defensemen look). John Carlson is the defender used most often in that situation, and he has 12 points. Matt Niskanen, the defenseman running the point on the second power play unit, has 9 points. The two of them together barely outscored Shattenkirk, 21 to 20 points.
Being able to insert Shattenkirk into the power play, hypothetically, brings a significant surplus in points, as he’s equaled the production of Washington’s two best defenders on the power play in less time.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, recognizing Shattenkirk’s skillset, made him the most-used defenseman on the power play in each of his first two games with the team. Thursday against the Devils, Shattenkirk took 7:23 minutes at extra strength, 83 percent of Washington’s time on the power play, though he hasn’t yet scored for the Capitals.
The offensive boost Shattenkirk provides should extend to even strength as well. The seven-year veteran has averaged 2.08 overall points per 60 minutes, half a point more than Matt Niskanen, the Capitals’ leading defenseman.
Washington is not struggling to score goals; they’re third in the league with 3.29 goals per game, trailing only Pittsburgh and Minnesota. But the Capitals have struggled to support goalie Braden Holtby in the last two postseasons. Another offensive weapon can’t hurt come April, when they will try to finally advance past the second round of the playoffs.
Shattenkirk has to take someone’s minutes to slide into the lineup, and Nate Schmidt was reassigned to the bench Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. The two were deployed in similar roles for their teams prior to the trade: both started their shifts in the offensive zone about 59 percent of the time.
Defensemen starting in the offensive zone upwards of 54 percent of the time can be safely considered to have offensive tendencies, while those beginning their shifts on offense less than 46 percent of the time are generally more defense-oriented.
Karl Alzner, for instance, is a defensive specialist for the Capitals, starting in the defensive zone a team-leading 54.3 percent of the time. That emphasis on defense is part of the reason why Alzner averages 0.58 points per 60 minutes, fewest among Washington’s regular defensemen; he’s busy protecting his net and needs to work harder to get into scoring range.
There are different reasons for coaches to favor sending a defenseman out into the offensive zone. The defender could be too good of a scorer to use him to protect his goalie, making the offensive zone the more logical starting point.
Sometimes a coach isn’t ready to trust a player with a defensive zone start responsibility, which is often the case with younger defensemen. Alternatively, a coach might trust a defenseman but simply has better options for the defensive zone.
Whatever the thinking has been with Schmidt, Trotz made the choice to scratch the fourth-year player Thursday with Shattenkirk in the fold and Brooks Orpik back from injury.
St. Louis offered Shattenkirk an eight-year max contract extension last summer, but he declined, citing a desire to expand on his traditional role by also closing out games on defense. The Blues had two other right-handed defensemen better suited for late-game defense than Shattenkirk, as do the Capitals.
With Niskanen and Carlson still under contract next year, the Capitals are unlikely to retain Shattenkirk when he becomes a free agent this summer. That won’t matter as long as Shattenkirk’s offensive ability helps carry Washington to a deep playoff run and its first Stanley Cup title.