Our season-ending breakdown of the Capitals’ roster concludes with Forwards, Part II (Hendricks to Ward).
2012-13 salary cap hit: $825,000 | Age: 30 (Turns 31 on June 17)
Hendricks entered the year in a role as a fourth-line role player and occasional fighter under Bruce Boudreau. In those first 22 games of the season before the coaching change, the Minnesota native’s ice time only eclipsed a dozen minutes four times, and that trend continued in the earliest weeks under Hunter.
In late January, though, the absence of Nicklas Backstrom because of a concussion and Marcus Johansson because of food poisoning meant Hendricks was pushed into spot duty among the top six forwards. Not long after, he found a home on the wing of the shutdown third line. Hendricks’s ice time and responsibilities increased – in the final 36 games of the season there were only four contests in which he didn’t play more than 12 minutes.
His offensive production declined (4G, 5A) — as did that of many forwards — but by the playoffs, Hendricks was fully entrenched in his new place in the framework. In the postseason, he appeared in all 14 games and averaged 16:05 per contest, led the team in hits (61), recorded a goal (in Game 7 against Boston) and an assist on 22 shots. Did this year show that Hendricks is cut out to be more than a middle-weight enforcer? Will the Capitals’ next coach continue to use him as a shutdown winger?
2012-13 salary cap hit: $900,000 | Age: 21
Although he was one of few forwards who saw his offensive output increase (27 points in his rookie season to 46 in 2011-12), Johansson didn’t have the strongest or most consistent sophomore campaign. At times, he didn’t look comfortable with the puck and often tried to force plays.
Consider that while Johansson’s point total was up he took 12 fewer shots on goal this year (102 to 90) in the regular season. Rather than take a shot if he had one, Johansson would defer to trying to set up a linemate and often he was making the one-pass-too-many type of play.
Johansson picked up a goal and two assists on 22 shots but admitted that he needed to contribute more. Already a strong skater, Johansson shows flashes of being a quality playmaker but he must learn to shoot the puck more when the opportunity is given to him. Finding a way to improve his team-worst faceoff performance (43.2 percent, 403 of 710) certainly wouldn’t hurt Johansson, either.
“I think I had my chances and I could’ve scored more, maybe,” Johansson said on breakdown day. “You always try to see it as, as long as you get your chances you know you’re not playing too bad. I think there obviously were some positive things. But obviously you always want to score more, and you want to do everything you can to help the team win.”
2012-13 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 39 (Turns 40 on July 4)
For the first time since 2001-02, Knuble failed to record 20 goals in a season. His decline in offensive production (18 points) caused something of a chicken-or-egg argument as the winger spent more time among the bottom six forwards than with elite linemates, as he had the previous two seasons in Washington. Was Knuble’s performance resulting in a role that provided less opportunity? Or was the role limiting how well Knuble could perform?
It was probably a little bit of both. For all of Knuble’s leadership skills and uncanny net presence, he appeared a step slower this past season. When he did create scoring chances, more seemed off the mark than in previous years. He voiced his frustration when Hunter made him a healthy scratch nine times over a 14-game stretch beginning in mid-February, and when the playoffs arrived Knuble was in the pressbox once more.
The veteran was inserted into the lineup in Game 4 of the first round against Boston while Nicklas Backstrom served a one-game suspension, though, and his play earned him a spot the rest of the way. Knuble recorded three points (2G, 1A) and was instrumental in setting up Joel Ward’s series winner in Game 7 against the Bruins and appeared renewed. Knuble said he’s open to continuing his playing career, though it seems as though he and the Capitals may go their separate ways this summer.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $4.5 million | Age: 28 (Turns 29 on June 23)
Over the course of his time in Washington, Laich has filled nearly every conceivable on-ice role imaginable, and the 2011-12 season was no different.
He spent time on the shutdown third line, centered Alex Ovechkin on the first line and played with Alexander Semin on the second line, and is the only player on the roster who averaged more than two minutes per game on both the power play (2:11) and penalty kill (2:28). Not to mention that he didn’t miss a game despite suffering a left knee injury, believed to have been a sprained MCL, in early February.
For all of the hats Laich wore for the Capitals, though, the question remains: Where is he best suited? Will he spend his career as a utility man for whatever need Washington has at any given moment, or will he be given time to settle into a certain spot under a new coach?
2012-13 salary cap hit: $9,538,462 | Age: 26 (Turns 27 on Sept. 17)
Ovechkin recorded a career low 65 points, 20 fewer than 2010-11, tying him with the same offensive output as Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, Tampa Bay’s Teddy Purcell and San Jose’s Logan Couture. Ovechkin started off slowly but gradually built some offensive momentum after New Year’s, recording 22 of his 38 goals in the 42 games he appeared in between Jan. 1 and the end of the regular season.
In addition to the offensive numbers, though, it’s worth noting that his average ice time (19:48) was nearly two minutes less than any other season. Hunter, now somewhat famously, declined to play Ovechkin when the Capitals were protecting a lead throughout the playoffs. (In the postseason, Ovechkin’s average of 19:51 per game was more than three minutes less than any of his previous four appearances in the tournament). To his credit, Ovechkin didn’t make a fuss about the decreased playing time publicly, but it’s hard to imagine that he will spend as much time riding the bench in the future.
Therein lies the challenge for the next coach: finding the balance between using Ovechkin consistently, but also being willing to take a hard-line approach when necessary with the star left wing.
2012-13 salary cap hit: RFA | Age: 24
Perreault found a consistent spot in the Capitals’ lineup in mid-January after Nicklas Backstrom was sidelined by a concussion. He stepped into the role of second-line center during the bulk of Backstrom’s absence and added timely offense on several occasions.
The problem with Perreault, as it has been throughout his young pro career, is that he continues to be a streaky scorer. When he sees an influx in ice time and receives the opportunity to play alongside top offensive talent, there will be a sudden uptick in his game, but it will then plateau. When his ice time drops or he is placed on the third or fourth line, Perreault struggles.
Perrault has yet to prove he can be a consistent presence at the NHL level, and that’s why for the time being he appears to fit better as a depth addition to the Capitals’ lineup rather than, say, filling the team’s need at second-line center.
2012-13 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 28
With Semin, there has always seemed to be an equal distribution of pros and cons: His uncanny offensive ability and 54 points, second best on the team, in contrast to his team-high 28 minor penalties; his strong play at both ends of the ice in the first round of the playoffs in contrast to a disappearing act in the second.
The Russian winger tied his career high for games played (77) but saw his ice time dip to an all-time low average of 16:47, just as Hunter limited Alex Ovechkin’s time. The declining role was a source of friction for Semin, according to his agent, Mark Gandler, and could be part of the reason the Capitals choose to part ways with their longest-tenured player.
While it remains to be seen what type of contract Semin could command in a shallow free agent market this summer, perhaps it is time for him to leave Washington. There’s no denying he is sublimely talented, but if the Capitals are going to continue on the path Hunter laid out this season, perhaps it simply is a mismatch and time for a change of scenery on both sides.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $3 million | Age: 31
Despite being on the ice for the fewest goals against per 60 minutes (1.49) of any Capitals player in the regular season, Ward saw his ice time drop from previous years to an average of 12:26 during his first stint in Washington. Ward acknowledged multiple times over the course of the year that he wasn’t having the season he envisioned after signing a four-year deal worth $12 million in the summer of 2011.
Perhaps the contract raised unrealistic offensive expectations for Ward, whose career high is 17 goals and 35 points from the 2008-09 season in Nashville, but he certainly didn’t see as much opportunity to play in all situations in Washington as he did as a Predator either.
Ward’s track record in the playoffs played a significant role in the Capitals wanting to sign him, and in the postseason he did elevate his overall game. Ward wound up equal parts hero and goat, though. On one hand, he scored the series winner in overtime of Game 7 against the Bruins but on the other, he took the untimely double-minor penalty with less than 30 seconds remaining in Game 5 of the second round, priming a Rangers comeback in that contest that altered the series.
It will be interesting to see whether a new head coach would put Ward in a role that would better showcase his defensive instincts than the one he got during extended stints on the fourth line under Hunter.