Niskanen’s return could boost Caps
(WPNS) — It was the Washington Capitals’ first game without defenseman Matt Niskanen in the lineup, and it somehow went even worse than the low expectations. The 8-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers marked the first time the team had allowed that many goals in regulation since 2006. The two rookie blue liners in the lineup looked overwhelmed and it all painted a bleak picture of what the next month could look like if the Capitals didn’t make a move for another defenseman.
That was Oct. 14, and rather than hastily make a trade, Washington opted for patience even as it was planted firmly in the middle of the standings, an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position for a team and a fan base that has been the regular-season’s best for the past two years. The Capitals have been rewarded for their patience. Though still a work-in-progress they have become a much more sound defensive team with Niskanen out. They’ve won six of their past eight games, averaging 2.00 goals-against in that span.
Washington seems to be inching closer to the defense-first identity it first established under Coach Barry Trotz, just as Niskanen is nearing a return to the lineup after injuring his left hand. It’s unclear if he’ll play on the team’s two-game road trip, but Trotz said Niskanen will travel with the team and practice. As a right-shot defenseman who plays on the penalty kill, power play and against opponents’ top forwards at even-strength, his return will round out the Capitals’ top two defense pairings, perhaps allowing rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey to flourish and continue developing in more sheltered roles.
How the Capitals look with Niskanen back will also provide a better indication of the team’s progress nearly a quarter of the way into the season.
“I think our structure is unreal right now,” Bowey said.
“We’re getting on the same page,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Obviously every game is getting stronger. The biggest thing is we keep on it, keep growing, keep working on the small things. Those are the little things that win you games, and that’s what’s helping us
That figures to improve once Niskanen gets back in the lineup. Before he got hurt, he was playing more than 23 minutes per game, and without him, defenseman John Carlson has skated an average 27 minutes, 47 seconds in the 13 games Niskanen has been sidelined. Carlson is the NHL’s time-on-ice leader, and while he’s played some of his best hockey since his career 2014-15 season, the Capitals also know that workload isn’t ideal or sustainable going forward. In addition to quarterbacking the team’s top power play unit, Carlson has averaged the most shorthanded time of any Washington player since Niskanen got hurt, and that’s one area Trotz could reduce his minutes.
“It’ll allow Carly to stay a little fresher, probably be a little more involved in the offense,” Trotz said. “He’ll probably be a little sharper. He’s played a
lot of minutes, and he’s done a really good job.”
Said Carlson: “I don’t think you ever get used to it. You just try not to manage it, you try to make sure that you’re bringing the energy and the enthusiasm. It’s easy to make little mistakes sometimes. Obviously when you’re playing that much, sometimes easier things get harder. I think mentally you’ve just got to be prepared and accept the challenge and go after it.”
Niskanen’s return will also force the Capitals to start mak-
ing some lineup and roster decisions. While salary cap space isn’t expected to be an issue once he comes off long-term injured reserve — Washington can just designate forward Andre Burakovsky, out for at least another month after surgery on his thumb, to long-term injured reserve to free his $3 million in salary cap space — the Capitals will have eight defensemen and a maximum of 23 players on the roster. When forward Tyler Graovac comes off injured reserve, also expected soon,
Washington will have to reassign one player, and the only two who don’t need waivers are Bowey and 21-year-old forward Jakub Vrana.
Since that game against Philadelphia, Bowey has played in all but one game, held out against Buffalo last week because of an undisclosed “lower-body” injury. Against Edmonton on Sunday night, he played a career-high 16:51, recording his fifth assist in the past 12 games. Based on ice time, both he and Djoos have seemingly leapfrogged veter-
ans Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness in the pecking order.
The Capitals hoped they would learn more about their young defensemen when Niskanen got hurt. Now they’re going to see just how far their team has come when he gets back in the lineup.
“The good thing about having some injuries is you get an opportunity,” Trotz said. “Some guys do get thrown into the fire, and they touch the stove and you see if they jump off it, or if they can handle the heat.”
The impending return of Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) may allow rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey to flourish and continue developing.