The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

J.J. Regan
In an offseason where the Caps lost Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, Brian MacLellan decided to focus on improving team defense in the bottom-six rather than replacing production.
In an offseason where the Caps lost Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, Brian MacLellan decided to focus on improving team defense in the bottom-six rather than replacing production.

The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

One of the biggest needs for the Capitals heading into the offseason was forward depth, specifically the fourth line. By whatever metric you want to use, it just was not good enough in 2018-19.

One of the obvious problems was the lack of offense. In seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington scored 20 goals. Five of those goals came from the bottom-six and one of those was an empty netter. That's not good enough.

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The Capitals were busy on Monday with a number of signings and look like they will have a new fourth line with the addition of free agent forwards Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.

The most important question a team should ask itself in the offseason is if it got better and, at first glance, you may not see how Washington improved with these signings. Brett Connolly, who scored 22 goals last season, and Andre Burakovsky are both gone. Richard Panik, who was also signed Monday, will play on the third line. He scored 22 goals once in his career, back in 2016-17 with the Chicago Blackhawks when he was playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Hathaway and Leipsic's career-highs in goals are 11 and seven respectively.

So did the Caps actually get better or did they have to just settle for what they could afford given the team's salary cap constraints?

Offensively it seems unlikely that Washington's new additions will match the production of the players the team has lost, but Brian MacLellan was looking to improve the team in other ways this offseason.

When evaluating the team, the offensive struggles of the fourth line were obvious. Less obvious were the team's defensive struggles. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps did. Washington held the third worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to more goals in the back of the net as well. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

Yes, Matt Niskanen had a down year and that's why he and his $5.75 million cap hit is now in Philadelphia. But the forward lines play a role in team defense too and it is pretty clear MacLellan was searching for players with a proven track record of shot suppression to address that weakness.

MacLellan tipped his hand as to how he hoped to improve the team earlier in the offseason when he elected to extend Carl Hagelin. The team did not have enough cap room to re-sign both Connolly and Hagelin and MacLellan chose to extend the speedy penalty killer with limited offensive production in Hagelin over Connolly who scored 22 goals and 46 points last season. It should come as no surprise then that Hathaway is a strong penalty killer who averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per night last season with the Calgary Flames.

So while the Caps may be losing offensive production this offseason, they have gained a new-look bottom six that looks much more defensively formidable. They also added key pieces to the penalty kill and return Hagelin who, when he was acquired at the trade deadline, instantly became Washington's best penalty killer.

A cynic will say the direction the team took this offseason is a product of their cap space. It is often easier to focus on defense than offense because defense is harder to quantify. A 20-goal scorer is almost always more expensive than a shutdown forward.

There is no doubt that money played a factor in the team's moves this offseason, but the direction MacLellan took looks like it was borne of necessity, not penny-pinching. Team defense was as glaring a weakness as depth offensive production was last season and you have to keep in mind that the offensive superstars are getting older. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are all 31 or older. That is half of the top-six. These three are not going to continue to produce at such a high level forever. When a team built around its offense starts to lose that offensive production, things can collapse pretty quickly. The team had to improve defensively or it would have to rely solely on an aging offensive core plus Braden Holtby in net to carry them. Now, on paper at least, Washington looks like a stronger team defensively heading into 2019-20.

So yes, Caps look like they have gotten better, just not the way you probably anticipated.

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