When the Capitals brought in Dale Hunter as head coach in November, they altered the team’s system, mind-set and the expectations for every player. The focus was on playing a more defensively responsible game, minimizing risk and making the smart play. The new system wasn’t the sole reason that eight forwards saw a dip in their offensive numbers this season, but it certainly played a part.
On breakdown day, several players expressed their regret at not finding ways to chip in more on the scoresheet in the postseason. Thirteen of Washington’s 14 playoff games were decided by one goal, and the team averaged 2.07 goals per contest throughout the postseason.
Where General Manager George McPhee may do the most tinkering this offseason is up front. Four forwards are set to become unrestricted free agents — including Alexander Semin, which would leave a spot (and plenty of salary cap space) for a scoring winger. As seems to be the case every summer, the Capitals could also use some more experienced depth and playmaking ability at center behind Nicklas Backstrom.
What will the depth chart look like by October? It’s tough to tell. But in the meantime, let’s take a look back at how this past season went for Washington’s forwards and what it might mean for the future. This is Part I of the forward breakdown (Aucoin to Halpern) so be sure to check back for Part II (Hendricks to Ward).
2012-13 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 33
For the last decade, Aucoin has tried to earn a lasting stay in the NHL. A quintessential hockey journeyman, he’s excelled in the AHL but hasn’t translated that offensive prowess to the next level. Aucoin was recalled for the first time in mid February when the Capitals were in need of center depth, and over time he began to develop chemistry with an altering cast of characters on the fourth line to earn a spot in the lineup in all 14 playoff games.
Although he was a serviceable role player, Aucoin’s scoring touch remained largely in the AHL. He recorded 11 points (3G, 8A) in the regular season, two assists in the playoffs and despite seeing regular time on the power play as part of the second unit, he couldn’t help push it into relevancy. Whether his play this year earns him a one-way contract as a UFA remains to be seen, but if he’s resigned by Washington it might be as an AHL stalwart and occasional call-up once more.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $6.7 million | Age: 24
For the first time in his career, Backstrom was forced to miss considerable time for an injury. The concussion he suffered when elbowed by Rene Bourque cost Backstrom 40 games and derailed his strong start – the Swedish center had team-high 52 points and was easily Washington’s most consistent player prior to his injury.
Backstrom returned to the lineup late in the regular season but only truly started to return to form in the playoffs, when he was helping to create scoring chances while not backing down from physical play. (Granted, the retaliatory cross-check that earned him a suspension for Game 4 against the Bruins wasn’t wise.)
Under a coach who routinely sat his stars in favor of other, more defensively-responsible forwards, Backstrom was the exception. He played in all situations because of his well-rounded, two-way game. Finding that balance as a group will be the next step.
“I think you gotta find a good mix of it,” Backstrom said on breakdown day. “You gotta play good defensively. If you play good defensively, good things happen to you offensively. Obviously our top players, me included, we should’ve been scoring more goals and help the team more. It was tight games out there.”
2012-13 salary cap hit: RFA | Age: 26
The plucky forward, who worked “too hard,” according to Hunter, got the chance he needed to make an impact in the NHL and demonstrated his value in a year that saw him suffer serious injuries at the beginning (concussion) and end (broken left foot) of the season. In between, Beagle earned the trust of the coaching staff and stepped up into the role of a shutdown centerman. Beagle’s work ethic is what makes him suited to that type of role, as he thrives off penalty-kill time and blocking shots, but whether that’s where he will stay remains to be seen.
For all of his increased playing time – he appeared in 53 games in the regular season and postseason combined after playing in 45 NHL contests in the previous three years – Beagle wasn’t an offensive contributor, recording just seven points (5G, 2A) this year. While no one likely expects the Calgary native to light up the scoresheet, any additional offense would be a bonus for a player looking for more opportunities.
The challenge for Beagle next season, assuming the Capitals re-sign him, will be to earn that responsibility from a new coach who may or may not be as predisposed to him as Hunter was.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $2.35 million | Age: 26 (Turns 27 on Aug. 17)
The Capitals traded their first-round pick in the 2011 draft for the rights to sign Brouwer and add another physical presence to top two lines. Although he didn’t play exclusively among the top six forwards, Brouwer did provide more grit, leading the team, and finishing ninth in the league, with 247 hits.
He was also another net-front presence for Washington, which far too often can be lacking in that department. Brouwer isn’t necessarily a younger version of, say, Mike Knuble, though. While Brouwer is able to screen goaltenders quite well and can cash in on an occasional tip or deflection, he doesn’t consistently find ways to score in front, whether on rebounds or redirections.
On the downside, Brouwer was tied for worst on the team with a minus-15 in the regular season. While that is a flawed stat, the fact that he was on the ice often when opponents scored was further reflected in his team-high even-strength goals against per 60 minutes (2.99).
2012-13 salary cap hit: $1.75 million | Age: 33
In a year that saw the Capitals often struggle to find offense, Chimera came through more than expected, even if he wasn’t all that consistent. He had a career year in goals (20), points (39) in the regular season and he followed that up with setting high marks in the playoffs in goals (4), assists (3) and points (7).
Chimera thrived when using his speed to help create a forecheck and seemed to find new ways to activate the ice-cheetah gear to slip past defensemen for backdoor plays as well. Easily the largest question facing Chimera for the 2012-13 campaign is: Can he build off this breakthrough offensive season at this stage in his career? There’s also uncertainty in what his role might be next season. He spent time largely on the second and third lines in 2011-12, predominantly the former in the second half of the season and playoffs. With a new head coach will he receive the same opportunity to play among the top six forwards? Should he?
2012-13 salary cap hit: $637,778 | Age: 21
Eakin spent much of his first professional year bouncing between Washington and Hershey. He was recalled from the AHL seven times throughout the course of the season, recorded eight points (4G, 4A) while appearing in 30 NHL games but saw double digits in ice time in only 12 contests.
For Hershey, Eakin recorded 13 goals and 14 assists in 43 games. There are plenty of decisions for the Capitals to make about the roster this summer, and whether there is an NHL spot for Eakin to vie for in the fall remains to be seen.
2012-13 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 36
Brought in to anchor the fourth line and be the team’s go-to faceoff specialist, Halpern did just that for the bulk of the regular season. In March, though, he found himself sitting as a healthy scratch sitting for 12 of the final 15 games and without a place in the lineup as the playoffs began.
The Potomac, Md., native was ranked fifth in the NHL among faceoff leaders with a 58.3 percent success rate (358 of 614) and in the regular season was ranked second among Capitals forwards in average shorthanded time on ice per game (1:44). As the year progressed, however, the emergence of Jay Beagle as a player Hunter trusted resulted in the younger center taking more important draws and seeing more time on the penalty kill. When asked why he was comfortable scratching Halpern, Hunter cited Beagle’s development and increased speed.
He appeared in the playoffs when Beagle’s season ended after breaking his foot on a blocked shot. Halpern brings a veteran, hard-working presence to any forward group but his speed is not what it once was. On breakdown day, Halpern was adamant that he intends to continue playing and that he hoped he would have “options.” Whether the Capitals will be one of them for the hometown centerman is unclear.