The bottom right side of his face was swollen, with eight stitches on his chin after a puck hit him in the face last week. “Couldn’t be in a better spot on the face, I think,” Christian Djoos said with a shrug. Spoken like your typical hockey player.
But with a lanky 6-foot, 169-pound frame, especially undersized for a defenseman, Djoos hasn’t always looked like your typical hockey player. Happily for the Washington Capitals, he doesn’t play like one, either. The 23-year-old quickly has blossomed in his rookie season, adding another goal and an assist in Saturday’s win over the New Jersey Devils. He has three goals and five assists in 31 games played.
Most rookies initially are nervous to have the puck on their sticks, but what separates Djoos is his patience and poise. He is happy to hold on to the puck for as long as necessary. It’s that maturity that has him rising up Washington’s blue-line depth chart and perhaps poised for a top-four role in the not-too-distant future.
“That’s kind of a lost art almost,” veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “The new NHL, everything is speed and fast, make fast plays and get going as quick as you can. And if it’s open, he has the ability to buy time and keep possession. He can move it quick, too, but I think he’s got a good feel for the game of when to hang onto it and just buy time and keep the puck, rather than just chipping it out.”
There’s a fine line for Djoos. Like most teams, Washington’s system is designed to get the puck up the ice as quickly as possible, but “you just find that balance of, ‘Okay, I don’t need to treat it like a grenade every time and the first person I see open, I’ve got to pass it,’ ” defenseman John Carlson said.
“I think he was always poised with it,” Carlson continued. “He’s always had it, but I think now it’s seeing more of the same situations happening and elevating the plays that he makes out of that. And then that goes for all three zones. He’s getting the puck a lot more because we’re breaking the puck out a little better, and he’s feeling more comfortable about where he needs to be and what he needs to do. I think if anything, he was maybe just a little tentative.”
Washington initially sheltered the 2012 seventh-round pick with the situations he was deployed in, and his usage still skews toward more offensive-zone starts, but the ratio isn’t as lopsided as it once was. That’s because the Capitals have been playing Djoos alongside Carlson more; according to the NHL statistical site Natural Stat Trick, Carlson and Djoos have played 120:46 at five-on-five over the past 10 games. Carlson has played 53:09 five-on-five without Djoos over those 10 games, and Djoos has played just 13:46 without Carlson. Washington takes 52 percent of the shot attempts when those two are on the ice together.
Defenseman Nate Schmidt initially was tabbed to be Carlson’s defense partner this year, but after Schmidt was swiped by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, Carlson started the season skating mostly beside veteran Brooks Orpik. Orpik and Carlson still play together in some situations, but it’s happening less. Over the past 10 games, they have skated beside each other for fewer than 40 minutes.
Orpik is still averaging considerably more time on ice than Djoos — in the past 10 games, Orpik has played 19:06 per game while Djoos has averaged 13 minutes per night — but as Djoos has gotten more comfortable and confident, the team seems to be steadily working him up to regular work as Carlson’s defense partner. That’ll be especially pronounced Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, when Niskanen isn’t expected to play because of an undisclosed “upper-body” injury.
“It’s hard to envision youth, where they are, because they’re going to have some ups and they’re going to have some downs,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “Each guy handles it differently, but you see a guy like Djoos who processes so quickly, a game like [against New Jersey], when there’s a team that makes quick decisions and you’ve got to make quick decisions, he can do that. I think that’s what makes him a really good prospect for us. …
“I would get the puck at the blue line, and if someone gets within six feet of me, I’m getting rid of it because I don’t trust myself. He got it from his dad a little bit. His dad was very, very patient and had a lot of understanding of what he wanted to do. So I like his poise under pressure. Things happen fast for some guys, and others, they can play quick and pressure is not a big deal for them. It’s a feel for them. He’s a natural player like that.”
Christian’s father, Per Djoos, was also drafted in the seventh round, the 127th overall pick in 1986. He played three seasons in the NHL, 82 games between Detroit and New York, and both father and son had to learn to somehow compensate for their lack of brawn. Per Djoos was listed as 5-11 and 176 pounds as a player.
That’s where Djoos’s penchant for holding onto the puck can be tricky. On Saturday night against the Devils, he skated up to the New Jersey net, going around the back of the cage before dishing it to Tom Wilson in front, earning the primary assist on the first goal of the game. But the more he has the puck on his tape, the more he becomes a target to get hit, something he would be wise to avoid in the interest of staying healthy. It seems counterintuitive, but Djoos has found a way to manage it, reminding Carlson of center Mike Ribeiro, who played with Washington for the 2012-13 season.
“I mean, he never got hit,” Carlson said. “He’s never really put himself in a terrible spot. I think that’s a savvy way to play, if he already knows what he needs to do and situations to get himself in a good position. …
“You can feel it, that he’s fitting in a lot more and feeling more comfortable and joking around a little bit more. He’s a quiet guy and he’ll always be quiet, but I definitely think that the more comfortable they feel, the more a part of the team they feel, the better they’re going to play because they’re going to ask more questions that they might have.”