With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we continue with our player-by-player analysis through their numerical roster.
No. 4 Matt Niskanen
Age: 29 (turns 30 on April 27, 2017)
Penalty minutes: 21
Time on ice: 13:11
Playoff stats: 7 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, minus-1, 4 PIM, 12:34
Contract status: 2 years remaining on 2-year, $1.6 million contract extension ($800,000 cap hit)
When the Capitals signed Taylor Chorney to a one-year, one-way contract last July 1, the general reaction from the Caps’ fan base was: Who?
A career minor leaguer with 400 games of AHL experience but just 68 games at the NHL level, the Caps viewed Chorney as a solid seventh defenseman with enough NHL experience (including five playoff games for the Penguins last year) to fill in as an injury replacement.
That’s exactly how he was used. With Brooks Orpik (41 games) and John Carlson (26) missing 67 games due to injury, Chorney served as a reliable seventh defenseman who played all six of the games Orpik missed in the playoffs (3 because of injury, 3 because of suspension).
“I think I did pretty well,” Chorney said in his post-season exit interview with reporters at Kettler. “Heading into the year you don't really know on a new team exactly where your place is going to be, it's just different.
“But I think as the year went on I did a pretty good job earning more and more trust from the coaching staff and from my teammates and I think by the end of the year I felt like I was playing some pretty good hockey. It's just too bad that it all got cut a little short.”
Chorney began and ended the regular season primarily as a healthy scratch. He played in just five of the Caps’ first 14 games and in eight of their final 22 games. In between, he played in 44 straight games from Nov. 12 through Feb. 13 and the Caps went 30-10-4 in that stretch.
Shortly after, on Feb. 19, Chorney signed a two-year contract extension that will pay him $775,000 next season and $825,000 in 2017-18. This is the first time in his pro career that Chorney enters into an offseason with the security of a two-year NHL level contract.
“It's nice,” he said. “Going into the year, you don't really know what to expect. You're just hoping to get an opportunity to show you can play and I think I did a pretty good job of doing that and it was definitely nice getting an extension in the middle of the year.
“It just kind of puts your mind at ease to know that most likely you're going to be here and you're going to be a part of it. At the same time, I think that knowing that you're probably going to be back next year it makes the loss that much tougher. I think you feel more invested with this group of guys and the expectation was so high for us and I think that it's going to carry over for us next year and we'll be ready to rock.”
As well as the Caps played with Chorney in the lineup during the regular season, they were 1-6 in the games he played in the post-season.
In their season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 6, Chorney logged a playoff-high 16:10 of ice time and was on the ice for Nick Bonino’s game-winning goal. Chorney was beaten off the boards by Carl Hagelin and despite a stick check by Chorney, Hagelin got off the shot that Bonino shoveled past Braden Holtby to end the Caps’ season.
“There's some things that you could do differently,” Chorney said of the game-winner. “It's tough. It's a bang-bang play right at the net and that's usually how those overtime goals happen and just whether you're a half step late on the coverage or just get your stick in there to maybe break it up, that's definitely one of those things that, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been thinking about it for a couple days. I'm sure that it'll be with me for a little while, but I guess I don't really regret anything about the way I played. It's just one of those plays where you'd probably do something a little bit different. …The big picture, there's probably a lot more going on than just that one play, but at the same time there's some things that you'd probably do a little bit different.”
Heading into next season, Chorney is one of six Capitals defensemen under contract and with Dmitry Orlov expected to be re-signed, his role likely won’t change much. Neither, he said, will the expectations of a team that ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy this season.
“We had high expectations for our team all year,” he said. “Just the way we played throughout the season, we knew that we had a chance to do something special and we fell short this year and I think that that's probably going to be with us for a while now. Hopefully, it'll fuel us for next season.”
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Sudden thoughts and second thoughts as the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks are now one win away from meeting in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs:
Lessons for Willy: Did you notice that former Capitals right wings Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer each scored goals Monday night by batting pucks out of the air?
NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick noted that both players must have played baseball growing up. What he didn’t point out was that both goals came from about a stick length away from the goal line.
Those goals are exactly the kind the Capitals were missing in their six-game loss to the Penguins in Round 2 and the kind of goals they want Tom Wilson scoring next season. Those goals don’t just happen; they are the result of hours and hours of repetition in the summer months.
By the way, Brouwer now has eight goals and 13 points in 19 playoff games for the Blues. That’s one more goal than he had in his first 78 career playoff games with the Blackhawks and Capitals. His post-season production is adding about a million a year onto his next free-agent contract.
Ward, who has two years left on his deal in San Jose, has four goals and nine points in 17 playoff games for the Sharks.
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Rooting interests: Last week, I asked Caps left wing Jason Chimera if he was rooting for Ward or Brouwer in the Western Conference Final. After some prodding he said Ward, because he’s never won the Stanley Cup.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with Justin Williams at the beginning of this season. (Ironically, I’ve had the good fortune of reporting on Williams’ first NHL game and his 1,000th). When I told Williams I root for people, and not teams, and that I was happy to see him win the Cup three times, he quipped, “What about the (jerks)? Do you root for them?”
Fortunately, there aren’t many in this sport. Ward and Brouwer are both quality people, but I’m with Chimera. I’d like to see Ward hoist that big silver chalice.
Statistically speaking: Per Elias, when teams are tied 2-2 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoffs series, the winner of Game 5 holds an all-time series record of 192-53 (78.3 percent).
But here’s a more interesting stat from this spring: Road teams have won 41 of 82 games this postseason after winning only 38 contests during the entire 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs (38-51). So much for home-ice advantage.
Final word: I’ve always been a big proponent of finding a No. 1 goaltender in the playoffs and sticking with him, even after a lopsided loss.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan took calculated risks when they replaced Brian Elliott and Matt Murray with Jake Allen and Marc-Andre Fleury following Game 4 losses.
Facing elimination, the two coaches must weigh the options of sticking with Allen and Fleury or going back to Elliott and Murray. Hindsight is always 20/20 but I’ve always said that if you think you have two No. 1 goalies, you really don’t have any.
That’s why Martin Jones, who has started all 17 playoff games for the Sharks and has won 11 of them, has the best chance to win it all.
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With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we begin our player-by-player analysis through their numerical roster.
No. 2 Matt Niskanen
Age: 29 (turns 30 on Dec. 6)
Penalty minutes: 38
Time on ice: 24:39
Playoff stats: 12 games, 0 goals, 3 assists, plus-3, 6 PIM, 26:32
Contract status: 5 years remaining on 7-year, $40.25 million contract ($5.75 cap hit)
When the Capitals gathered at Kettler two days after their season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins no one looked more heartbroken than Matt Niskanen.
“This is the most hurt I’ve been in my career,” Niskanen said following the Caps’ six-game defeat to his former team. “You don’t know how often opportunities are going to come along where you had this kind of team. You don’t. Things happen, rosters change. Momentum changes.
“I’ve been on some teams where because of the people on your team you think you always have a chance, but this sure felt like the year. It hurts right now, I don’t have a perfect answer on why it didn’t come about and why it didn’t happen for us.
“Having said that, I’m not a general manager or anything but I think we’re set up pretty well to go at it again. That’s the positive in all this. I think we went after it this year and guys left it out there. I think we showed that in the way Game 6 unfolded (rebounding from a 3-0 deficit to force overtime). We had every excuse in Game 6 to pack in the tent and boy, we didn’t. Just like we did all year, we laid it all on the line in the third period and gave ourselves a chance to win that game. But man it hurts. It hurts that it didn’t happen for us.”
From a personal standpoint, Niskanen said he went into the season wanting to improve on his point totals from last season, when he recorded four goals and 27 assists in his first season with the Caps.
“I beat my total by one point – an empty-net goal in the first game,” Niskanen said with a smile. “That didn’t develop like I had planned or hoped and I think part of that is that my role kind of changed. As the year developed Karl and I took on a bigger responsibility as far as minutes and who we were playing against.
“I think that somewhat changed my focus on what I was going to try to bring. The team was really playing well so I wasn’t going to start adding unnecessary offensive risk to my game based on my role on the team and how we were playing. I think my overall game and defensively, I made big strides this year based on the amount of minutes I played this year, penalty kill, and playing against top guys. My overall game was probably my best season. So that’s positive.
“Having said that if I can keep moving forward I’d like to bring some more offense next year. That’s going to be my challenge. Can I get 5, 8, 10 more points somewhere? How do I do that? Talking with some of the coaches, that’s going to be my goal. I don’t think I’m a play that’s going to get 60 points. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me, but I think I can be a really effective player and maybe add some more (offense).”
Niskanen’s role this season increased because of injuries to defensemen John Carlson, who missed 26 games, and Brooks Orpik, who missed 41. His ice time jumped from a career-high 22:21 to 24:39 and that climbed even higher in the playoffs when he averaged 26:32 a night alongside Karl Alzner.
It will be interesting to see if Caps assistant coach Todd Reirden keeps Niskanen and Alzner together again next season or if he reunites the pair of Alzner and Carlson, possibly moving Nate Schmidt or Dmitry Orlov onto a unit with Niskanen.
“Karl and I had a lot of responsibility this year, especially in some of those times (during injuries to Carlson and Orpik,” he said. “I’m really proud of the team and in the defensive group and how some of the guys played in those moments. Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, (Taylor) Chorney had a really good year. In the beginning of the year those guys weren’t slotted to play that much probably. So it was an opportunity and I thought they showcased really well.”
Niskanen said he also tried to be more of a locker room leader this season, something that he admits does not come naturally.
“People who have been around probably know that I’m not a rah-rah person,” he said. “That’s probably not going to change, but I did get out of my skin a few times this year where I felt the need to say a few things in the locker room. Nothing dramatic or anything, but I thought as a group we were pretty good in that regard.
“Guys were saying the right things. I thought we had really good focus and I think that showed with not having a losing streak all season really. I thought we always had good response and I think that’s a reflection of guys taking responsibility and accountability of how we played and how we bring it all the time. I thought we had really good focus and I think I was a part of that. The biggest thing is the product you put on the ice and this was a pretty good product this year. I think we felt really good about the work we were doing and the potential this team had. Man, we were in a good spot. It didn’t work out, though.”
If anything, Niskanen said he thought the Caps lost their edge in Game 2 when they had a chance to take a 2-0 series lead on the Pens at Verizon Center.
“I said this after the (final) game,” Niskanen said. “It’s almost amazing how fast things can just slip and we’re behind in the series trying to play catch-up. That’s hockey. I don’t think you can just talk about things and protect yourself against every circumstance, but there’s probably a little lesson there. Game 2, maybe we weren’t; as urgent as we could have been. You never know what situation in a series could be a turning point, so you better be on your toes at all times.
“Having said that, this year as a whole and in the playoffs I thought we were pretty urgent. I thought we brought it much better than we had in the past. At times it was championship-type level, the urgency we played with. I think we got a lot better in that regard but there were a few moments where maybe we could have been better.
“I guess the only good thing is we’re set up pretty well to go at it again next year. It sucks and I can’t believe we’re talking about this right now because that sounds like a losers’ mentality -- ‘Well, we’ll get ‘em next year’ – but that’s really all you can do at this point.
“I’m pretty proud of the guys and I wouldn’t change anything about our approach and our attitude and the work we put in this year. We can play better in a few areas, of course, but as far as our approach and our attitude I thought it was outstanding this year. We went after it and we’ll continue to head in that direction.”
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