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Checking in on the Capitals’ ex-Penguins

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The Pittsburgh to Washington pipeline is alive and well.

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Conor Sheary and Justin Schultz kneel on the ice during warmups prior to the Capitals’ game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital One Arena on Feb. 23, 2021.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

From 2009 Cup-winner Brooks Orpik apologizing for a late hit on Olli Maatta in Game 2 of the 2016 second round to Marc-Andre Fleury taping over Matt Niskanen’s name on his helmet’s list of 2009 champions after a postseason collision with Sidney Crosby in 2017, the pipeline of one-time Penguins leaving to don red, white and blue in Washington D.C. is one fraught with drama.

The 2020-21 Capitals roster contained four members of the Penguins’ 2016-17 championship squad. Four years later, everyone’s role has changed— so let’s take a look at just how they did in Washington last season.

Conor Sheary

It’s likely we’ll never see another 2016-17 campaign from Sheary, when he put up a career-best 3.3 pts/60 on Sidney Crosby’s wing, but 2020-21 was still a solid season for the speedy winger.

Sheary started out on the Capitals’ fourth line but, by the end of the season, was skating on the second— a promotion that earned him a two-year, $1.5mil AAV contract extension in April. One of the Capitals’ best drivers of high-danger scoring opportunities, it’s becoming clear that although Sheary likely won’t see first-line duties in Washington, he fits well as a winger on their second or third line. He showed off his well-placed shot by scoring 14 times in 53 games for a career-high 15.9% shot accuracy.

Carl Hagelin

Penguins fans remember Hagelin best for his role on one of the Penguins’ most successful third lines in recent memory, but for the first time since his rookie 2011-12 season with the New York Rangers, Hagelin was assigned almost exclusively to the fourth line in 2020-21. His 14:06 of ice time per game was the lowest of his NHL career.

Hagelin’s success with the Penguins didn’t stem from his offensive production— in 2016-17, he scored six times in 61 games— but from his asset as a puck possessor. He trailed only Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby with a 53.81 CF% at 5v5 that season, and was gratifyingly solid in the defensive zone. Even if he couldn’t finish most of his chances, he was a reliable way to get pucks on net.

Hagelin is at his best when he’s on a line with gifted scorers (let’s say, as a random example, one Phil Kessel) who can finish off the scoring opportunities Hagelin earns with his speed. While skating besides the Capitals’ fourth-liners in 2020-21, he wasn’t used to the most of his capabilities— and served as a rather expensive bottom-three forward at $2.75 million. Still, he put up a respectable 16 points, even if his possession numbers did dip slightly.

Daniel Sprong

Sprong’s success in Washington felt very nearly inevitable.

The only thing clearer than Sprong’s obvious talent— a laser-like shot— was that he wasn’t fitting into the lineup in Pittsburgh. His defensive numbers were abysmal in his rookie 2016-17 campaign, perhaps part of the reason he only spent 18 games in the lineup. He would never top that total in his three Penguins seasons.

In 2020-21, Sprong joined the Capitals for 42 games of the shortened season— where he recorded 20 points and 13 goals, even though he was on the ice for fewer than 12 minutes every contest.

Rotating through a cavalcade of linemates as he filled in for various empty roster spots— many of which came in the Capitals’ top two lines— helped the winger convert on a career-high 17.6% of his shots. Although that shooting percentage is unsustainable, this season showed that Sprong has the capability to be what the Penguins wanted from him— a cheap high-volume shooter who can make the most of opportunities around the net.

Justin Schultz

Former Oiler Schultz enjoyed two bounce-back championship seasons in Pittsburgh before his possession numbers began to dip once again in 2017-18— but his consistent offensive contributions helped offset his defensive struggles. Then, those numbers began to fall as well. A 2019-20 campaign where he recorded a career-low 12 points in 46 games was the end of his Pittsburgh career.

On the bright side for Schultz, his offensive totals soared while on the Capitals’ second pairing in 2020-21. He trailed only Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson for the team lead in assists with 24 helpers in 46 games.

On the disappointing side, the change of scenery did not give Schultz the kind of bounce-back defensive recovery that he once saw in Pittsburgh. He still struggled to drive puck possession, even behind some of the Capitals’ best lines— and his most memorable moment of the season may be his infamous miscommunication with Ilya Samsonov behind the net in Game 3 of the 2021 first round.

The question for the Capitals is whether Schultz’s stellar offensive production is worth the $4 million contract and defensive struggles.


So now for the million-dollar (or, in Sprong’s case, just $725k) question: if you could steal any of these ex-Penguins back for 2020-21, who would you take— and why?

Poll

Which ex-Penguin would you most like back on the 2020-21 roster?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Conor Sheary
    (254 votes)
  • 20%
    Carl Hagelin
    (316 votes)
  • 26%
    Daniel Sprong
    (406 votes)
  • 4%
    Justin Schultz
    (64 votes)
  • 31%
    None of them
    (486 votes)
1526 votes total Vote Now