This article was written by RMNB Crusher Peter Friedrich.
The Washington Capitals have had a wild season, to put it mildly. With nearly $30 million in salary cap tied to some form of injured reserve at some point, it was up to the “regular guys” to step up and take on bigger roles this season.
New additions to the team like Dylan Strome, Erik Gustafsson and Sonny Milano showed off their talents along with young pups like Aliaksei Protas and Alex Alexeyev. But the one player who I think has had a huge impact on the Caps, but has flown under the radar is him Nicholas Op-Koppel.
The Capitals earned NAK waivers from Toronto on November 5 after the forward failed to score a single point for the Leafs in six games. After a rocky start to his tenure in Washington, which included a three-game suspension for a high-hit on the Lightning’s Cal Foote, NAK cemented himself, for a time, in the lineup as a high-energy puck hound who isn’t afraid to take some shots—both on opposing players and On the web.
While his contributions don’t necessarily show up on the traditional stat sheet — NAK has six points (2g, 4a) in 22 games played with plus-minus-plus-six and 29 penalty minutes — he’s the kind of player who makes his teammates better. The Capitals as a whole play better when it’s on the ice. And it goes beyond just an eye test; Statistics from “deeper” analyzes like the one at HockeyViz underpin his game.
Perhaps the best example of this is his influence on Lars Eller:
via Hockey Phys
When NAK and Eller are paired together, they play a more responsible defense and the team sees a significant drop in expected goals for the opponent. With the two on the ice at five, the Caps are also seeing 60.1 percent of shot attempts compared to just 51 percent when Eller is away at NAK. This is exactly what you want to see from the third line of Caps and it’s exactly what you get when you put NAK out there: fast, pushy hockey with a solid pawn-checking presence. The other team simply doesn’t have much possession of the puck when NAK is on the ice.
When Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson returned on January 8, NAK was one of the first players out of the lineup. But after a few games on the sidelines, he’s back. Now, Aube-Kubel was lining up alongside Dylan Strome and Alex Ovechkin on the top row. It seemed silly at first, but he doesn’t look all that out of place.
NAK’s hard-nosed hockey style pairs well with the Strome’s more fluid style of play. His physicality and speed break the ice for Ovi. It helps generate more scoring opportunities for both Ovi and Strome. It’s been two games, but the streak has seen positive spreads at five-for-five in both scoring chances (+7) and high-risk chances (+4).
Putting NAK’s contributions into context with the rest of the team, the picture of a sledding hound who will do the dirty work begins on the front check. It is important to a team’s success to have players who can fill this role when other players, especially board fighters like TJ Oshie or Nic Dowd, are injured.
As the season progresses and Aube-Kubel becomes more comfortable in Peter Laviolette’s system (keep in mind he got waivers from Toronto and he’s learning the system as he goes), I expect we’ll start to see more results from NAK as well. He has two goals in his last four matches, which could be an indication that his comfort level with the team plan is on the rise and that he is starting to build tangible chemistry throughout the squad.
The first target serves as a hat pic.twitter.com/q6laVw7h3q
– Washington Capitals January 6, 2023
If Aube-Kubel continues to impress with his play (and putting up more points certainly won’t hurt his case), the Capitals will find themselves needing to make another big decision this season in addition to 15 more free agent decisions. they already have.
At 26, NAK is one of the younger players in the starting lineup and could have many more years of quality hockey ahead of him. And at just $1 million on the salary cap, he’s a bargain for what he brings to the ice and can easily be hidden in the minors if his skill wears out.
You could make an argument compared to some of the Hershey guys waiting in the wings to be called full time, players like Beck Malenstyn or Garrett Pilon, Aube-Kubel is overrated. Malenstyn and Pilon each earn about $750,000 – but you have to keep in mind that Aube-Kubel not only has more regular season experience than the NHL, he also won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche last year. (He also almost broke the cup as well.)
If the Caps want to keep making the playoffs through the end of Ovi’s career, they’ll need deep players like NAK who’ve been there, done that, and know what it takes to win the postseason at the highest level.
And at under $2 million, the Aube-Kubel could be one of those guys.