Boyd vs. Stephenson: Who Should the Caps Keep?

With the recent signing of Jakub Vrana, the Washington Capitals are nearly at capacity on their roster with 13/13 forwards, 6/7 defensemen, and 2/2 goalies now signed. Only two players who were expected to have a shot at the roster remain unsigned: defenseman Christian Djoos and forward Chandler Stephenson, both restricted free agents who have filed for arbitration. 

Adding three bottom six wingers in free agency means the Caps are likely to keep only one of Stephenson and Travis Boyd (who’s already signed but could be traded or waived should Stephenson win out).

Let’s look at Stephenson first. He’s been an NHL regular for the past two seasons, including playing all 24 playoff games in 2018 en route to a Stanley Cup. He notched five goals and six assists in 64 regular season games this year, adding zero points in six playoff games. He’s won over Caps fans with his notable speed and workhorse style. Here’s a goal in the Eastern Conference Finals where Stephenson beats out an icing and sends a behind-the-back feed to Devante Smith-Pelly, who finishes from the front of the net.

But the problem with Stephenson is that there’s a case to be made that he’s literally the worst offensive forward in the league. Among forwards who played at least 400 minutes at five-on-five last season, he ranks dead last in shots, shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, individual expected goals for, and individual scoring chances (all measured as rates per 60 minutes of five-on-five playing time to equalize for usage). Stephenson shoots the puck less than literally any other forward in the league, and Wayne GretzkyMichael Scott tells us you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

All that would be more forgivable if Stephenson was some defensive wizard, but that’s really not the case. He’s not bad defensively, but he’s not good enough to make up for his complete and utter lack of offensive prowess. Of forwards who’ve played at least 400 minutes at five-on-five last season, he ranks No. 286 in on-ice shot attempts against, No. 223 in on-ice goals against, No. 244h in on-ice expected goals against, and No. 276  in on-ice scoring chances against (again, measured as rates per 60 minutes of five-on-five playing time). Those aren’t horrible (there are 389 eligible forwards), but they’re not exactly defensive specialist numbers.

Let’s look, then, at Travis Boyd. In his first full season with the Caps, Boyd scored five goals and added 15 assists. Boyd saw about 10 minutes of ice time per game, mostly on the fourth line as a winger. But Boyd isn’t a big shot producer either: he’s No. 381 in shots per 60, No. 348 in shot attempts per 60, and No. 356 in unblocked shot attempts per 60 (all out of 389). But unlike Stephenson, he at least creates measurable offense, even if not all that much: he’s No. 212 in individual scoring chances per 60 and No. 273 in individual high danger scoring chances per 60. It’s impossible to be worse offensively than Stephenson.

Defensively, Boyd is a little worse than Stephenson, depending on what measures you’re looking at. He’s significantly better than Stephenson in on-ice goals against (43 spots better among forwards with 400+ minutes) but significantly worse in on-ice expected goals against and on-ice scoring chances against (82 and 78 spots behind Stephenson). They have virtually the same on-ice shot attempts against numbers.

So who should the Caps stick with? I’d say Boyd. He’s shown flashes of legitimate offensive potential, while Stephenson hasn’t indicated he’s at all capable of providing any offense at the NHL level. Boyd’s not a defensive liability even if Stephenson is a bit better, and the Caps added several penalty killers in free agency who can fill Stephenson’s role there. 

This battle is likely to play out through training camp, and it’ll be interesting who ends up on the Caps roster at the start of the 2019-20 season.

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