November 29, 2014

Caps 2011-12 Preview: Pairings will determine success of defense

Its not everyday you come across a team with the amount of talent the Washington Capitals have on defense. A team that, at one point in their history, couldn’t stop anything, now has more than six solid defenseman to choose from.  If they are paired the right way, Washington could have one of the best defensive groupings in hockey.

(photo by Cheryl Nichols)

No discussion of the Capitals defense could begin anywhere else than with Mike Green.  Hard to believe, but the 26-year old rear-guard, the 29th overall pick in the 2004 entry draft, begins play in his seventh NHL season on Saturday .

Today, he is an absolute force as a part of the offense and a crucial part of the power play, as well as the fundamental foundation of the defense. His emergence as one of the top offensive threats from the blue line is one of the reasons for the Caps successes at the top of the Eastern Conference. Since the start of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure, the Caps defense has known as a mostly offense-oriented unit, with Green the focal point of praise — and criticism.  Over the last few years though they have upgraded on all aspects of their defense. The success of the group going further will hinge on who they pair with Green, and they just may have found a good partner for him.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Mike Green is his unique ability to forget he plays defense and not left wing. Every fan knows what I am talking about. It’s the play where he shoots up the dasher boards and attempts to put the puck on net. When Green gets a scoring chance, it’s great. If a turnover results, however, it usually results in an odd-man rush for the other team. It is not a sound way of playing hockey and it was highlighted by the lack of pure skating skills of the defensive partner he was often paired with, Jeff Schultz.

Its not that Schultz struggles because he is awful. He has tremendous size and reach and is very difficult to play against up close.  But left in open ice, Schultz struggles.  These struggles are highlighted against some of the better players in the league because his skating skills just do not match up well with the NHL’s best.  Guys like Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and Patrick Kane have superior skating skills and stick technique and can take advantage of lesser skaters. Schultz’ size, which should be a benefit to him, is often used against him, and pairing him with an offense-first partner like Green can sometimes put them both at a disadvantage.

The truth is, Schultz is not going to become a better, faster skater. He just needs to be put in a better position to succeed, and with Dennis Wideman on the team, it may just happen. As of right now, it looks like Wideman will be paired up with newly acquired Roman Hamrlik, but don’t expect it to stay that way. While Wideman is still considered an offensive defenseman, he may be the perfect yang to Green’s ying.

What makes Wideman such a good fit with Green is his first instinct when he is at the blue line. Sure, he still has a heavy shot, but he is more inclined to take a step back into a defensive posture. That mindset puts him into position to defend a rush up ice if the Caps’ offense breaks down. By pairing him with Green, the Caps would get a very good offensive pairing while retaining someone with a defense-first approach. It would hopefully eliminate the odd man rushes Green’s bullrushes can result in and improve the team’s overall defense against the NHL’s best players

What should the Caps do with Schultz then?

Despite Schultz’ difficulty with some of the top lines in the league, he would make a perfect fit on the third pairing with someone like Hamrlik. The two together could be a very nice force against some grind lines in the NHL. Both of them have bodies big enough to put up with the wear and tear of facing a physical line, as well as the smarts to be in the right place at the right time. Hamrlik, particularly, will be a nice addition from the experience stand point, as he is now the wily veteran of a still relatively young defensive squad. Much like the Wideman switch, don’t expect this to be a pairing at the start of the season, but it makes sense in the long term for Washington.

With two pairings and four defenseman down, it leaves us with only two guys left to talk about and they are none other than Karl Alzner and John Carlson. The two of them are youngest members of the Caps defense and could be the keystone to the team’s success; not only because they are already tremendously skilled, but because they also still have the greatest room for improvement.

(photo by Andrew Tomlinson)

Carlson and Alzner — Karlzner, for short —  fit together a lot like Wideman and Green could. Carlson has a great shot from the point, solid skating ability and great puck-handling skills.  Like Green though, his first inclination is to rush up ice instead of always thinking about solid defense, still a drawback in his game. We saw last year over time how Carlson began to read the plays in front of him better, but much of his potential value lies in his stick and his shot. The rest of his game still needs to be honed. The points Carlson still needs to work on to round his game out, though, are what his partner probably does best.

Alzner, who many thought would get a huge restricted free agent offer sheet over the off-season, re-signed with the Caps to a two-year contract worth a reported $2.57 million, which was considered a bargain price for the 22-year-old who established himself as half of the Capitals’ shut-down pairing in his first full NHL season. Whenever he is on the ice, it is clear Alzner is looking for an angle to defend the rush or stop the play in front of him. It creates a nice safety net for Carlson and will help the pairing quickly become the best unit on the Caps and will certainly draw most of the toughest assignments against opponent’s top lines. The only drawback in the pairing is their lack of NHL experience, something we noticed as they seemed to wear down under the pressure of carrying the team through injury during the playoffs last season. Only playing time can produce experience.

This week, the Capitals placed veteran defenseman Tom Poti on the Long-Term Injured List, as he failed the team’s training camp physical and still has yet to train with the team as he triesd to recover from lingering going injuries.  He could be an asset to this team as another defensively-responsible puck-moving defenseman, but GM George McPhee stated at the start of camp he is concerned for Poti’s career at this point.

Rugged defender John Erskine will start the season on the non-roster injury list as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery, but his rehab is nearly complete and should not miss too much of the regular season.  He’ll serve as the team’ seventh defenseman on most nights, getting playing time against some of the more physical teams in the league once he’s ready to go.

The Caps have a couple of insurance policies in reserve at AHL Hershey should injury rear its ugly head.  Youngster Dmitry Orlov nearly made the team out of camp, and veteran Sean Collins remains a phone call away and two hour drive from Chocolatetown to D.C.  Both could very well see playing time at Verizon Center this season.

Washington clearly has a lot of options, but it will depend on how they use them that will determine their success on defense. If this defensive grouping continues to gel like it did last year, the Eastern Conference better watch out, because they are deep and talented with a good mix of experience and youthful exuberance.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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