On Wednesday, Mike Harris of The Washington Times espoused his opinion that the Washington Capitals should shake things up and trade for a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman. Presumably, Mike was talking about the “Rod Langway” type of Norris winner, and not the type of candidate Mike Green was when he was twice-nominated.
I’ll let Mike explain himself:
“What the Caps need to do is make a major trade, one that brings back a big-time, well-respected defenseman who makes defense his first priority. A defensive defenseman is what they’re called in hockey parlance and the Caps need one in the worst way.”
“At what price? Again, that’s why McPhee earns a paycheck. Maybe it will take giving up a top prospect like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or established players like defenseman Mike Green or forward Troy Brouwer. Or a combination of the three. Or all three. Maybe it is time to listen to offers for Braden Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom or — dare we say it? — Alex Ovechkin himself.”
While his intention is certainly good, and obviously would address one of the Caps’ biggest needs, the Caps’ problems go well beyond acquiring one player, as studly as this fictional defensive-defenseman would be.
As Mike and I discussed in our Twitter discourse after his column came out, my opinion is that the Caps have way too many holes to consider trading away the talent it would take to bring back such a player. Especially considering that teams that would consider such a deal — if there was this type of deal to be made at all — would want young, cost-controlled talent, something the Caps have a dearth of their own selves.
I’ve brought this up a couple of times, but it bears repeating: Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Mike Green are all but untradeable due to their price tags. The same could be said for Brooks Laich, Martin Erat, Troy Brouwer and John Carlson, with respect to what they make compared to their skill set.
Mikhail Grabovski, Karl Alzner and the two goalies are really the only veteran players that play up to their salary on the Caps, making them logical trade targets for rival teams.
So to trade for any studly defenseman, the Caps would likely have to give up their own, plus their No. 2 center, Evgeny Kuznetsov and another prospect. For a team that needs to add talent, that seems like a non-starter.
Next, a Twitter follower asked me what I thought the holes in the Caps lineup were. My answer was simple and can expand on it here: Marcus Johansson, Mike Green, John Carlson, the roles that Laich and Brouwer currently fill, and several spots on defense. I would also add the construction of the fourth line and the role of Tom Wilson now that I have space.
1) Marcus Johansson — despite currently being tied with four other players for third in the league in assists with 10 — and John Carlson aren’t producing anywhere near the responsibility level the team has entrusted them.
Johansson’s assist totals are the result of playing with two of the game’s elite playmakers. He’s not creating chances, per se. Rather, he’s benefitting from his circumstances. Two of his helpers came merely from retrieving loose pucks on faceoffs. Johansson defers to his linemates to a fault, backpassing from the slot habitually instead of shooting. His offensive game remains mired in missed opportunity, his defensive game all but non-existent.
Carlson, despite getting power play time and being behind only Mike Green in total time on ice, has exactly two assists in 12 games this season. “Captain America” was supposed to develop into a solid, if not All-Star level two-way defenseman. In his fifth season now, much like Johansson we see the same mistakes from Carlson as we did when he first came into the league: lapses in concentration, sloppy passing in the offensive zone, lack of physicality.
2) Mike Green refuses to play defense. It’s as simple as that. He has the physical tools to do the job, but more often than not can’t get the job done. This season a new problem on D has cropped up: wingers are skating around him. If he’s not hiding an injury, this is a very bad sign for a player that used to have very good wheels. Also: he holds the puck much too long in the defensive end and habitually gets killed by forecheckers, potentially leading to the diminishment of his speed I just got done mentioning.
On a good team, Green’s playing time would be managed to avoid logging big minutes being a defensive liability, allowing him to produce as an offensive-zone/power play specialist. The Caps don’t have that luxury, nor seem inclined to do so.
3) Laich and Brouwer don’t produce commensurate with their pay rate, and are miscast in their roles on the second line. GM George McPhee said in the offseason that he was happy with Laich at 2C, but it’s just not working out. Laich is passable as a winger on the second line, but he’s not a playmaker, he’s a grinder. If you want him at center, he needs to be on the third line with similar players. A 25-21-42 third line would be a formidable “shutdown” line, but to this point the Caps have been reluctant to give that a go.
It’s almost like they don’t want to depend on Mikhail Grabovski for fear they know he’s just going to walk at the end of the year, or maybe they’re suppressing his usefulness in order to get him long-term at a cheaper rate (eds. note: #sarcasm. It does no one any good to intentionally limit a player’s potential). Would love to see a 10-84-16 second line.
4) With regard to that, Eric Fehr is completely miscast as a 4th line center. He’s best in space where he can use his speed, size and considerable shot, not digging out pucks for the likes of Aaron Volpatti and Tom Wilson. As for Wilson, the Caps are hindering his development, playing him just 7:05 a night in somewhat of an enforcer role.
Before the season started, I advocated for Wilson to make the team, rationalizing that he wouldn’t learn anything in Juniors and end up being a target for players that wanted to make a name for themselves. Turns out, Wilson’s the one trying to make a name for himself looking for targets every night in his limited time on ice.
5) Which brings us to the first point: the defense. Defense is a team pursuit, and the blueliners on this team would be capable in certain roles, but some are being forced out of their comfort level due to the overall inadequacy. The forwards aren’t helping, especially the first unit, which leads to more pressure on the defensemen.
The Caps brought up Dmitry Orlov with John Erskine going on the LTIR Wednesday. He’ll help. He’s the one guy in the system that projects to helping this team in the top two pairs. Alex Urbom, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick, Steve Oleksy, et al. are all 5-6-7 or specialty types. They belong in the league but in no one’s top-4. Well, no playoff team’s top-4.
But the bottom line is that defense is a team pursuit, and a lot of it is effort. The Caps defense isn’t going to get better until more players buy into it. I’m certainly not advocating for a Dale Hunter-esque turn-around. But attention to detail is critical and it’s up to Adam Oates and Calle Johansson to instill a little more rigid attitude about playing in their own end while allowing creativity up front.
The Caps are surviving right now — if you can call 5-7-0 surviving – on the strength of their specialty teams, and much of their problems at even-strength can be attributed to their poor play in their own end. They won’t get better at evens until they shore that up, and that’s going to take commitment from all 18 dressed skaters and the coaching staff, just not the defensemen.
So if the team wants to go out and pick up a veteran defensive-defenseman (solid in his own end, won’t hurt you in the offensive zone) and can do it reasonably, it would be beneficial to the team this season in their pursuit of extending their playoff streak. Once you get in the dance, you never know who’s going to take you home.
But long-term, the Caps have too many problems to think that one guy — even the second coming of Rod Langway — would be “the difference-maker”.