July 28, 2014

Washington Capitals Postseason Roundtable Part II: Rate the defense

As we’ve done in year’s past, District Sports Page staff and a couple friends in the industry conducted a roundtable to rate the recently completed Washington Capitals season. Obviously, with the changing of the guard over the weekend, the season was in no was satisfying of satisfactory, and our grades this season really reflect where our contributors to the roundtable sit with regards to the changes necessary to make the Caps true contenders again.

We’ll rate the offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and administration throughout the week.

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, beat writer for DSP; J.J. Regan, contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan; Harry Hawkings, RochTheRed.com.

Part II: Rate the defense (with grade an explanation):

DAVE: F. The defense was an unmitigated disaster. Karl Alzner and John Carlson are a good second pairing, but nowhere near a top defensive pair in the NHL. After that, the Caps defensive corps was a crapshoot. Mike Green still has some offensive skill, and he drives play, but his allergy to defense leads to odd-man breakdowns and a large number of embarrassing goals. Dmitry Orlov has skill but very little discipline. After that, the players the Caps lined up on defense were either over the hill or much too young to be counted on for any meaningful contribution.

This team is in need of 2-3 legitimate NHL caliber defensemen. There’s no muscle. There too much undisciplined play. There’s not enough attention to their own end of the ice. Offense starts in your own end and the Caps had too hard of a time gathering the puck, let alone start breakouts the other way. Here’s hoping the new coach recognizes the strengths of his defensive corps and allows the defensemen to carry the puck again instead of passing within seconds of gaining possession of it.

KATIE: C-. The problem with the Capitals’ defense was less because of the defensemen and more about what was being asked of the defensemen. It doesn’t make sense to take puck-moving defensemen (Mike Green, Dmitry Orlov, Connor Carrick) and ask them to play in a way that contradicts their strength. The defensemen were asked to skate only five feet with the puck before passing it or dumping it into the offensive zone. That doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re asking a player to NOT do something they do very well. During Green’s career, one of his strengths was carrying the puck into the offensive zone – Carrick and Orlov have potential to be the same type of player as Green. Why not tailor your systems to suit players’ strengths rather than ask them to do things that contradict that? Why even have those players on the roster, then?

All that aside, the Capitals did have a bit of rotten luck with injuries to Jack Hillen, John Erskine, and Mike Green that necessitated a good bit of AHL recalls. Part of that was Adam Oates’ insistence that all defense pairings consist of a right and left hand shot. An interesting thought in theory, but not so much in execution. Oates was so intent on this that there were several nightmare D pairings throughout the season. There was simply an overall lack of chemistry on the blue line.

J.J.: D+. When you look at the Caps’ roster heading into the season, it’s no surprise they struggled. The team actually planned for John Erskine to be in the top four and they pretty much got what they deserved.

Karl Alzner and John Carlson were an adequate top pair. Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green, however, both had a disappointing season frequently contributing awful turnovers and head-scratching penalties. The AHL players played like…well, AHL players. Their inclusion on the roster was more an indictment on management than it was on them, but you don’t get points in the standings for effort.

The bottom line is that the Caps just did not get it done defensively.

SKY: F.  This was the biggest issue with the team this season.  Too many puck moving defenseman, Karl Alzner was the only real defensive defenseman and he took a little step back.  They don’t have a number one defensive pairing and of course Mike Green had a very rough season, but a lot of that had to do with him not having a consistent partner and someone who really compliments him.  Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green do the same things for the most part.

HARRY: I give the defense a D-.  I find it hard to give an F to a unit that wasn’t the worst in the league, but Washington’s defense was its primary
undoing this year.  For long stretches, only three NHL-caliber defensemen dressed every night in Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner.  When Dmitry Orlov was finally freed from the AHL, the D looked better but Dima was prone to the spectacular miscues and bad reads that young blueliners often are.  The bottom pairing, no matter who it was, was a disaster all season.

Washington was 24th in the NHL in shots allowed per game at 5v5 with the score close at 31 per 60 minutes, which contributed to their bad possession numbers.  Aside from just the volume of shots allowed, an almost comical number of defensive breakdowns and missed assignments on a nightly basis meant that the goaltenders were forced to do too much too often.  It was not a banner year for the Capitals defense.

Nats defensive woes not so much mental as physical

The Washington Nationals lead the National League in errors. It’s as simple as that. Ian Desmond leads all players with eight errors himself. Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman and even Bryce Harper in the outfield have multiple errors in 21 games. These errors are extending innings, creating more of a burden for the pitchers, and directly contributing to runs.

The Nats like to look at themselves as true contenders. But a championship caliber team does not give away base runners for free. The primary indicator for wins and losses is total baserunners for and against. The defensive lapses we’re seeing from the Nats, primarily on ground balls, are leading to more baserunners against, which of course leads to more runs against.

Manager Matt Williams placed an emphasis on defense and accountability during spring training, as if attention to detail was the reason for the Nats lack of performance in the field. The problem isn’t as much mental as it is physical.

Tuesday night after the Nats’ 7-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, a game in which the normally sure-handed Rendon committed two throwing errors — one of which lead to Albert Pujols three-run home run in the first inning — Williams was perplexed on the poor start defensively for the Nats.

“I’m baffled,” Williams said when asked how concerned he was about the defense and what he could do to stem the poor play. “What do you do? You just keep doing what we do. You keep working at it. We work on it every day. And we do extra. And we do all those things. It’s not what we want, for sure. But we can’t do anything but do what we’re doing, and that’s work at it.”

William has to take that attitude. He has no other option, really. But in reality, the Nats defense suffers from specific physical limitations that are difficult to overcome. Only Harper and Rendon are still a young players. They don’t seem to be part of the long-term problem. But the rest?

Desmond is 28 years old. We’ve seen this for several seasons now. He has tremendous range and a strong throwing arm. His range allows him to get to balls others watch go past, but as we saw in Monday’s game, that can be a curse as much as a blessing. He ranged far to his left to get his glove on the ball, only to have it clang off for a tough error. The ball bounced off the back of the mound, changing the spin on it and making it a much tougher play than it was going to be already.

Then there’s the matter of his arm. It’s a cannon. But it’s a loose cannon. They used to call guys like that “scattershot”, like the pattern of shotgun pellets spreading out in every direction at a high rate of speed. Last season, widely hailed as his best defensive season, he committed 12 throwing and seven fielding errors. This year, it’s an equal 4-4 so far. Desmond started slowly last season in the field too, so it may be a temperature thing with him. But the bottom line is this is who he is. At 28, he’s not going to get magically better throwing the ball.

Zimmerman’s problems have been well documented, in this space and throughout the Natosphere. His shoulder is compromised through injury to the point of curtailing any pregame throwing and altering his throwing mechanics to the point of being indistinguishable form how a human is supposed to throw overhanded. His broken thumb after 15 games allowed him to be DL’d for a actual broken bone as opposed to being sat down to allow the inflammation in the join to calm down. At this point, the Nats are trying to downplay this, saying they don’t feel the injury is a chronic thing. But realistically, Zimmerman needs to move to first base as soon as possible, if only to keep the inflammation out of the joint allowing him to him at a maximum, pain-free condition.

Espinosa is a good fielder, at both second base and shortstop. He gets a touch overrated in this market considering his teammates. But his health issues the past two seasons have taken a toll on his efficiency as well. He shouldn’t be part of the long-term problem either, but two errors in 17 games isn’t a great thing. Also, he’s 27, so he’s at his physical peak and won’t get better either.

Jayson Werth doesn’t have any errors in the outfield yet, but we’ve seen several balls fall in front of him or past him that he would have gotten to even at the start of his stint with the Nats. His range has drastically dropped each season he’s been here. It’ snot surprising, as his is 35 years old and being asked to man one of the more rigorous defensive positions. But it’s another point of data: Werth’s outfield defense is sub-par at this point in his career, and there’s very little the Nats can do about it for the next 3 1/2 years other than move him to left field and hope Harper can handle right.

As for Harper’s not-so-great fielding, we have to remember two things: 1) He was a catcher 2 1/2 years ago; 2) He’s learning to play outfield at the Major League level. There may be some “attention” problems attributed to Harper’s bungles, as he mostly has trouble with charging and picking up the ball. But for all his speed and effort (notice I didn’t say “hustle”) in the outfield, he still has trouble tracking line drives, both to his right and his left. Someone on Twitter casually remarked on a ball to the left field gap earlier this week that it seemed like a ball Harper could have made a play on, or at least cut off from going to the wall. If a casual fan can notice that, you can be sure the Nats are aware of it.

This all might seem like gloom and doom. Maybe it is. It’s certainly mostly anecdotal. But the takeaway here is that the Nats realistically aren’t a great fielding team, despite their pitching staff’s proclivity for being ground ball pitchers. And except for Rendon and Harper, the players they have are no longer in a growth mode — they are who they are, or getting worse (some significantly, and some very quickly). They can put as much work into it as they want, but in reality, the Nats are going to have to pitch and hit to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

Washington Redskins jump in with both feet on day two of free agency

The Washington Redskins, fairly quiet in the first day of the free agent signing period, were quite a bit more active in day two.

The Skins added four players, including former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher.

The team also added defensive end Clifton Geathers, linebacker Darryl Sharpton and cornerback Tracy Porter.

Hatcher, 31, enjoyed his best year in the league last season, recording 11 sacks. He spent the first five seasons of his career as a backup and broke the starting lineup in 2011. He played right defensive end in the Cowboys’ 3-4 system that year before switching to tackle last season in a 4-3. He’s expected to play end for the Skins.

Hatcher represents a huge upgrade along the defensive front for the Skins. Not only did Hatcher have more sacks than the entirety of the Skins defensive line last season, he’s also adept at putting pressure on the offense in the running game.

Geathers, a massive 6’8″, 340-pound fourth year defensive lineman, appeared in 16 games with the Philadelphia Eagles last year, recording 13 tackles.

Sharpton recorded 87 tackles for Houston, starting the final eight games of the season. He should compete for a starting inside spot next to Perry Riley Jr., re-signed by Washington on Wednesday.

Porter started 16 games for Oakland last season with 67 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown. Porter has had injury troubles in his seven-year career, playing just one full season as a pro. He can play against both wide and slot receivers.

OPINION: Haslett has to prove he’s capable in last chance

With the announcement by Washington Redskins new head coach Jay Gruden of the return and possible contract extension of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, those third-and-longs and fourth-and-shorts next NFL season may be more subject to hopes and prayers than the accustomed chant of “Defense!” heard from the upper deck of FedEx Field on Sundays.  

Jim Haslett, who has been the defensive coordinator since 2010, should by now be very accustomed to being a hot topic on Washington sports talk radio and at the office water cooler.  

Most fans were shocked when they heard the news that the Redskins were retaining Haslett, feeling there should have been a change in leadership on the defensive side of the ball. But if you step back and assess the situation, it’s understandable why they are going to keep him at least at the present time.  

It might not be the right idea, but you can see the team’s logic in it. 

With a new head coach coming in, whose background is obviously on the offensive side of the ball (and with the majority of a new staff), some consistency at one phase of the game might be the smart approach. You just can’t fix every problem at once. For example, most companies and managers in business world recognize that it’s better to be really good at one thing rather than being mediocre in everything.

Haslett has to prove this season that he’s capable of leading a competent defense.

Haslett has a long resume of coaching defenses in the NFL, so experience isn’t the issue here. The problem is his track record – of his past 12 defenses, none have ranked higher than 14th in points allowed, and that was the only time his defense ranked higher than 21st. Finishing in the lower third of the league in points allowed generally isn’t a way a guy accumulates 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator, but here we are. 

The issue during Haslett’s Redskins tenure is one of talent. Because of the salary cap penalties levied by the league, the Skins the past two seasons have concentrated on making the offense better at the expense of the defense and special teams.   

Let’s take a look at the talent Haslett has had at his disposal during his Redskins tenure. One can easily argue that the salary cap penalty and restrictions have more than merely handicapped the team the past two years – they’ve has nearly crippled it.  

There have been some promising additions on the offensive side of the ball recently, notably Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon, with little added to the defense during the reign of Mike Shanahan. Where are the Griffin and Morris-type additions to the defense?  

Even with their 3-13 record this year, the Redskins defense ranked in the middle of the league I yardage allowed – 18th overall. They were, however, 30th in points allowed. Why the disparity? 

The Redskins’ special teams were horrendous this past season. They gave up several touchdowns and yielded short field opportunities for the opposing team too many times. They were dead last in all aspects of that phase of the game, and it’s an aspect of this team that has been hit particularly hard by the salary cap penalties. 

If the Skins couldn’t address adding playmakers to the starting defense, how on Earth could they address depth signings as quality backups and special teamers?  

This offseason, many of last season’s starters on defense will become free agents.  With Haslett’s retention and the salary cap penalties being lifted, it will be interesting to watch who gets new contracts and where the team will look to improve from the outside. 

The past few seasons, the Skins and their apologists have claimed over and over that they haven’t had the right pieces and talent needed to run the 3-4 defense. They should have some flexibility to in that regard this offseason.  

With the retirement of 4-time pro bowler London Fletcher, who will step up and become the true leader of this group? His heir apparent, Perry Riley, Jr., is a free agent. So is the entire starting defensive backfield, though not many will miss those guys. And so is top sacker Brian Orakpo. 

Haslett has to decide who will replace Fletcher’s production in addition to leadership. Fletcher led the league in tackling on multiple occasions. He’ll be missed on the field as much as in the locker room.  

They need depth along the defensive line. Barry Cofield has been rock solid in the nose tackle role, but the rushing defense was porous in 2013, a huge step back from the previous season when they limited teams to 95.8 ypg, fifth in the NFL.  

The team addressed the secondary some in last year’s draft, bringing in CB David Amerson and S Baccari Rambo. Both had growing pains this season, but look to be pieces to build upon, especially Amerson. 

It will be interesting to see if they draft to build depth here. This group for the past two seasons have made so many mediocre quarterbacks look good – let alone what the actual good one do to it. The Redskins should go after a true shut-down corner this year – either via free agency or trade. They should look for someone who has been a solid citizen and that can set an example and mentor the young defensive backs they drafted last year.  

If they retain CB DeAngelo Hall, they need to stress with the veteran ballhawk that he needs to be more of a leader and eliminate the unnecessary unsportsmanlike penalties he accumulates as much as – if not more than – his interceptions. 

The team also retained defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, another of the former Tampa Bay staff that Bruce Allen has imported to D.C. They brought back inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and brought in outside linebackers coach Brian Baker from Cleveland to work specifically within the 3-4 system. 

This year’s defense will have Jim Haslett’s entire fingerprints all over it. We will have no other person to point our finger at. They have some holes to fill but they have the money to spend. With so many defensive players testing the free market this year it will be interesting to see how it all takes shape by training camp.  

Maybe with all the needed changes that are going to happen to the team this year, coach Gruden, Bruce Allen and the ownership decided to stay with at least one part of what they knew, for better or worse.  

Changing everything at once is a dicey proposition. Obviously the special teams’ poor performance cannot continue. They have a new coordinator there as well, with Ben Kotwica coming over from the Jets. Adding personnel on the defensive side of the ball can’t help but make the personnel for the special teams that much better. 

Maybe Haslett hasn’t had all the materials necessary at his disposal to be successful. If that is the case, maybe he deserves shot with a roster stocked with difference-makers on defense.  

But he needs to take ownership and accountability, with no more excuses this time around. We shouldn’t expect a championship defense this coming season. But it is reasonable to expect a consistent and competitive one though.

It should prove interesting how Haslett, Bruce Allen and the talent evaluators approach the restocking of defensive personnel during the offseason. We gave Mike Shanahan four years. Why not see what Haslett can bring and accomplish in his fourth with appropriate personnel and no limitations.
_______________________

Staff intern Wayne Hess contributed to this report.

Ovechkin delivering; rest of Caps — including management — need to pick up the slack

Alex Ovechkin - Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Alex Ovechkin – Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

On Friday night, with the greatest player in the history of team sport in attendance, the Washington Capitals’ captain, The Great Eight, scored both of the Caps’ goals in a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Saturday, on Hockey Night in Canada at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ovechkin recorded the Caps lone tally in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs. Through 22 games, Alex Ovechkin has 20 goals to place him at the top of the leader board in that particular category. Hard as it might be to imagine, it’s the first time in his illustrious career that Ovechkin has been the first player in the league to 20 goals in a season.

The Caps, as whole though, haven’t mirrored Ovechkin’s personal success yet this year, despite their captain being on a pace to record the first 70-goal season in the NHL in forever.

Ovechkin is taking a lot of shots, scoring a high — but based on his history, not outrageously high — percentage of said shots, and generally being the best player on the ice almost every night he laces them up. The rest of the team however, remains a work in progress.

Washington’s next-highest goal scorer is Joel Ward, with nine. Ward’s career high in goals was the 17 he posted in 2008-09, his first full campaign in the league, so it’s unlikely that he continues to score at a 33-goal pace, especially considering his over 20 percent shot success.

The second line’s contribution has been sparse thus far. Troy Brouwer has scored five times; Brooks Laich thrice. Mike Green, bitten by the injury bug once again, has yet to record a goal, though two of Mikhail Grabovski’s seven goals came off tips of Green shots, which were originally awarded to the defenseman, on opening night.

It’s kind of been an age-old story around these parts since the start of the Ovechkin era. Where will the secondary scoring come from? When will they learn to play defense? Will the goaltending, strong enough in the regular season, carry over to the second season?

The Capitals defensive struggles are well documented. On any given night right now, half the dressed defenders didn’t start the season on the big club. One was waived by a division foe. One’s a 27-year old minor league journeyman. Another is a 29-year old AHL veteran. One was a college free agent signee last year. Several have been legitimate NHL rookies, including 19-year old Connor Carrick, who was sent down to Hershey just three games in.

Raise your hand if you had Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Alexander Urbom or Tyson Strachan being nightly contributors to the Capitals in this, Ovechkin’s age 28 season.

Liar.

All the while, a legitimate Top-4 prospect named Dmitry Orlov bides his time riding the shuttle between Hershey and D.C., yet to suit up for the big club this season,

Whatever you want to think of GM George McPhee’s asset management this season, especially on the blue line, you’re probably justified. If you want to think he’s waiting out the competition until the trade deadline to steal a Top-4 D-man from a second division team, good for you. If you think he’s squandering precious games during the regular season when the Caps could be building a home-ice advantage for the playoffs, you’re justified as well.

It was a real crapshoot for the Caps to have started the season depending on Jack Hillen, John Erskine and Carrick, then filling in the gap with the rest when those players didn’t pan out due to injury or inexperience. The ramifications might not be fully known until the spring.

One thing is for certain: Ovechkin is holding up his end of the bargain. It’s up to the rest of the Caps, and to McPhee and Adam Oates, to find the right parts to supplement Ovechkin’s contributions. Otherwise, at the end of the season we’ll once again be lamenting another incomplete season in the prime of Alex Ovechkin’s Hall of Fame career.

OPINION: Washington Capitals have too many holes to trade for one “difference-maker”

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: [Read more...]

Redskins get elusive first win as defense finds its footing

The Washington Redskins finally got their elusive first win of the season by playing solid defensive football and taking advantage of turnovers Sunday afternoon against the Oakland Raiders. The Redskins defense played their best game of the season, against an admittedly depleted Raiders squad, and the offense executed well enough to qualify the win as a “team” victory. And not a moment too soon.

The Redskins came out of the gate a little bit sluggish to start the game, with consecutive three-and-out series, perhaps due to crossing three time zones to play this one. The sluggish start was compounded by a special teams blunder, as a blocked punt by Rashad Jennings after the Skins second series was recovered by Jeremy Stewart in the end zone for a quick 7-0 Raiders lead.

After another Redskins three-and-out on the following possession, Raiders QB Matt Flynn, starting for the injured Terelle Pryor,  threw a strike to rookie TE Mychal Rivera for a 18-yard touchdown to give the Raiders a two score lead early on. But on the drive, the Raiders lost starting running back Darren McFadden to a hamstring injury, and that would play into the Redskins hands the rest of the day.

Those two quick scores by the Raiders apparently triggered a wake-up call for the Redskins.

On the next possession, the offense went hurry-up no-huddle and marched down the field. The drive stalled at the Oakland two yard line, however, and the Redskins settled for a chip-shot field goal by John Potter.

That must have energized the defense as well.

On the ensuing Raiders possession, David Amerson read Flynn all the way, jumped a route, and picked off a pass intended for Raiders leading receiver Denarius Moore.  Amerson took it untouched 45 yards for the Skins first score of the day.

With McFadden out, the Raiders went to a more pass-happy attack, which enabled the Redskins defense to come after the immobile and indecisive Flynn. The Skins pressured Flynn all day, recorded a season-high seven sacks, and forced two Flynn fumbles to go along with Amerson’s pick-six.

The defense didn’t allow another point, shutting out the Raiders offense for better than three quarters, as the Skins scored 24 unanswered points to walk out of Oakland with their first win of the year.

Going into the bye week, the Redskins should feel good about getting their first victory of the season. Their 1-3 record places them one game behind the Dallas Cowboys (2-2), who lost on the road at San Diego, at the top of the division. Both the Eagles and Giants lost in Week 4 as well, setting the NFC East as the worst division in the NFL right now, with no team having a winning record.

What’s more, if the Cowboys lose in Week 5 to the high-powered Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, the Redskins would then have an opportunity to go into Arlington in two weeks and battle with the struggling Cowboys for the division lead.

It appears that mediocrity is going to rule the division this season. If the Redskins can use the two solid weeks of practice surrounding the bye to get Robert Griffin III even more up to speed with his offense, and give the rookies in the secondary two more weeks to feel comfortable in the schemes, there’s little reason the Skins can’t rebound to still be a factor in the division.

District Sports Page staff intern Brandon Enroth contributed to this report.

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Season Roundtable, Part I

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is less than a week away. With that in mind, the District Sports Page Caps staff and contributors will take a look at several key areas that will affect the Caps season as they get ready to start play in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.

The second half of our roundtable will post Monday.

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, Caps Staff Writer for DSP; Abram Fox, former Caps Page Editor at DSP, Erika Schnure, RinkRebel.com and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, Caps author and contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.com. [Read more...]

Washington Capitals place D Tomas Kundratek on waivers

The Washington Capitals reportedly placed right-handed defenseman Tomas Kundratek on waivers Wednesday, with the plans to send him to Hershey if he clears waivers. The rest of the league has until Thursday at noon to make a claim.

Kundratek’s removal from the roster removes his $550,000 salary cap hit, giving the Caps a little more room under the cap with which to maneuver.

The move could be a pre-cursor to the team keeping Tom Wilson, the 19-year-old winger that has made a terrific impression in camp. He is not eligible to play in the AHL this season, so if he doesn’t make the Caps, he’d have to be returned to his junior team. Coach Adam Oates has made several comments that he’d like to have Wilson’s size and presence on the fourth line this season and that he’s already outgrown major Juniors, calling him a man among boys at that level.

The Caps top two defense pairing seem set, with veterans Karl Alzner and Mike Green as the top pair and John Erskine and John Carlson the second duo. The Caps then have several candidates to fill the bottom pair.

Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy finished last season as that third pairing, but Kundratek’s overall game seemed to be a good fit to stick around as the seventh defenseman or eventually step in for Oleksy.

Then there’s Dmitry Orlov, who at one time seemed destined for top-four minutes. A series of injuries, including a concussion that saw him miss over three months last season, derailed those plans.

In Adam Oates’ pregame comments before the team takes on Nashville Wednesday night at Verizon Center, he said that Kundratek is “a good hockey player. If he gets picked up [on waivers], I hope he does well. If he doesn’t, I hope we see him again.”

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Season Preview: Defense

All week, District Sports Page has been previewing the 2013-14 Washington Capitals roster by position. Monday, Katie Brown looked at the left wingers, and Tuesday she previewed the pivots.

Today, here’s an in-depth look at the blueliners.

Karl Alzner - Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner – Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner (24, 6’3″, 213, shoots left; 48 games 1-4-5, minus-6, 14 PIMs in 2012-13) – Like his then-partner John Carlson, “King Karl” got off to a slow start last season once the lockout lifted. It’s almost as if someone in the organization told the players there was no way in hell the season was going to happen and they all sat around playing Mario Brothers or something.

Political diatribes aside, Alzner recovered to do what he does best – play against every opponent’s top lines and keep goals out of his own net. He doesn’t shoot or score very often (though he was second on the Caps in shot attempts in the second round of the playoffs, but very few players are as dependable on defense than Alzner.

The only knock on Alzner is that despite decent size, he can get pushed around a bit along the walls, and not just by bigger players. Hopefully The King spent some time back in British Columbia in the weight room this summer.

Capitals John Carlson pre-game warmups up at Verizon Center (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Capitals John Carlson pre-game warmups up at Verizon Center (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Carlson (23, 6’3″, 212, shoots right; 48 games, 6-16-22, +11, 18 PIMs) – Carlson had an interesting campaign last season. He started off considerably, um, rusty, after admittedly not skating much during the lockout. He seemed a step slow for the first 20 games of the season, as much as anyone on the Caps did during that horrendous stretch.

Head coach Adam Oates ended breaking the Carlson-Alzner duo up to try to spur better play from both. The more Carlson played and rounded into shape, the better he got and ended up in the top three in the league in blocked shots.

Still young, Carlson could be primed to have a breakout season. He’s gifted offensively and responsible on the back end. He will log plenty of minutes this season regardless who his partner is.

John Erskine -Practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Erskine -Practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

John Erskine (33, 6’4″, 220, shoots left, 30 games, 3-3-6, +10, 34 PIMs) – Big John is the closest thing the Caps have to a true enforcer. He’s certainly the only player on the team, other than Ovechkin and until Tom Wilson is ready, that inspires any sort of a physical presence, especially guarding his own net.

But here’s the thing – Big John is slow, a poor skater to boot, and lacks any type of offensive skill or presence. He has a very heavy shot from the point, but can only get it off if the pass is soft or he’s left completely alone, which is usually the case as teams have no reason to fear Erskine making a play with the puck.

Oates, and presumably GM George McPhee, seem to love whatever positives Erskine brings to the blue line though. He should be candidate to sit every night, unless they’re playing Philly or Boston, but Erskine damn near earned top-4 minutes last season.

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mike Green (27, 6’1″, 207, shoots right, 35 games, 12-14-26, minus-3, 20 PIMs) – Green led defensemen in goals last season. That really shouldn’t be a shocker. He also missed 13 games due to injury, which also shouldn’t shock anybody.

“Game Over” Green rediscovered his scoring touch last season and is certainly a boon to the team’s power play. He’s also made considerable strides in his own end. He’ll never be considered a shut-down defender, but he’s serviceable in his own end, where as a younger player he was a liability.

Oates’ offense not only encourages but darn near demands that defensemen get up in the play. Green doesn’t need much enticement to do so but he should be able to flourish in this system. With a full training camp, he should be ready to go out of the gate…as long as he can stay on the ice.

Jack Hillen - Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Jack Hillen – Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Jack Hillen (27, 5’10″, 190, shoots left, 23 games, 3-6-9, +9, 14 PIMs) – The stats love Jack Hillen. No the traditional ones so much, but his even strength Fenwick (differential in scoring chance opportunities) led all Caps defensemen last season. Hillen is a decent puck-moving defenseman, but his slight build and lack of upper body strength (his listed 190 lbs is more like 170, in my opinion) make him a liability defensively and injury risk pretty much any time he steps on the ice.

It’s not a sin to be a smallish defenseman. Hillen is pretty good at what he does for not much salary. He’s a pretty decent depth defenseman that can move the puck for you a little bit. And Oates used him primarily at even strength against weaker competition.

But as you’ll read below, I think the Caps have a much better option available to them that will eventually limit the amount of minutes, and ultimately, games Hillen will contribute to the Caps this season.

Tomas Kundratek makes his NHL Debut Jan. 11 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Tomas Kundratek makes his NHL Debut Jan. 11 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Tomas Kundratek (23, 6’2″, 201, shoots right, 25 games, 1-6-7, minus-5, 8 PIMs) – Kundratek was an all-star in the AHL, going 16-15-31 in 49 games for Hershey in 12-13. He hardly looked overmatched with the big club either, and could be positioning himself for good minutes with the Caps this season.

Oates almost mandates that defensemen are paired with someone with an opposite shot, so this also may help Kundratek garner ice time. As a righty, he’s obviously seeded behind Green and Carlson, somewhere alongside Oleksy.

Considering Kundratek is a vastly superior offensive contributor over Oleksy, he might seem the apparent choice for the third paring at right-handed defense. Oleksy did an admirable job last season when pressed into duty. It will be interesting to watch if the league “catches up to him” this season. It may take an injury for Kundratek to crack the lineup, at least early in the season, but his overall game should overtake the overachieving Oleksy soon enough.

Steve Oleksy (27, 6’0″, 190, shoots right, 28 games, 1-8-9, +9, 33 PIMs) – Oleksy went 2-12-14 in 55 additional games for Hershey before being recalled due to heavy injury problems along the Caps backline in the middle of last season.

Oleksy is a hard worker and has persevered through a career that saw him playing independent hockey when most guys are in the middle of their NHL careers. He’s willing to mix it up, though he didn’t do much fighting with the big club, and he’s much more rugged physically than his actual stature might suggest.

What he can’t do is move the puck. He’s brutal offensively and he’s not a very good skater. He’s a typical “effort” guy, but his pedigree suggests that he’ll be overtaken on the depth chart by Kundratek very quickly. Still, a hard worker and good guy to have as a depth defenseman.

Dmitri Orlov sporting a black eye during warmups in January 2011 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dmitri Orlov sporting a black eye during warmups in January 2011 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Dmitry Orlov (22, 6’0″, 210, shoots left, 5 games, 0-1-1, +5, 0 PIMs) – Orlov went 3-14-17 in 31 games in Hershey as he made his way back from concussion symptoms. Look, here’s the thing – I love Dmitry Orlov’s game.

Orlov could end up being the best two-way defenseman this team has. In 60 games his rookie season, Orlov went 3-16-19, +1 and exhibited terrific skating skills, a good idea of when – and when not – to jump into the play, and a little bit of snarl when the situation called or it. He also has tremendous timing on the old-fashioned hip check.

The thing that might hinder Kundratek, handedness, might play in Orlov’s favor. As a lefty, only Erskine and Hillen stand in his way to playing time. He should overtake both quickly to earn second pairing status and be well on his way to being a dependable two-way defender for the Caps for many years to come.

On the farm – Cam Schilling, Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey, David Kolomatis

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