With the season opener right around the corner, District Sports Page takes a look at the construction of the roster to start the season. Today, the defensemen.
Though not the most experienced, highly paid, or offensively skilled defenseman on the Washington Capitals roster, Karl Alzner has emerged as the face of the team’s defensive corps thanks to his consistent play and willingness to face the media in any circumstance. The same composure Alzner demonstrates in front of a camera is evident with his play. Per statistics site Behind the Net, Alzner faced the strongest competition of any Caps player in 2011-12, yet still led the team in plus-minus with a plus-12.
New Capitals assistant coach Calle Johansson sees a younger version of himself while watching Alzner on the ice, and the talented young defenseman should benefit under Johansson’s tutelage. Many years down the road Alzner may also challenge Johansson for the Capitals’ franchise record for games played. The Swede played 983 of his 1,109 career NHL games for the Caps, while Alzner has played 215 games in part of four seasons, including all 82 games each of the past two years.
Riffing on the hockey tradition to not shave during the playoffs, Carlson showed up to training camp looking like he hadn’t cut his hair since the Caps’ playoff loss in May. Surfer hair notwithstanding, Carlson is coming off a career high in goals despite serving with Alzner on Washington’s shutdown defense pairing. The young defenseman may benefit the most from new head coach Adam Oates’s offensive scheme, possessing scoring ability, the speed to get back in the transition game, and the stay-at-home defensive partner to allow him to take chances.
The real test for Carlson will be if he can maintain his defensive form and conditioning. Unlike some of his teammates, Carlson stayed in the D.C. area rather than play professionally overseas or in a North American minor league. Instead, he kept active by skating informally with a small group that included teammates Mike Green, Jason Chimera, and Jay Beagle and former teammate and Maryland native Jeff Halpern. In doing so Carlson has saved several months of wear-and-tear on his body, but a lack of conditioning could lead to injury or poor play if he isn’t able to reach suitable form in short order.
Erskine is of the class of players who stood to suffer the most from the NHL lockout: a non-skill, marginal roster player good enough to stick around the NHL but not good enough to take one of the limited roster spots available to non-Europeans in an overseas league. Instead the Kington, Ontario native returned to his hometown to skate and workout on his own, and showed up to training camp looking much thinner and quicker than he has in years. That seems unusual for a defender for whom the most fitting adjective has traditionally been “hulking,” but perhaps Erskine took a look at film from new assistant head coach Calle Johansson’s career and realized he needed to alter his style to stay in Washington’s longterm plans.
In 2011-12 Erskine skated in only 28 games, spending much of the season as a healthy scratch while Dale Hunter relied on rookie Dmitry Orlov and the same roster game-in and game-out. With the addition of Jack Hillen and return of Tom Poti, Erskine will be part of a crowded field vying for one of the bottom pairing spots on the Capitals’ roster. He remains Washington’s de facto enforcer, a status without much cachet under Oates but which nonetheless helps his chances at securing one of the seven roster spots on defense to start the season.
2011-12 was a lost season for the former 31-goal scorer, who only played 32 games due to a recurring groin injury. He’s now completely healthy, but that’s a recent development as of about a month ago. Across the league groin injuries as a major concern for this condensed season, and Green is as susceptible as anyone else. Regardless of whether he’s paired with Roman Hamrlik, Dmitry Orlov, Jeff Schultz, or another teammate, Green will be the defenseman responsible for moving the puck when he’s on the ice, leaving him open to contact.
A complete season would be a triumph for Green, but a return to his scoring form would also be appreciated by the Washington organization. Shortly before the end of the lockout Green underwent laser eye surgery, which if nothing else may give him a psychological boost if he thinks he’s seeing the puck better. Green has traditionally played the right point on the Caps’ power play, which was Oates’ specialty while an assistant coach for New Jersey and Tampa Bay, and any increase in Washington’s power play effectiveness from last season’s 18th will reflect on Green’s personal statistics as well.
A former first overall draft pick and the most veteran member of the Washington Capitals, Hamrlik is a usually soft-spoken player who drew jeers during the lockout as one of the few voices players to explicitly criticize the NHLPA’s stance on negotiations. As one of six current players — Teemu Selanne, Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Brodeur, and the soon-to-retire Chris Pronger are the others — to experience three lockouts, Hamrlik’s position is understandable, even if his means of expressing it was ill-considered.
Despite his active NHL best 1,379 career games played, Hamrlik remains capable of playing top-four minutes and was a steady partner to Mike Green last season. He’s seen it all, which makes him a valuable presence in a young defensive corps, and his late-career transition from powerplay quarterback to defensive-minded stopper is the blueprint for teammate Poti to do the same. The ascendancy of Orlov or return of a healthy Poti will spell a decrease in time for Hamrlik, and how he handles the move may be his real legacy with the Caps.
At the age of 26, Hillen is already on his third NHL franchise having played parts of four seasons for the New York Islanders before skating in 55 games for the Nashville Predators last season. Prior to signing a one-year deal with Washington in July, Hillen was best known to Capitals fans as the player whose jaw was broken by an Alex Ovechkin slapshot in January 2010. He’s all recovered now, and will challenge for a depth position on the Caps after skating on the third pairing for a dominant Predators defensive corps.
Hillen is a puck-moving defenseman, and his smooth skating drew raves from locker room neighbor Alzner after the team’s first training camp practice. That style of play will endear him with both Oates and Johansson, who are known to appreciate smooth skaters. He’s also acclimated well with his new teammates, sharing jokes with locker room neighbor Alzner after the team’s first session.
A potential breakout year for Orlov was derailed first by the lockout and then by a groin injury suffered in December, ironically during the Hershey Bears’ AHL Showcase game at the Verizon Center. Before his injury, Orlov was largely underperforming in Hershey with only one goal and eight assists in 18 games. His lengthy stint with the NHL squad last season removed any doubt that he belonged in the big leagues, so his production for the Bears may be more a case of personal disappointment than regression.
His rookie season with the Capitals last year saw Orlov post three goals and 16 assists in 60 games, averaging a respectable 16:52 time on ice. One of the smaller defensemen on Washington’s roster, Orlov’s abilities fit better in Adam Oates’ system than that of Dale Hunter, who nonetheless relied heavily on the services of the Russian defender over those of John Erskine and Jeff Schultz much of the season.
For the first time since 2009, the Boston-born Poti is healthy at the start of the season. A groin injury and then fractured pelvis kept Poti to only 22 games played in the 2010-11 season, and he was on long-term injured reserve for all of last season, during which general manager George McPhee said he thought Poti’s career was over. Instead, the defenseman declared himself 100 percent healthy shortly before the end of the lockout, and since then has proven a man of his word. After passing his physical Poti was sent to the Hershey Bears for a conditioning assignment, upon which he scored a power play goal in his first game Saturday night.
It’s unclear what Poti can bring to the Capitals roster at this point, if only because no one has any clue how his skill set has changed in the past two years. He was already beginning to transition from puck-moving offensive threat to physical stay-at-home defender when he was injured, and it’s hard to imagine him resuming the puck-moving role with Green, Carlson, and Hillen or Orlov on the roster. Although he’s 35, staying out of professional hockey for two years has saved that much wear and tear on his body and allowed him to heal up from all those little aches and bruises that accumulate over the course of the years.
Of the ten defensemen invited to training camp, Schilling was the longest shot when it comes to making the roster, and indeed has already been sent back to Hershey. The undrafted player from Indiana was signed as a free agent last spring immediately after the conclusion of his senior year at Miami University and appeared in 11 games for the Hershey Bears. His stint included four games in the Bears’ five-game first round series loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, in which Schilling netted two goals. In 33 games this season in Hershey Schilling has three goals and four assists and is fifth on the team with a plus-6 rating.
Compared to the rest of the players in the Capitals organization, Schilling has a leg up in one regard: he’s the only player with significant experience under Adam Oates as head coach, when Oates took over bench duties in Hershey for a stretch in late 2012. Although George McPhee insisted that every player in camp has a chance to make the Capitals’ roster, Schilling’s presence was largely to get the youngster acclimated to the NHL experience. Washington only has four defensemen with NHL experience under contract for the 2013-14 season, and the camp invite was a notice to Schilling that he’s expected to be ready should the need arise later this season and to contend for a spot next season and beyond.
The erstwhile top-four defenseman and league plus-minus leader is now relegated to fighting for a spot on the Capitals bottom pair every night. Although Schultz has seemed to be on the outs for the past few seasons, the four-year, $11 million contract he signed after the 2009-10 season has kept him in Washington red and white. He was a favorite of Bruce Boudreau, who coached Schultz while in Hershey, but began to fall out of favor under Dale Hunter’s regime. It remains to be seen how he fits into Calle Johansson’s defensive scheme.
Schultz has demonstrated the ability to stick around for the past few seasons, and the quiet Canadian seems to get along well with his teammates. Although he doesn’t possess overwhelming physical or puck-moving capabilities, he plays strong positional hockey and rarely panics in his own end. There is no guarantee that Schultz will be able to maintain his roster spot this season, particularly with the return of a healthy Poti, but stranger things have happened.