October 24, 2014

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

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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