The Capitals are the consumate regular-season team. Washington has earned 229 total points since 2008-2009, the second-most in the NHL behind San Jose’s 230. Last season’s President’s Trophy was a first for a team that languished for close to a decade and momentum was riding high. But faced with a hot goaltender and a hard-nosed team, the finesse-focused Caps were outmuscled and outscrapped, ultimately collapsing in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens, a loss that some argue was one of the biggest upsets in NHL playoff history.
For three years, analysts and fans alike have frequently opined about what the Washington Capitals need in order to reach the precipice of playoff success. The terms “stay-at-home defenseman” and “experienced goaltender” have been thrown around a lot (perhaps too much), but the reasons behind such recommendations are brought to light on the ice, where the Capitals struggle in those departments. Owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee have insisted upon a plan of “building from within” and said plan has worked incredibly for the most part. Yet, after another “stay-at homer” slipped away from the Caps’ grasp this week, something that the Capitals have not been able to fully develop, the team once again finds itself on the outside looking in when it comes to bolstering its defensive corps.
This summer’s free agent class featured some big names, including some notable defensemen. Most of these defensemen, however, were not the shut-down blueliners that the Capitals were looking for. Players like Paul Martin (Pittsburgh), Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa), Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver) and Pavel Kubina (Tampa Bay) are offensive-minded defensemen with solid shots that log huge minutes, but can’t play exceptional defense. The market for big, solid D-men was very limited this summer. This week, former Canuck Willie Mitchell, probably the last available and desirable defensemen that the Capitals could go after, signed with Los Angeles. Others that fit the bill, such as Anton Volchenkov (New Jersey) and Zbynek Michalek (Pittsburgh), were passed on.
The Capitals currently have seven defensemen under contract who have logged significant minutes, so a move must be made. Rumors have LW/C Tomas Fleischmann moving out to Edmonton or Vancouver for Sheldon Souray and Kevin Bieksa, respectively. Souray is the closest thing to a shut-down defenseman that the Capitals could realistically acquire right now (and even that’s a stretch). While Souray has a knack for clearing out the crease, he is past his prime and injury-prone. Bieksa is an all-around player, but focuses on his shot and can be inconsistent.
Looking at the Capitals’ depth chart on defense, the potential top pairings will include Mike Green, Tom Poti, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, John Erskine, Jeff Schultz and Tyler Sloan. Alzner could potentially be what the Capitals have been looking for and playing in Washington full-time for the first time will allow for more development. From there, the physicality steadily decreases. Erskine is a big body, but is slow and is more or less an enforcer (and with the addition of D.J. King, even that role will be diminished). Schultz’s game will never match his size, even if he happens to be the biggest player on the team. Sloan is versatile, yet incredibly lanky. Poti has considerable size, but has never used it to his advantage. Carlson is a power-play quarterback and his counterpart, Green, is more of a forward than a defenseman. Green has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy the past two seasons, but has not won for a simple reason: he doesn’t play defense. That simple statement is the problem not just with Green, but the whole lot.
The Caps led the league in goals per game last season with 3.82/game and 10 players scored double-digit goals, but the team was 16th in goals allowed with 2.77/game. Scoring is not an issue for the Capitals, but winning games by simply outscoring the opposition can only go so far, not just in hockey, but in any sport.
Looking at the last three postseasons, the Capitals have been in four series and all four have gone seven games. The primary reason for that is when the offense struggles, the defense is not there to keep it close. Against the Rangers in 2008-2009, the Capitals fell down 3-1 because the offense couldn’t get anything past Hendrik Lundqvist and the defense let New York fire from all angles. The best example would be Game Seven of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals’ scorers couldn’t capitalize (especially Alex Ovechkin on his early-game breakaway), and within eight seconds, the score was 2-0 Pittsburgh. This trend continued against Montreal last season and will continue to present itself unless the front office finally decides to make the move it desperately needs. Washington’s defense is a liability. Perhaps the clamors were justified.