The Capitals demonstrated they could play a stingy defensive game under Dale Hunter this season. That system began with the blueliners themselves, some of whom were better suited to his demands than others.
As General Manager George McPhee engineers a roster for next season and searches for a new coach, he could easily keep the bulk of the defense from 2011-12 intact. The Capitals have five defensemen under contract who are expected to be ready for next season, with two more, Mike Green and John Carlson, due new contracts as restricted free agents. That doesn’t preclude the option of changes to the blueline this summer, but if Washington resigns Green and Carlson it will have seven NHL-ready defensemen for next season.
Dennis Wideman is the lone unrestricted free agent in the group. While he has said he would enjoy coming back to Washington, his price tag may simply be too steep on the open market. The Capitals also have Dmitry Orlov coming off his rookie season to slide into the top six on a regular basis, which would help pick up some of the ice time a departure by Wideman would leave behind.
From there, the question remains of how the Capitals’ brass sees the team’s identity moving forward. Critics have long targeted the lack of a grizzled, net-clearing defenseman as a weakness, but to bring in someone to fill that role or another prominent spot on the defensive depth chart would require a few tweaks.
Let’s take a look back at how this past season went for Washington’s defensemen and what it might mean for the future:
2012-13 salary cap hit: $1.285 | Age: 23 (Turns 24 on Sept. 24)
It’s easy to forget that Alzner only just finished his second full NHL season in this campaign because in 2011-12 he was the Capitals’ steadiest and most responsible defenseman on the roster. He consistently faced the league’s top offensive threats but despite that daunting opposition, he was only on the ice for 2.02 even-strength goals against per 60 minutes of play.
Alzner had occasional rough patches over the course of the season, but that’s not surprising given that he’s still young and learning despite shouldering such a key role. Expect Alzner to continue his development as a shutdown defenseman next year and continue to face off against top foes.
2012-13 salary cap hit: RFA | Age: 22
An uneven showing in the regular season of Carlson’s sophomore year gave way to a strong, workhorse performance as half of the shutdown pairing in the playoffs. With five points (2G, 3A) in the postseason he was the leading scorer among defensemen, in addition to being on the ice for only seven even-strength goals against.
The regular season was a different story. Carlson appeared to struggle against some of the tougher assignments, prompting the coaching staff to split him from Alzner to take some of the pressure off. He was on the ice for 104 goals against, 18 more than any of his teammates, as costly giveaways plagued his game. Considering the way he worked out of the slump in the playoffs, the rough regular season could be chalked up to the growing pains of a young player. Next season should help give a better picture of what to expect from Carlson moving forward.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $1.5 million | Age: 31 (Turns 32 on June 26)
Erskine fell out of favor with the coaching staff in early February and his 28 regular season appearances marked the fewest games he’s played in any season since 2002-03. His average ice time of 12:06 was also the lowest in his six years as a Capital, and during the season Erskine said he was never told why he was moved into the pressbox.
Hunter used Erskine for four games in the playoffs when he was looking for a more physical edge on the blueline, but after appearing in Game 1 against the Rangers the gritty defenseman didn’t suit up again. Erskine will likely be battling for a spot in the third pairing and regular ice time next season, regardless of what other changes are made.
2012-13 salary cap hit: RFA | Age: 26 (Turns 27 on Oct. 12)
For a second straight season injuries played a defining role for Green, who missed 50 games with an ankle problem and then groin tear, which led to sports hernia surgery. He played only 32 regular season games and during the prolonged absence, the coaching change brought an altered system and greater defensive expectations for Green to adapt to upon returning. He had a solid performance in the first round of the playoffs against Boston, but when Green faced a more aggressive Rangers team in the second round he was vulnerable to crushing hits and getting trapped in his own zone.
Green scored only two goals — both in the playoffs — after he returned to the lineup in late February and often appeared unsure of himself in the offensive zone. While Dale Hunter wasn’t asking him to lead the rush as he did in years past it’s impossible to not wonder what Green’s identity will be moving forward. Can he recapture his scoring touch? If not, how does he fit into the Capitals’ future plans? And, of course, all of that depends on his ability to stay healthy.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $3.5 million | Age: 38
Brought in to provide veteran stability, Hamrlik was able to do just that in the playoffs as he was on the ice for only five even-strength goals against through 14 games. For as calming a presence the veteran could be in the postseason, though, his years often showed in slowness during the regular season. At 38 years old he is by far the most senior member of the defense and his success depends heavily on positioning because he lacks the speed to scramble back into the play if there’s a missed assignment.
Hamrlik was one of several veteran players to be benched by Hunter, who at the time said he wanted to see better decision-making and fewer unnecessary penalties from the Czech defenseman. After voicing his displeasure about sitting as a healthy scratch for eight games, Hamrlik met Hunter’s requirements when he did return to the lineup. Looking ahead to next season perhaps the biggest question for Hamrlik will be whether he can carry significant minutes at this stage in his career.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $900,000 | Age: 20 (Turns 21 on July 23)
After starting the year in Hershey, the young Russian was recalled to Washington in November and never left. Orlov’s arrival in the NHL was a year ahead of what the Capitals expected back in training camp, which is good news considering he should be tasked with even greater responsibility in the 2012-13 campaign.
Orlov earned a consistent spot in the lineup — he played in 40 consecutive games after being recalled — saw his ice time rise under Hunter and recorded 19 points (3G, 16A). But Orlov appeared to show signs of fatigue as he played more than 45 games in a season for the first time in his professional career. That, along with his inexperience, is believed to be why Hunter didn’t play the promising youngster in the postseason. One element of his game to keep an eye on next year is whether Orlov can find a little more accuracy with his booming slap shot; if he can put the puck on net with greater consistency, don’t be surprised to see him on the power play more often.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $2.875 million | Age: 35
There is little expectation that Poti will play next season. Poti, 35, has appeared in only 21 games over the past two seasons because of lingering groin problems that cannot be remedied by surgery, according to McPhee. He has one more year left on his current contract — a salary cap hit of $2.875 million, salary of $2.75 million — and how the Capitals choose to handle that deal will depend on any changes in the new collective bargaining agreement. Under the current CBA, it makes sense for Washington to place him on long-term injured reserve to bank space under the salary cap rather than buy him out, which would leave a residual cap hit for the next two seasons.
2012-13 salary cap hit: $2.75 million | Age: 26
From the beginning, Hunter and his coaching staff said they wanted more out of Schultz: more toughness, more battle and fervor against opponents with the puck. Those requests were part of the reason Schultz spent 20 of 22 games from Dec. 9 through Jan. 31 watching games as a healthy scratch. There wasn’t a windfall of change to Schultz’s game when he got back into the lineup, although he did show a bit more assertiveness in battling along the boards. In 10 playoff games, he struggled against speedy opponents and finished tied with usual partner Dennis Wideman at a team-worst minus-7 rating.
After playing only 54 games and averaging 15:18 per night in 2011-12, the lowest in both categories since he became a full-time NHLer, can Schultz get his confidence back?
2012-13 salary cap hit: UFA | Age: 29
Wideman earned his first-ever All-Star nod this season but after appearing in those festivities in late January, the veteran defenseman saw his offensive output decline significantly. He recorded only two goals and 13 assists in the 48 games, regular season and playoffs combined, that followed the all-star weekend.
As the season progressed, Wideman’s timing appeared off and his movements seemed hesitant rather than smooth. It’s tough not to wonder if the drop off might have been a combined product of significant ice time – Wideman regularly played more than 24 minutes a game when Mike Green was out – and any lingering effects of the leg hematoma he suffered in 2011.