The Capitals’ biggest weakness this season was their play in their own end. Often unable to clear the puck consistently or engineer a proper breakout, Washington spent far too much time trapped in its own zone, which led to lopsided possession at even strength (47.6 Corsi for percentage, seventh-worst in the league) and a glaring minus-276 shot differential five-on-five.
“Stingy” teams don’t rely solely on their blueliners — success in this area is the result of effort and ability up and down a roster — but that’s where overall defensive competence has to start. Washington lacked depth at defensemen and spent the season patching together journeymen and young prospects and hoping for the best. That’s not the way to pursue a championship or a playoff berth, and it’s why the Capitals’ biggest offseason need is an experienced, stabilizing defensive presence.
“We need to get help on the blue line,” Coach Adam Oates said Monday. “We do.”
All told, 14 defensemen suited up in at least one game for the Capitals this season. What follows is a look at how they fared nd what the future might hold. Breakdowns on the forwards and goaltending will follow over the next few days and, if you missed it, check out the unrestricted free agents here.
Note: All salary cap figures are from Capgeek.com, and the Capitals denied requests to speak to all of the assistant coaches, including Calle Johansson, who has instructed the defensemen the past two seasons.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $6,083, 333 | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 70GP, 9G, 29A, -16
Not even Oates seems to know exactly what to make of Green, who in his ninth NHL season is neither the offensive catalyst he once was nor the dependable two-way presence many have tried to mold him into. Nonetheless, Green remains a centerpiece of the Capitals’ defense, and for the first time since the 2009-10 season, he played at least 70 games despite missing time because of a concussion and fractured ribs.
He led the Capitals defensemen with 38 points, 23 of which came at even-strength, and boasted the best five-on-five Corsi-for (51.7 percent) on the roster . But far too often this season Green drew attention for all the wrong reasons: glaring giveaways, errant passes, misplaying odd-man rushes or simply being outmaneuvered in his own zone. Despite that impressive Corsi number, five-on-five Green was on the ice for 10 more goals against (53) than he was goals for (43) Washington.
So what do the Capitals want from Green? Under Oates, they don’t want the offensive superstar they just want steady play.
“If he’s cheating to get 30 goals, that’s a terrible message right? And we’re trying to do the same thing with Ovi like we talked about with Ovi – I don’t want that from Greenie,” Oates said. “You got 30 goals, great. But I need you to play correct. He’s got magical skills, we know that, but we need him to be consistent every night.”
This season, the Capitals didn’t get the reliable performance they wanted often enough.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $3,966,666 | Age: 24
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 10G, 27A, -3
In his fourth full NHL season, Carlson became the Capitals’ top defenseman, taking on additional responsibility in all situations and leading the team in average ice time per game at 25:31.
Along with continuing to serve on Washington’s shut-down pairing, Carlson is playing point on the first power play unit and averaging nearly a minute more than he did last season as the team’s leader in average shorthanded ice time per game (3:44 up from 2:53). Handling those increased roles well through the first three months of the season helped him earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that competed in Sochi.
However, of the four defensemen who played at least half the season, Carlson had the worst Fenwick for percentage (which measures shot attempt differential, excluding blocked shots) at 46.7 percent during five-on-five play. That’s down from 49.6 percent in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 and 49.1 in 2011-12. When a team’s top defensive pairing can’t move the puck out of their own end and limit opponents’ shots, that’s a trend in the wrong direction.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $2.8 million | Age: 25
2013-14 regular season stats: 82GP, 2G, 16A, -7
Reunited with Carlson for much of this season – they played together 72.4 percent of the time – much of the possession woes and shot allowance that were mentioned previously apply to Alzner as well. As the team’s most stay-at-home blueliner, Alzner’s 47.4 Fenwick-for percentage five-on-five is far from ideal. He was a minus-10 at even-strength.
“Big chunks [of time] we had a tough time getting [the puck] out,” Alzner said. “We wanted to always get it out clean, and sometimes it just needed to get out. We were great the last four our five games, but it was a little too late. That just comes down to better execution, being in better positions and get our head up a little bit more.
“For years we just got it out,” Alzner added. “We had speed; we were doing a great job; and this year, it’s one of the questions I don’t know how to answer. We didn’t do it.”
The struggles of Alzner and Carlson at even strength reinforce the need for another stabilizing presence in the defense corps. While they have long-established chemistry, they would benefit from the addition of at least one other blueliner who could handle a significant workload and create more balance regardless of whether they’re working together or on separate units.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $2 million | Age: 22
2013-14 regular season stats: 54GP, 3G, 8A, -1
After spending the first two months as a yo-yo between AHL Hershey and the Capitals, Orlov made his season debut Nov. 30 at the New York Islanders and missed just two games (because of a suspension) the rest of the season. It was puzzling to see Washington’s top defensive prospect in limbo for so long as the coaching staff auditioned other candidates, but once he was in the NHL mix, Orlov earned more responsibility. He averaged 19:35 per game, fourth-most among the defensemen, and had the second-best Fenwick-for percentage at five-on-five at 50.2.
Orlov also showed chemistry with Green, though, the duo often had a choose-your-own-adventure feel as their combined offensive instincts would occasionally leave them vulnerable in the defensive zone.
That’s been the focus for Oates with Orlov – teaching the young defenseman to take care of his own end and focus on proper positioning rather than offensive production. Orlov would have been a restricted free agent this summer but even after the odd start to the year, he signed a two-year, $4 million contract extension to remain with the Capitals. As promising as Orlov is, there was no greater reminder of his youthful exuberance than on March 2 against Philadelphia when after scoring two goals he took a five-minute major for boarding that changed the course of that critical contest and earned him a suspension.
2014-15 salary cap hit: $1,962,500 | Age: 33
2013-14 regular season stats: 37GP, 1G, 3A, -5
The oldest member of the Capitals’ blueline entered the season still recovering from offseason surgery on his left knee, but that didn’t keep the team from using Erskine the first four games of the season. Erskine was clearly laboring in those early stages and went on to miss more than a month early on.
Despite various stints in the lineup including a lengthy stretch in which he played 24 of 25 contests beginning Dec. 15, he clearly didn’t have full mobility. To be certain, Erskine was never going to win any speed competitions, but that made the additional limitation even more noticeable.
Washington had leaned heavily on Erskine, the only truly gritty member of the group the season before, though, and his absence only further exposed the organization’s lack of blueline depth. Despite choosing not to use him late in the season – Erskine sat out 16 of the final 18 games as a healthy scratch – Oates said he hopes the veteran defenseman can be back in the mix regularly next season.
“He had knee surgery, and I felt like he was always chasing his tail a little bit this year, and I’ve got to tell him that,” Oates said. “But to me, he’s a valuable part. If he’s a healthy man, he’s an asset. Hopefully he can have a good summer conditioning, where he can skate on it and get in shape and be in tip-top form.”
2014-15 salary cap hit: $700,000 | Age: 28
2013-14 regular season stats: 13GP, 0G, 1A, -4
The defining characteristic of Hillen’s NHL career is injury. He missed time in 2010 because of a broken jaw while with the Islanders after being struck in the face by a slap shot from Alex Ovechkin. Last season he missed 25 games because of broken ribs after a hit from Vincent Lecavalier. Then this year, he missed 60 games because of a fractured tibial plateau after being checked by Calgary’s Lance Bouma. Then in his 11th game back after returning to the Capitals’ lineup, Hillen collided with Ovechkin on March 25 and suffered a concussion that sidelined him the final nine games.
While undersized, Hillen is a strong skater and in the 36 regular season games he’s played as a Capital these past two seasons, he has shown an ability to help move the puck out of the zone. At this point, Hillen just wants to be able to stay healthy for a full season.
“I’ve got to look at myself. I’ve had too many injuries in my career, I don’t know what’s going on. Is it something I’m doing? I don’t know. You can say it’s bad luck but I don’t know,” Hillen said. “Next year my goal is to stay healthy. I want to play well but I just want to get through a season. The frustration level for me right now is at an all-time high. I feel like I let my team down, I let the coaches down, I let the guys down because I wasn’t able to be out there and help them. I had people say it’s not your fault, it’s bad luck, but mentally I feel like I was letting the team down because I wasn’t able to go out there and play and help them out.”
2014-15 salary cap hit: $636,667 | Age: 20
2013-14 regular season stats: 34GP, 1G, 5A, -9
Carrick’s inclusion on the season-opening roster was one of the biggest surprises out of training camp as the Capitals opted to have the junior-eligible rookie turn pro this year. He appeared in the first three games of the season before being assigned to AHL Hershey and went on to compete in the World Junior Championships, but on Jan. 9, Carrick rejoined the Capitals and appeared in 27 consecutive games.
“I felt like I aged 10 years this year,” said Carrick, who was a healthy scratch in nine straight games before playing the final four contests of the year once Green was injured. “I’m really excited to go home for the summer, take back what I learned this year. I’m much more ready for whatever next year brings.”
While it was a significant year for Carrick’s career, there were times where he appeared to be in over his head. He had the second-worst Fenwick for percentage (42.8) among the 22 players who appeared in at least a quarter of the season’s games; only fourth-liner Aaron Volpatti’s was worse. Carrick probably would have benefited from more time playing in the AHL, but time will tell how being thrown into the NHL fire affects him in the long term.
>> Nate Schmidt: Made his NHL debut this season and appeared in 29 games this season. He stood out among the youthful influx of defensemen in the early stages of the season but even with strong underlying numbers (49.7 percent Fenwick-for) he needed developmental time. Schmidt, who the Capitals signed as an undrafted college free agent in 2013, is a restricted free agent this summer.
>> Steve Oleksy: Last season’s underdog story was a healthy scratch the first two games of the year and then didn’t appear in an NHL game after Jan. 4. While he had moderately more NHL experience than some of the other defensemen the Capitals leaned on, Oleksy’s skating ability was always his most glaring weakness. That deficiency allowed him to be leapfrogged by numerous players on the depth chart. Even once he was reassigned to the AHL, Oleksy was often a healthy scratch for the Bears.
>> Tyson Strachan: Entering the season with 120 games of NHL experience, he was the most seasoned of those the Capitals rotated in from Hershey, and his size (6-3, 215) also made him stand out among the group. But as he appeared in 18 games over the course of the season, it was clear he wouldn’t serve a greater role than that of occasional fill-in. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
>> Patrick Wey: Before he suffered a concussion on March 30 in Nashville in a fight with Rich Clune, the 2009 fourth-round draft pick had quietly impressed those in the organization. His size, steady nature and emphasis on his own zone are viewed as an asset. Assuming the concussion doesn’t have any lingering effects, it will be interesting to see how much NHL time Wey might get next season.
>> Julien Brouillette: He made his NHL debut at age 27 on Feb. 6 but made quite the impression, recording a primary assist and a game-winning goal in his first two games with the Capitals. Expect Brouillette, an unrestricted free agent this summer, to remain an AHL regular moving forward perhaps as an occasional call-up at the NHL level.
>> Alex Urbom: Remember him? Washington picked him up off waivers in early October, played him 20 games, sat him out 16 as a healthy scratch and then he was reclaimed by New Jersey when placed on waivers again for reassignment to the AHL. Any time you think the Capitals’ defensive depth wasn’t questionable this season, recall those three weeks in November where he was in the lineup every night.
>> Cameron Schilling: He struggled in the only game he appeared in with the Capitals this season: at the Bruins on March 6. He’s been a steady presence for Hershey, though, appearing in 68 games often on the Bears’ top defensive pair.