The Washington Capitals deployed 14 defensemen during their 2013-14 season, most in the NHL, which triggered a cash-heavy offseason plunge to shore up the blue-line depth and generate better results. It’s why they signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, former teammates with the Penguins, to deals worth a combined $67.75 million. It’s why in Washington both will be steered by their old positional coach in Pittsburgh, Todd Reirden, the fresh face on Coach Barry Trotz’s staff tasked with improving the spot in most need of help.
Over the next several weeks, as summer winds down and training camp dawns, Trotz and his assistants will finalize their defensive pairings for the preseason. They could lean on familiarity at first, with the chemistry John Carlson and Karl Alzner developed last season, together for more than 70 percent of their respective ice time. And though Niskanen and Orpik barely skated together in Pittsburgh (neither were in each other’s top 10 for linemates, per BehindTheNet), they at least know each other.
“The logic would be to go right away to something that’s comfortable, but I think it’s important to get some of the things we’re going to do, split them up, let them learn together and help them learn as teammates, especially early on,” Reirden said. “We’ll try some different looks, certainly in the beginning of training camp more so than when we get closer to the end. I think it’ll be a healthy competition. We’ve got some good players back there, some good depth, and I’m just looking forward to getting it going here. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the start of rookie camp and training camp.”
General manager Brian MacLellan has said he expects Niskanen, Carlson and Mike Green to man the right side, which presumes Alzner, Orpik and Dmitry Orlov slot onto the left. This leaves a host of options for the final precious roster spots, including John Erskine (37 games in 2013-14), Connor Carrick (34 games) and Jack Hillen (13 games). The Capitals also recently re-signed Nate Schmidt, who appeared in 29 games for them last season, to a two-way deal.
Only four of those 14 defensemen logged more than 40 games last season, and those four are expected to be the top six holdovers once Niskanen and Orpik factor into matters, though depending on how quickly Orlov heals from wrist surgery, another could seize the opportunity this preseason.
Trotz said last week that he believed the Capitals had “a group of three guys who were sort of what I’d call ‘B’ players, better-than-average players, then there’s a couple veterans who got hurt last year that are good players.”
“Obviously with the depth that’s gotten much better on the back end, a lot of those guys who have played games are probably further down the depth chart to start the year,” Trotz said. “Doesn’t mean they’re not going to play games. You have injuries, maybe make a move. But it can change in a heartbeat. I don’t think the guys will train any different or have any different expectations.
“They’re going to push for those two slots I would think. If they’re not, if they don’t make the hockey club for instance, being in Hershey and playing huge minutes in important situations, I’ve never known a player not to get better. That’s the worst-case scenario that happens to those players. That’s not a bad worst-case to be in a great organization with Hershey and the facilities they have.”
Of the 10 defensemen currently listed on the active roster, only Orpik and Erskine top 30 years old. Toss in up-and-comers Carrick, Schmidt and Cam Schilling, should he re-sign as a restricted free agent, and Washington has assembled what owner Ted Leonsis called the deepest blue-line corps he’s seen since buying the team in the 1990s.
“That is important in today’s game,” Niskanen said. “Being in Pittsburgh last year, we had a lot of depth and it turned out that we really needed it with all the injuries that we had. When you have that depth, you can survive a couple of key injuries at various times in the season and in the playoffs, defensemen get banged up. You may not be able to play a game and that’s a real healthy thing for a team when you have several defensemen that can play.
“We should be excited about the group we have here — we have a lot of experience, but we’re all still fairly young. It’s going to be a good group — we have a good mix of real solid defenders and then we have quite a few puck movers as well, so that’s a combination that a lot of people look for.”
But how will the pairings shake out? What would your ideal top-six look like?