Washington Capitals expect to go with seven defensemen instead of eight

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 12:04 AM

The Washington Capitals intend to carry only seven defensemen on their roster this season, a change that will increase the competition for the final spots on the blue line and lead to more ice time for those who do earn a spot.

The Capitals' roster typically included eight defensemen last year, meaning that if there weren't any injuries, six players would suit up and two healthy players would be scratched.

"I like having some more depth there, but there were complaints from the defensemen and our coaches that carrying eight is too hard to work with," General Manager George McPhee said. "Sitting two guys out every night isn't much fun, so we're going to go with seven this year and hope they stay healthy."

Several defensemen who were in the mix last season have departed - including Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina and Joe Corvo - and there are fewer NHL-ready defensemen in the organization, given the presumed ascension of John Carlson and Karl Alzner from the American Hockey League to Washington full time.

But with Capitals' defensive positions spoken for by veterans Tom Poti, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz and likely also Carlson and Alzner, there are tentatively only two spots left of the seven. That leaves John Erskine and Tyler Sloan, and perhaps Hershey Bears regular Sean Collins and newcomer Brian Fahey, vying for those final openings knowing full well someone still will be sitting out most nights.

"I went through [being a healthy scratch] last year and expressed it in my meeting that I would like to play a little more, obviously," said Sloan, 29, who spent the bulk of last season with the Capitals but only dressed for 40 games. "I'm going to have to prove it. I'm going to have to show I really want it, and there's going to be a little more pressure on me this year to do that."

Sloan, who has two years remaining on his contract ($700,000 per season), saw his ice time diminish last season. So he added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame this summer in an attempt to become more of a physical presence in front of the net and in the corners.

But while adding a dimension can help, one of the toughest parts of being the extra defenseman, Sloan said, is fighting off any doubts about his play.

"Not playing all year can mess with your confidence [and] your mind a little bit," Sloan said. "I have to get that back, go through training camp and prove to myself I belong in the top six come the start of the season."

Erskine, 30, already possesses the physical presence that Sloan hopes to exhibit this year, but the 6-4, 218-pound Kingston, Ontario, native spent the offseason trying to add strength in his hips and quadriceps, transfer that to the ice and become a stronger skater.

After appearing in 50 games with the Capitals last season, Erskine did not suit up for a single playoff game.

"Last year when they didn't play me in the playoffs it was kind of a huge wakeup call," said Erskine, who will earn $1.25 million this season in the final year of a two-year contract. "I was pretty disappointed and I really didn't understand why, but I worked hard on everything this summer and I really wanted to make a statement at camp this year."

When asked how many defensemen he would like to have on the roster, Coach Bruce Boudreau said seven is "the best way to go."

"It's a luxury to practice with eight, but there's no defenseman alive that likes it," Boudreau said. "Because the eighth defensemen doesn't play. In a perfect world, your eighth defenseman is the guy that's playing every night in Hershey and getting called up when needed."

Capitals note: Goaltender Brandon Anderson was sent back to his junior team, the Western Hockey League's Lethbridge Hurricanes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company