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Washington Capitals' defense forgoes offseason overhaul to focus on youth, veterans

Familiar faces return to Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington for Washington Capitals training camp. The season begins Oct. 8.

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By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 11:38 PM

The Washington Capitals' defensemen heard the criticism and rumors all summer, that one veteran blue-liner or another would be joining the either too-young or not-physical-enough group by the beginning of the new season. As the team readies for its second exhibition game Saturday against Nashville, however, there have been no such additions.

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Rather, the much-maligned defensive core, which ranked 16th and 18th in goals and shots allowed last season, remains intact and is intent on improving more than anyone expects.

"I think our defense is obviously underrated," veteran Tom Poti said. "When you have a team that scores so much and has such great offensive players, what can you say negative about them? People have to pick on something . . . and our D might not have the names that stack up to the lineup of super forwards we have, but we're all confident in what we do."

The absence of a physical, shut-down defenseman has long been the key critique of the Capitals' current group, led by two-time Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green, and the need for one likely will remain a topic of debate if Washington surrenders as many goals and shots against in the upcoming season. But while the team did pursue free agent Willie Mitchell in August, there was no apparent panic when the veteran opted to sign with Los Angeles.

Instead of overhauling or tweaking the defense through trades and free agency, the team chose to embrace rising contributors John Carlson, 20, and Karl Alzner, 22, while locking up several known commodities for years to come. The team signed Jeff Schultz to a four-year, $11 million contract in July and agreed to a two-year extension with Poti, worth $3 million next season and $2.75 million in 2012-13.

"We like the look of the players we have," General Manager George McPhee said. "We still have lots of flexibility to do other things if necessary later on this year or next year, because I think we're doing a great job on the [salary] cap, but we're comfortable."

McPhee and the coaching staff's belief in this current group stems partially from each player's familiarity with Coach Bruce Boudreau's system, the confidence that Alzner and Carlson can log significant minutes each night and that this contingent possesses plenty of upside and room for continued improvement.

"They're all guys that have been around our system for years now and should understand it very well," assistant coach Bob Woods said. "Everyone can move the puck well. Sure, we'd like to be a little more physical and grittier at times, but hopefully we can get that out of the guys. . . . When you have an offensive team like we have, though, with forwards like that, they depend on guys getting them the puck. If our guys can't get them the puck, they don't do what they do best and nothing works."

Any concerns about Alzner and Carlson being able to handle a substantial role are rapidly diminishing with the pair's strong training camp. They played 17 and 21 minutes, respectively, in the preseason opener, and although they're unproven throughout the course of the NHL season, veteran teammates and coaches are doubt free.

"They're both very self confident and don't get rattled very often," Schultz said. "They're both high-energy players, know what to expect here and we know what to expect of them. They add some extra things to the group but we aren't really going to change a whole lot. We know how to contribute and believe we can get better."

Where things might get dicey for the Capitals defensively is depth. They've opted to carry seven defensemen in Washington, but without Carlson and Alzner in Hershey to provide support in the event of injuries, there are far fewer call-up options.

Patrick McNeill, Zach Miskovic and Sean Collins could all perform spot duty if necessary, but none has significant NHL experience.

While McPhee has not ruled out any additions or changes to the blue-line corps in the future, it appears this combination of offensive-minded players (Green and Carlson) and stay-at-home types (Poti, Schultz, Alzner, John Erskine and Tyler Sloan) will ultimately control the team's defensive fate for much of the season.

"No team is perfect," Poti said, "but I think we have a good mixture of some tougher guys, guys who can skate. . . . We're not big and slow. We have a little bit of everything and we're all going to go out and work hard and do our jobs. If people want to knock us, that's fine with us. It doesn't change anything."

carrerak@washpost.com


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