March 8, 2018 at 5:14 PM
LOS ANGELES — Though it was a relatively quiet trade deadline for the Washington Capitals last week, their moves were still telling. General Manager Brian MacLellan acquired two depth defensemen, Czech puck-movers Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek, indicating the team’s front office was well aware of how the Capitals have struggled to get the puck out of their own end at times this season. MacLellan clearly wanted to make his blue line more mobile to support the offense.
But while Kempny has played the past six games, now a regular beside John Carlson in a top-four role, Jerabek will appear in just his second Capitals game on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings. Coach Barry Trotz has rotated between Jerabek and talented rookie Christian Djoos on the right side of the third pairing while 37-year-old veteran Brooks Orpik, Washington’s least mobile or offensive defenseman, has been the stable presence on the left.
Trotz explained that decision as wanting some variety in his blue line.
“We don’t have a lot of size on the back end, a lot of physical attributes,” Trotz said. “We’re playing teams that go to the net real hard. L.A. does it really, really well. The [Anaheim] Ducks are a real strong team down low. Columbus is that way. I would say we don’t have a lot of those guys, and Brooks is one of those guys that he just plays defense.
“He’s a big body, he can clear people and you’re not going to get any offense really from Brooks. And when you do, it’s a little bit of a bonus.”
Orpik played in mostly a third-pairing and penalty-killing role last season, averaging 17:47 per night, his lowest time on ice since the 2007-08 season. The team had planned to promote defenseman Nate Schmidt into a top-four role beside Carlson this season, but he was swiped by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, and with few other affordable options, Orpik was moved back onto a pairing with Carlson. As the season progressed, Carlson played more with Djoos, but Orpik’s time on ice this season is back up to 19:53 per game. The addition of Kempny has brought that down some, and in Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to Anaheim, Orpik played just 12:14.
Though there’s no point-production expectation with Orpik — he has eight assists and no goals this year — the Capitals take just 44 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he’s on the ice, the worst of Washington’s regular defensemen, according to NHL statistical site Natural Stat Trick. He’s logged the most shorthanded time on ice of any player on the team this season, a role Djoos or Kempny wouldn’t step into unless one of Orpik, Carlson, Dmitry Orlov or Matt Niskanen are in the penalty box. Djoos, who will be a healthy scratch on Thursday night, is the only Capitals blue-liner with whom the team takes the majority of the shot attempts when he’s on the ice. The coaching staff is careful to shelter Djoos with a higher percentage of offensive zone starts and plays him against lesser competition, but MacLellan praised the 23-year-old Swede last week.
“I think we’re going to have good options as far as puck-movers in the bottom part of our [defense] corps,” MacLellan said.
Trotz said Djoos and Jerabek are stylistically similar, and with Jerabek having played just 26 games all season, the team is undergoing an exploration process to not only find out more about how Jerabek acquits himself in the Capitals’ system, but also what personnel the team is “comfortable with against certain opponents or maybe in a [playoff] series against someone,” Trotz said.
That six would seem to still include Orpik, who has played in every game this season, even as Trotz and his general manager have sought more scoring.
“We’re looking for a little more offense from the back end,” Trotz said Thursday afternoon. “We’ve always prided ourselves to have our defense in the attack, and we’ve got guys like John [Carlson] and [Dmitry Orlov]. We’re looking for one guy on each pair that has the ability to support the [offensive] attack because it’s so hard to score five-on-five, but if you just have three forwards and really no help from the back end, it’s going to be very difficult to score goals.”
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