The Capitals now have nine defensemen under one-way contracts available to start the season: John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Brenden Dillon, Justin Schultz, Jonas Siegenthaler, Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Paul LaDue and Chara. The Capitals also have Martin Fehervary, who played in six NHL games last season, at their disposal. Michal Kempny, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in the offseason, will be placed on long-term injured reserve.
With new faces and a new system with new philosophies, Laviolette and longtime assistant Kevin McCarthy will look to get the blue line back in top form.
“With the back-end makeup that we have, I think we can all join and use our feet to be part of that, so I think so far it has been awesome,” Dillon said. “High-paced, intense practices, so a lot of fun.”
For veterans such as Carlson, this season will be the first in several years without coach Todd Reirden. In August, Washington fired Reirden, who had been the team’s top assistant and directed the defense before he was promoted to head coach in 2018.
“We’ve had a long time with him, but I’ve played for many different coaches over my career, so in that sense, it’s probably not that weird,” Carlson said. “When things go bad and you lose, changes are going to be made and new opportunities are going to come, and that’s kind of where we’re all at, excited to start new and start fresh and hopefully do some great things this year.”
Having so many capable defensemen with NHL experience is a luxury and will give Washington a few options on the back end.
When they construct defensive pairings, Laviolette and McCarthy tend to focus on how players complement each other on the ice. McCarthy has said he a big believer in righty-lefty combinations on the blue line.
Carlson and Orlov appear to remain the top pairing, with Dillon and Schultz on the second and Chara and Jensen on the third. There is a good chance Siegenthaler and van Riemsdyk are the extras. LaDue and Fehervary are likely to be on the taxi squad, which has not been finalized.
The NHL has a tight, shortened schedule this season with plenty of back-to-back games, so it will be important for teams to manage players’ minutes and not overwork them. Chara, who averaged 21 minutes last season with Boston, is likely to see that number drop if he remains on the third pairing.
How the Capitals use the 43-year-old will be closely watched. Despite his age, he is one of the best-conditioned players on the ice for Washington, which opens the season Thursday at Buffalo.
If the Capitals want to limit Chara’s minutes or lighten his workload, Siegenthaler could get his shot on the third pairing with Jensen. Siegenthaler also can play on both the left and right side, so he can fill in with ease if an injury arises.
The Capitals have been known for their ability to score off the rush, and that’s not something Laviolette is looking to change. But he wants to see improvement when goals don’t come that way and the Capitals are forced to recover and set up.
The team is aiming for 40- to 50-second shifts in the offensive zone. The plan is for the defensemen to be more involved and create another layer of offense.
Laviolette’s previous teams needed some time to get used to this type of system, but this season the group will be thrust into live action in a hurry. Still, the coaches are confident in their progress.
Jensen and Orlov could benefit most from the system change. Both are talented skaters with the ability to push the puck up. Jensen played his best hockey at the end of the regular season last year and in the postseason. He is looking for a fast start this year.
“With the ability to skate and move up the ice and having our ‘D’ join, I think that can benefit me a lot — getting up into the play and helping create offense,” Jensen said.
Although the Capitals are adjusting to a new system and different philosophies, the coaching staff still wants to make sure they stay creative on offense. There still will be a read-and-react type of fluidity, but the coaches hope the structure will only push the offense forward.
“I’d like to sit here and tell you [for the season opener] we’ll be 100 percent, we’ll be on point with what we’re trying to do on everything,” Laviolette said. “Here’s a good chance — I know for sure this will continue to build, continue to grow through the course of the season. I’m hoping we’re better in Game 10 than we are in Game 1. That’s not to say we can’t win Game 1 or it’s not going to happen; I’m just saying there definitely should be growth.”