At the formal end of each Washington Capitals practice or morning skate, after everyone stretches together in a circle then separates by position, the defensemen carve out one zone to hone their shots. Assistant Todd Reirden handles the passing. The night’s starting goaltender mans the crease. One forward, lately Brooks Laich, traffics in front. The defensemen aim to score, sure, but to score at that distance, shooting from just inside the blue line, often means aiming for their teammate.
“You can get a feel where the guys are on the ice, if they’re collapsing to the net or not,” defenseman Mike Green said. “And that’s when you throw it.”
Blue-liners in Coach Barry Trotz’s system hold the freedom to pinch inside the offensive zone, collapsing onto pucks along the boards to keep possessions alive, but they also are asked to do their fair share of long-range flinging. So they drill it whenever possible, cranking from the left point, then while sliding from left to right and, finally, from the right point.
Green tries to handle each situation the same. He looks toward the net, searching for a shooting lane, then tries to find the forward in front. If more than one teammate is present, Green accounts for him, too.
“And it all happens within two seconds,” Green said. “At least that’s how I visualize it.”
Matt Niskanen offered a more cut-and-dried explanation, but regardless of approach, the results are clear. Green leads all NHL defensemen with 1.67 points per 60 minutes and John Carlson ranks second with 1.59, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com. Carlson and Niskanen are first and second, respectively, with 10 and nine primary assists. And defensemen have accounted for 28 percent of Washington’s total points this season, up from 22 percent in 2013-14 and 22.6 percent in the lockout-shortened 2012-13.
A stronger net-front presence has helped; six of Niskanen’s nine primary assists, for instance, have been deflections. He holds few expectations shooting from 45 feet or beyond, just hoping to put the puck into congested space, where the odds of striking something increase.
“That thing ain’t going in unless it’s screened or hits something,” he said. “Maybe after a long period of time and I know that when someone goes in front of the net, I need to shoot in this area. But a lot of times I don’t have a choice. I’m just trying to get it by the winger that’s trying to get in my lane. Just trying to get it in the direction of the net and not get it blocked.
“Ideally you’d shoot at it perfect on his forehand every time. A lot of times you don’t have the time or enough space to aim for that.”
The need to survey and react, while an opposing forward surges to disrupt the shot, crams several tasks into a short window, so the foremost task is evasion. Green, in particular, excels at sidestepping would-be blockers and sneaking pucks through tight spaces.
“You almost have to, you’re almost forced to nowadays,” he said. “You used to have a little more time to wind up and shoot. Now, guys are so good at getting in those lanes that you almost have to move or adjust or skate at him and skate around him.”
From the bench, Washington’s defensemen will sometimes hear Trotz yelling, “Eyes up, eyes up,” reminding them to not just shoot hard, but to shoot into the right areas. If, for instance, Laich boxed out his defenseman and was wagging his stick, begging for a deflection, Green or Niskanen or someone else should aim there.
“We want to get pucks to the net, but we want to get them there with some intelligence and thought,” Trotz said. “Todd’s done a really good job of relaying that message, that’s what we want to do. So we’re getting some of those. But also on transition, some of the good gaps that we have at times, and we’re tracking well, we can have those transitional plays where the guys step up and pick off the pass and a transitional play and we move it up and bang, it’s in the back of the net.”
A version of this happened in Tuesday’s win over the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings. Late in the first period, a hard forecheck from rookies Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov forced a weak clearing pass, so Karl Alzner stepped inside the offensive blue line and kept the puck alive. His cycle found Kuznetsov in the corner and led to forward Troy Brouwer’s goal, the first in a 4-0 rout.
It was Alzner’s 14th point this season, four short of his career high, a tally that also includes an even-strength goal Sunday against St. Louis, when Washington’s entire first line blocked the sightline of goaltender Brian Elliott, then scattered once Alzner’s puck whistled through.
Told recently about Carlson and Niskanen leading all NHL defensemen in primary assists, Trotz had not heard that specific statistic but was not surprised either.
“That’s a good stat to have,” he said. “I did not know that. I’ll have to bring it up to them. It’s an indicator. That’s one of those things that tells you you’re doing what they want you to do, be a part of the offense.”