Washington Capitals: 4 Questions Facing Their Blue Line in 2012-13
As far as the Washington Capitals are concerned, the focus has, quite naturally, centered on the offense for many years.
After this offseason, which still has a ways to go, the Caps look to be set on offense having found a second line center in Mike Rebeiro (Washington Times) and adding a few role playing pieces through free agency.
As to the defense, several questions persist that should cause any Caps' fan some concern. After all, defense wins championships and it was the emergence of the Caps' defense in the playoffs that had them closer to winning a championship then they have been in many years.
What questions are facing the Caps' blue line in 2012-2013?
Here are four I feel are most important.
1. The John Carlson Situation
The fact that it is nearly the middle of August and John Carlson remains unsigned is beginning to become a serious area of concern.
After all, did anyone really think that Robert Griffin III would have already played in his first NFL preseason game and yet Carlson would still be unsigned?
As I have said numerous times before, resigning Carlson was a priority for the Caps. Thus far, the Caps' brass has not been listening.
The pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson during the 2012 NHL playoffs was nothing short of tremendous. This was particularly true in the opening round upset of the defending champion Boston Bruins.
Heading into that series, there were many concerns over how the Caps would be able to handle the depth of the Bruins. It was this very real concern that convinced virtually all the experts to pick the Bruins to mow down the Caps in relatively easy fashion.
What was not expected was for Carlson and Alzner to neutralize the Bruins top scorers for much of that series. Alzner and Carlson turned into shot blocking demons and were particularly stubborn as far as allowing anyone into the offensive zone.
This process was repeated against the high scoring Rangers and it almost worked again.
So what gives? Why is Carlson still sitting out there as an unsigned restricted free agent?
Complacency seems like a likely explanation. After all, there really is no indication that any other team is interested in sending out an offer sheet to Carlson, so as far as George McPhee and Ted Leonsis are concerned, there is no sense of urgency.
Of course, it is that kind of attitude that will likely cause another devastating lockout.
Regardless, if this situation drags on, I could see a team like the Sharks, Red Wings, Flames or Islanders taking a run at getting Carlson. All of those teams have holes to fill on their own blue lines and Carlson is just as good, if not better, than the remaining defenders available in free agency.
Carlson leaving the Caps, admittedly, does not seem likely at all. Perhaps it is a money issue or length of contract or something else entirely. Nevertheless, the idea of Carlson actually signing elsewhere does not really appear very plausible.
Even so, Carlson is a young, improving and solid piece of the Caps' blue line puzzle.
If the Caps were smart, they would do what it takes to make Carlson feel wanted—before another team does.
2. The Mike Green Gamble
In direct contrast to the John Carlson situation is how the Caps handled Mike Green this offseason.
Like Carlson, Green too was a restricted free agent when this offseason began. Like Carlson, he was offered a qualifying contract by the Caps very early in the process (NBC Sports).
Green declined and was eventually rewarded with a three year, $18.25 million contract (Washington Post). This came as a real surprise to many Caps' fans who felt the team should cut their losses with the injury prone Green and deal him elsewhere while he still had trade value.
Instead, the Caps invested quite heavily in Green. As reported by Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, George McPhee thinks Green's best days are ahead of him:
“Mike is one of the best young defensemen in the National Hockey League. . . . He will continue to be a key part of our team moving forward.”
Others, however, do not share this optimism—and with good reason.
Yes, we all know what Green is capable of doing. This is the same guy who tallied 73 points in 2008-2009 and then followed that up with an even more impressive 76 points in 2009-2010.
On the other hand, this is also the same player who has only played in 81 games the past two regular seasons due to a host of injuries. While Green claims he is 100% healthy and ready to go, after watching all the problems Sidney Crosby has had with concussions the past couple of seasons, it would be foolish for anyone to just presume that Green is not a risk to further concussions or other injuries.
This could be the biggest question mark for the Caps' defense for the 2012-2013 season: Which version of Mike Green will the Caps get?
It is not just a question of health either. Without question, the Caps want the old Mike Green back, the two-way defender who lit up the scoreboard and pretty much redefined what a two-way defender is all about.
But think back to the playoffs for a moment. That Mike Green was very different. He still had a laser of a slap shot, as evidenced by his game winner against the Rangers in Game 4 of that series.
But Green jumped on the defensive style bandwagon that players like Karl Alzner, Carlson and the rest of the defense embraced. He was blocking shots, being physical, keeping his stick active and, dare I say, playing very good defense.
So what will the 2012-2013 version of Mike Green look like? Will he go back to focusing on offense, at the expense of his defense? Or will he embrace the defensive style he employed during the playoffs, focus on being a solid defender and letting the offense, more or less, take care of itself.
Or will he try and become a more balanced defender?
Can he stay healthy enough to worry about any of that?
The Caps have gone "all in" on Mike Green. Whether that gamble pays off will go a very long way towards determining just how successful the Capitals will be in 2012-2013.
3. The Need for a Reliable Third Defensive Line
While Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green should all be reliable and very effective defenders, the status of the rest of the Capitals' defense is not nearly so certain.
As mentioned previously, Alzner and Carlson would seem to be the consensus choice for the Caps top defensive pairing. Mike Green seems destined to be on the Caps second defensive line. Whom he will be paired with might very well be the hockey equivalent of a "blue-liner by committee" approach.
Roman Hamrlik appears the most likely option here as he was paired with Green quite often during the 2012 NHL playoffs. Hamrlik, like many of the Caps' defenders, really picked up his game during the playoffs and, at times, seemed to really flourish next to Green, particularly once Green adopted his more physical style of play.
Whether or not Hamrlik completes the Caps' second defensive line, the need to develop a reliable and consistent third defensive line is of utmost importance. For this to happen, the Caps need someone to step forward and assert himself as a defenseman on whom the team can rely.
Dmitri Orlov seems like the most likely suspect here. In his first season with the Caps, Orlov did not exactly put forth jaw-dropping numbers as he scored three goals, had 16 assists and had a plus/minus rating of plus-1.
Still, Orlov is regarded by many Caps' followers as the best of the Caps current defenders looking to solidify a spot on either the second or third lines. For instance, in a summary of Orlov's season on Japers' Rink, Orlov's performance this season was considered a bright spot amongst a team where bright spots were quite rare.
The Caps also acquired Jack Hillen this offseason via free agency, signing him to a one-year, $650,000 deal (Washington Post). Last year he played in 55 games, scoring only six points and had a plus-6 rating for the Predators.
The good thing about Hillen is he was already playing on the third defensive line in Nashville so this would be a natural fit for him. Hillen might be an answer but it is tough to say.
Though he is only 26 years old, his career numbers are not that great. His high for points was 22 in 2010-2011 when Hillen was with the Islanders.
His career plus/minus rating is a minus-12 so that is not very encouraging at all.
While Hillen might be a solution, the player I am watching to emerge as a lineman with Orlov on the Caps third defensive line is Tomas Kundratek. Kundratek did not play much last season, only playing in five games.
But the 22-year-old had a very good season with the Hershey Bears as he played in 55 games, scored 12 goals with 11 assists and had a plus-3 rating. Those are all good, solid numbers easily worthy of a shot on the Caps third defensive line.
After all, the play of Jeff Schultz has been disappointing to say the least and John Erskine is rather inconsistent.
However it all plays out, the Caps need to find a defensive pairing they can rely on to make up their third defensive line. Teams in the Eastern Conference—and particularly division rival Carolina—have been working diligently on getting deeper. The Caps seem to be following this blueprint on offense.
They need to gain depth in which they can rely on the defensive side of the puck as well if they hope to succeed this season.
4. The Identity Crisis
As a team, the Caps went through an identity crisis last season once Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach.
Never was this more apparent then with the defense. Under Boudreau, the Caps frequently abandoned pretty much anything resembling a defensive sort of scheme to further their offense-first approach to the game.
Under Hunter, that changed. Hunter wanted to focus on a tough, old-fashioned, grinding style of game. He wanted the Caps defenders to give no quarter, to block shots, to be more physical and to put the emphasis on defense and not so much on the offense.
This transition was, understandably, a very difficult one for the Caps to make. In fact, it was a transition the Caps never made during the regular season. The Caps were a team with an identity crisis.
Then the playoffs started and, as though someone flicked the switch, the transition came to pass. Suddenly, the old Caps were gone and a very different—and very dangerous—team emerged.
The Caps defense underwent the most noticeable transformation. As mentioned several times previously, the Caps did all the things Dale Hunter wanted them to do.
Everyone was dropping to the ice to block shots. Passing lanes were being choked off. Space on the ice for talented teams like the Bruins and Rangers to maneuver was non-existent. Entry into the offensive zone was seemingly by invitation only—and the Caps were fresh out of stamps.
Now the Caps have Adam Oates as coach for the 2012-2013 season and questions must be asked as to what sort of team Oates wants the Caps to be. To avoid another identity crisis for the Caps, Oates will have to handle this very carefully.
Oates has previously said he favored the style of game that Hunter employed (ESPN). Then again, George McPhee has indicated he hired Oates because he wanted the Caps to play a more up-tempo style of hockey (Yahoo!Sports).
If you think that is rather inconsistent, then you are in the right place.
This will be a big challenge for Oates this season. How can he make the Caps more up-tempo while still maintaining the defensive style the team adopted under Dale Hunter?
Perhaps Oates can figure out a way to do both. Perhaps he can focus on the offense being more up-tempo while having the defense commit to the style of play they showed during the playoffs.
But there is always something to be said for unity and having a consistent and unified style of game play. As the old saying goes, "A house divided cannot stand."
If the Caps blue line is divided as to how they are supposed to play, the Caps may very well fall a long way in 2012-2013.
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