Rookie players make rookie mistakes. It happens. When it does, you hope it doesn’t cost the team too much, you learn from it and then you move on.
When you have two rookie defensemen in your lineup, however, those rookie mistakes can turn very, very costly. That was evident in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Less than two minutes into the game, Christian Djoos chased after a puck behind his own net while under pressure from two Florida forecheckers. He attempted a backhanded pass that hit off the back of the net and was collected by Jarred McCann who set up Connor Brickley for the easy goal.
“Not the best start, obviously,” Djoos said after the game. “Not a good play.”
It looks like Djoos tried to chip the puck past the forecheckers into the middle, probably to Lars Eller who was trailing the play. That puck needs to be along the boards. When you try to clear up the middle while under pressure, you risk giving up the puck in a very dangerous area of the ice which is exactly what happened.
With two players on his tail, Djoos should have fired that puck along the boards, preferably with his forehand which is much stronger than the backhand. He may not have had enough time to go to the forehand given the pressure, but that puck still needs to go along the boards with as much power behind it as possible. If it’s a turnover, fine, at least it is in the corner or along the perimeter rather than directly behind the net. If it’s icing, fine. Icing is better than a goal.
But Djoos wasn’t the only player guilty of having a rookie moment. Madison Bowey's inexperience was on display late in the first period as he tried to defend Florida forward Vincent Trochek.
Trocheck skated the puck into the Caps’ defensive zone. Bowey forced him to the outside which is the right way to play it, but he couldn’t rub him out along the boards. Instead, Trocheck was able to shake Bowey off and turn the corner on him to get in alone on Philipp Grubauer prompting the desperation hook from Bowey.
When Bowey is able to force him to the boards, he needs to finish off Trocheck and snuff out the rush.
Florida would score on the resulting power play to take a 2-0 lead at the end of the first, a deficit the Capitals were not able to overcome.
The good news is that both Djoos and Bowery are going to continue to get better with every passing game. They are both young players at 23 and 22 respectively and mistakes are expected for players in their first NHL season. They will develop and improve which we already saw through Saturday's game.
Djoos scored the Capitals’ lone goal on the night and Bowey played strong defensively the rest of the way. The coaches seemed to reward their play as well with more minutes. Djoos played 3:02 in the first, 3:16 in the second and 6:06 in the third while Bowey played 4:04, 6:09 and 6:18.
“The young guys have been fine,” Barry Trotz told reporters. “They're going to make mistakes. They make the same mistakes some of the older guys are making.”
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The question is do the Caps have enough time to wait for them to continue to develop this season or do they need to improve the defense now?
There’s no question having two rookies in the team's top six is not an ideal scenario. It is hard for the coaches to shelter them as they normally would like. It is also having a strain on the other veteran defensemen who are taking on a heavier workload as a result. The 37-year-old veteran Brooks Orpik played 16:56 through two periods and John Carlson finished the game with a season-high 29:48 on Saturday.
You can’t win a Stanley Cup in October and November, but you can lose it if you get buried too far in the standings. The Caps are 4-4-1 through nine games and have six games between now and when Matt Niskanen is eligible to return from LTIR, assuming he is ready at that point.
Can the defense as it’s currently constructed keep the Caps afloat until Niskanen’s return? Is it good enough with Niskanen in the lineup? Those are questions Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan are going to have to answer quickly.