When hockey finally returns in 2021, the Capitals will have their sights set on the Stanley Cup. Every team enters each season with questions that need to be answered. We are looking at the biggest questions facing the Capitals in 2021.
Today's question: How will the added right depth on the blue line help the defense?
One thing I like about Brian MacLellan as a general manager is that he does not try to tentatively address issues with the team. Instead, he sees problems and he takes a sledgehammer to them. The Caps were in desperate need of defense when he was first hired. It had been an issue for years. In his first offseason, he signed both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. That's the same philosophy he has taken throughout his tenure including in 2020.
Top-four right defense was a major hole for Washington in 2019-20. In fact, I would argue it was the biggest hole on the roster for the season. Instead of betting the defense and possibly the last year of the Caps' championship window on Nick Jensen, MacLellan instead signed Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Paul LaDue.
That's a lot of new faces for a team that was short on cap space, but these were necessary additions as assistant coach Kevin McCarthy wants players playing on their shooting side.
"I'm a big believer in lefty, righty combinations and I think that having that on our roster right now with the experience that these guys have, I think it really tends to get the most out of your players," McCarthy said in October. "I think that sometimes when you're a left shot playing the right side or vice-versa, it makes it tough to play the game and play the style of game that you want to play, especially in the offensive zone, keeping pucks alive on the board when they come out. Even in the transition, the way teams skate today, the way they pressure you when you're making D-to-D passes in the neutral zone and getting pucks up to forwards, having that lefty, righty combination is huge."
So not only did the Caps need to add a top-four right defenseman, they needed to add depth on the right as well, hence the moves.
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Schultz is a top-four defenseman and should come in and play on the second pair. He will most likely play with Dmitry Orlov which is an interesting combination to say the least. Both players are more offensive so it will be fascinating to see what their chemistry is like. Orlov and Carlson have never looked quite right together and I am not sure we should just assume it is going to work with Schultz either. But, if it doesn't, the Caps at least have options now with van Riemsdyk and Jensen still in the fold. They may both be needed as well because injuries have forced Schultz to miss a significant amount of playing time the past few years.
Jensen played well towards the end of last season so he can at least be dependable with limited minutes. While he was brought in to be a top-four player, clearly he has shown he is more comfortable on the third pair in Washington so that is where he should stay.
LaDue is 28 with 69 career NHL games under his belt. You may think he is headed to Hershey and you might be right, but the Caps certainly are not acting like it. LaDue has been getting the NHL treatment since he arrived. He conducted a Zoom presser with the media and has been assigned a number already. If the Caps already have four rights, where does LaDue fit in? The answer is most likey the taxi squad.
Because of stricter health and safety protocols, call-ups may be more difficult this season and each team will carry a taxi squad of 4-to-6 players who can practice and who will not count against the salary cap. They will be there in case the team needs a call-up. This way, teams will know they are not risking a COVID outbreak or a travel delay by making a call-up from Hershey.
I can't imagine general managers will want top prospects to stay in a practice squad instead of playing so players like LaDue make a lot of sense; a veteran player who can be relied on as a call-up but who is not losing development time by following the NHL squad and not playing games.
The biggest thing these players provide is options. That's something the Caps did not have last season. The team had to choose between Jensen or Radko Gudas on the second pair or moving a lefty to the right side. That was it, those were the options. Now, the team has Schultz, Jensen and van Riemsdyk, enough depth to trade Jensen if necessary and an additional righty to use as a call-up if needed. The right side of the blue line is not going to be the glaring issue it was last year.