There were a handful of weaknesses that doomed the Capitals in 2019-20, but among the biggest was the team's defensive play. No one looked in-sync as opponents tormented Washington in its own zone, dominating net-front presence, intercepting breakout passes and often catching the team out of position. Fixing that will have to be one of the top priorities for new head coach Peter Laviolette and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy who will work with the defensemen.
The Caps already have taken a step in the right direction towards addressing the blue line with a strong offseason.
One of the biggest holes on the blue line was the right side of the second pair. Washington really did not have a top-four option behind John Carlson. Nick Jensen played well at the end of the season, but struggled for the majority of the campaign, failing to lay claim to the job the team both wanted and needed him to take. In the offseason, general manager Brian MacLellan added three additional right defensemen in Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Paul LaDue.
The added depth on the right will ensure the Caps are able to employ three combinations of left and right defensemen instead of forcing a player to play on his off-side.
"I'm really excited about the group of potentially eight defensemen that we can have and put together out there," McCarthy said. "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. 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."
Right away, we can note one of the changes coming to the defense.
Under Todd Reirden, the defensemen typically switched sides in the offensive zone, making it easier to feed those players for one-time opportunities. McCarthy, however, believes it is more important to keep players on the strong side in order to keep the puck in at the blue line.
McCarthy also believes keeping the players on their strong side is important for transitions, something that was a major weakness last season.
"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," McCarthy said.
Last season, the Caps frequently turned the puck over in the neutral zone on transitions. The offense would take off down the ice as soon as Washington gained possession and the defensemen would look for long stretch passes through the opponent's forecheck. You can get away with those home run passes now and again, but the Caps became over-reliant on them and everyone knew it. Opponents would easily cut off the passing lanes for the defense with the offense already halfway down the ice leaving the defenseman with nowhere to go with the puck. They would either force a bad pass or hold on to the puck too long leading to numerous turnovers.
McCarthy wants to see the team play more of a five-man defense and transition so as not to leave the defensemen on an island with no one to pass to.
"I think the biggest thing for me, it's a group of five that you have to have in your defensive zone," McCarthy said. "You've got to stay tight, you've got passing options for your D. A lot of times, sometimes you get stretched out a little bit too much and you leave your defensemen hanging. I think it's really important as a group of five that you're passing lanes are there, especially your centermen coming in and supporting your defensemen on breakouts. I think it's really important. That's one thing we spend a lot of time on in practice especially at training camp just working on our breakouts, working on our routes and making sure that everybody's in the right position because a lot of times if you can make that first pass out of your zone on the breakout, good things happen after that. A lot of that's based on the support you're getting from your forwards."
Fixing the defense may seem like a tall task, but McCarthys is confident in the team personnel, so much so that he elected to forego retirement to come to Washington in pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
Laviolette's system is known for having the defensemen playing a very offensively aggressive style. McCarthy feels the makeup of the team is ideal for what he and Laviolette want to do.
McCarthy sees an "elite defenseman" in John Carlson, he likes having a locker room glue guy like Brenden Dillon and he's especially excited about what Dmitry Orlov can do.
"I've always been a big Orlov fan," McCarthy said. "I think that he's really a good offensive guy and I think he's going to fit into Lavi's system perfectly because he's a guy that can do the things in the offensive zone that you wanted to create those offensive and keep pucks alive and the offense going and activating and doing a lot of things that you see with the defensemen of today."
But before Caps fans start to think the defense is going to focus too much on the offense and thus make life even more difficult for the goalies than it was last season, don't worry. McCarthy and Laviolette know the importance of keeping the puck out of the net.
"As much as everybody talks about Lavi being an offensive coach, people don't realize for the first five years in Nashville, if you took the goals against for those five years combined, we had the best goals against in the National Hockey League," McCarthy said. "There's more to Lavi's system than just offense. We understand that offense scores goals, but defense wins championships and that's always been our philosophy."