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Bye week grades: Defense

Bye week grades: Defense

There's no hockey this week for Washington as the Caps are on their bye week. That gives us time to take a look at the team and evaluate how they look at this point in the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent J.J. Regan offer their bye week grades for each aspect of the team. Today, they take a look at the defense.

El-Bashir: Through 56 games, the Caps are allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL (2.09). They’re also permitting the sixth fewest shots on net per contest (27.9). 

Outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer is a huge part of the Caps’ extraordinarily low goals per. Ditto for a forward corps that prides itself on backchecking and attention to detail in the neutral and defensive zones.

But the Caps’ defenders have played an enormous role in that minuscule number, too. 

Although often overlooked because of the all-star caliber talent up front and the Vezina Trophy winner in net, the Matt Niskanen and John Carlson-led D has been rock solid all season. It’s been even better since the pairings were shuffled in early December, resulting in the group’s current alignment, which features Karl Alzner skating alongside Carlson, Dmitry Orlov with Niskanen and Brooks Orpik and Nate Schmidt. Those pairs have led to better balance and role recognition as well as a massive uptick in offensive production from the backend.

In fact, the Caps’ blue line has racked up more assists (107) than any D corps in the league. The unit also is third in points at 126; San Jose and St. Louis have 128 apiece (h/t to Neil Greenberg for the mathematical assist).

One of the big unknowns entering the season was how Orlov would perform in a top-4 role. As it turns out, the 25-year-old Russian has shown steady improvement and is making significant fewer miscues, even as his minutes have jumped from 16:02 per game last season to 19:39 this season. 

Over the next two weeks, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about whether the Caps should stand pat at the trade deadline or add some depth. It could be argued that G.M. Brian MacLellan should pursue a veteran defenseman, preferably a righty since the Caps have just two of them on the roster now…just in case injuries strike a unit that’s been remarkably healthy all season.   

Assuming no one gets hurt between now and March 1, I’d be inclined to stand pat. Chemistry is a delicate thing and right now the Caps’ D corps has it. There’s also Taylor Chorney on stand-by in case of an injury.

As things stand, there’s not much to nitpick here. The blue line has been excellent and, barring injury, figures to be just as reliable in the postseason.

Grade: A

Regan: Last season we saw a defense that was overly reliant on goalie Braden Holtby who was putting together a Vezina Trophy winning season. That was evident whenever Philipp Grubauer was given the start. That’s not the case this year.

Washington’s blue line has been tremendous allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL (2.09). A penalty kill that has looked inconsistent at times still sits third in the NHL with a kill rate of 84.5-percent. The team has three defensive pairs that are clicking ever since Barry Trotz switched up the initial pairs in December.

There were two major question marks in my mind for the defense heading into this season. Would an aging Brooks Orpik be a detriment to the defense and would Dmitry Orlov be able to handle a top-four role? The answers have been no and yes.

At 36 years old, putting Orpik in a top-four role would have been asking too much of him, at it would have been for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. There’s no shame in that, it’s just the natural progression of every professional athlete. Orpik, however, has played extremely well on the third pairing and has not been a detriment to the team’s defense at all.

With a plus-32 on the season, Orpik leads the team in plus/minus. Whether you put any stock into plus/minus or not, at the very least it shows the teams is not somehow weaker when he is on the ice. Plus, he’s also averaging less ice time than last season by almost two full minutes.

As for Orlov, the question as to whether he can handle a top-four role has been a resounding yes. The egregious turnovers still happen from time to time, but have become limited as the season has gone on.

The defense, however, also boasts what I believe to be the team’s biggest weakness: Lack of right-shooting players. No, this isn’t my inner Adam Oates coming out, the Caps boast only two defensemen who shoot right in Niskanen and John Carlson. While you’d like each defensive pair to have a lefty and righty, this isn’t a huge issue…unless one of them gets injured. Then it becomes a major factor.

In terms of need around the league, however, labeling Washington’s lack of right-shooting defensemen a “weakness” is the definition of a "first-world problem."

As well as the defense has played, the weakness of the initial pairings prevents them from getting a full A. Plus, while I’m comfortable with Orlov in the top-four, his turnovers are definitely something to keep an eye on. The playoffs tend to expose a team’s weaknesses and he needs to continue to play smart to ensure he does not cost the team when it matters most.

Grade: A-

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

As shocking as the news of Barry Trotz’s resignation on Monday felt, it probably shouldn’t have given that whether or not he would return to Washington after the 2017-18 season was a storyline all year long.

Trotz entered the 2017-18 season on the last year of his initial four-year deal leading to speculation over whether the team was dissatisfied with his results and ready to move on from the head coach when his contract expired. Teams typically do not allow a head coach to enter the final year of a contract so that they do not appear to the players to be a lame duck coach.

Ultimately, that turned out to not be a problem as Trotz led the organization to its first Stanley Cup in his contract year. While there was interest from both sides in an extension in the wake of winning the Cup, ultimately a new deal could not be agreed upon and now the defending champs are without a head coach.

This begs the question, could things have been different had the team worked out a new contract with Trotz before the 2017-18 season? The answer is almost certainly yes, so how did things get to the point where Trotz was allowed to go into 2017-18 without an extension?

During a press conference with the media on Monday, general manager Brian MacLellan explained the team’s reasoning in not extending Trotz in the summer of 2017.

“We were struggling at the time to get over the hump,” MacLellan said. “We couldn't get over the second round and Barry hadn't been able to coach out of the second round yet either.”

In 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, Trotz was not able to coach his team past the second round in the playoffs. In his three seasons with Washington leading up to the 2017-18 campaign, he had led the Caps to two division titles and two Presidents’ Trophies, but again could not get past the second-round hump that had plagued both him and the team.

Based on MacLellan’s comments, another early playoff exit would have likely led to the team choosing to allow Trotz's contract to expire.

“I think from the organization's perspective, some changes would've had to be made if we lost in the second round again,” MacLellan said.

But what if instead the unthinkable happened? What if the Caps forced Trotz into a “prove it” contract year and he was able to lead the team to the Stanley Cup? Didn’t they risk losing him all along?

Yes and no.

MacLellan confirmed reports on Monday that Trotz’s contract included an automatic two-year extension “at an increased rate” if he won the Cup. So while both sides were negotiating an extension, technically Trotz was already under contract through the 2019-20 season.

In the summer of 2017, MacLellan had a choice to make. At the end of the two-year championship window, he could choose to extend a head coach who had not brought the team the type of postseason success he was hoping for, he could fire a coach who had just won two consecutive division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and whose team was eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, or he could ride out the final year of Trotz’s deal and, in the off chance the team won the Stanley Cup, still rest easy in the notion that Trotz would automatically remain under contract.

MacLellan went with option C. It almost worked.

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