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.
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.