Friday, March 22, 2013

Maybe the biggest roster issues aren't up front

The blueline going into last year was supposed to be a real strength, between Green, Carlson, Alzner, Hamrlik, and Schultz as the top five. Ditto for this year, except Orlov emerged as a top-four defenseman, too. But with Hamrlik a frequent healthy scratch and claimed off waivers by the Rangers, Orlov only getting back into action in the last week, and Green in and out, this team's "strength" has become a weakness.

It's easy for me to say that the forward corps is a bigger worry. The top line has been awful possession-wise, and Ribeiro is only good enough offensively to merely cancel out the possession disadvantage. (That's been the story for Ribeiro for a few seasons now.) Backstrom hasn't really gotten going, and it doesn't help that the only positive possession forwards aside from him are middle-six forwards (Ward, Fehr) and frequent healthy scratches (Perreault, Wolski).

But let's focus on the defense for a moment.
  • You have Carlson and Alzner, both of whom, at worst, are #3s. (At best, a #1 and a #2, respectively.) 
  • Then you have John Erskine, who has never been a good possession player, and isn't a guy who will be dressed every night on more competent bluelines (like the Capitals...last year). Well, until his recent injury, he was getting significant minutes with Carlson.
  • You have Tomas Kundratek, who was supposed to top out as a third-pair D at some point, playing consistently in the top four now. (And with his next game, he'll pass Mike Green for third on the Caps blueline in total TOI, obviously trailing only Carlzner, and well ahead of Erskine for fifth.)
  • You have Steve Oleksy, who has played 18 minutes a game in his six games so far. He's a guy who was on nobody's radar to play for this team this season, or any NHL team for that matter. (I'd bet, at least.)
  • You have Tom Poti, who can skate and adds a veteran presence but who was actually a quality defenseman last in 09-10. At best, he's a third-pairing guy now.
  • You have Jeff Schultz, who has been a positive player by Corsi Rel only in 09-10 (and considering he spent a lot of time with Green, Ovechkin, and Backstrom, that's not particularly impressive). His lack of footspeed doesn't help in this system, a la Hamrlik.
  • You have Jack Hillen, who has barely played (and hasn't exactly been a standout, either here on in Nashville), and ditto for Cameron Schilling, who's still a prospect.
So just to recap: two legit, reliable D, a 6/7 playing as a 2/4, a low-ceiling rookie playing as a 2/4, a veteran whose game appears to have suffered a lot from age and injuries, a guy who has been "passable" while, probably, playing way over his true talent level (a diamond in the rough at 27? I doubt it), and a guy who doesn't fit the system.

From 10-11, you've lost a legit 1D, another top-pair D in the right system, and a young second-pair puck mover.

A team's possession game is going to suffer a lot more from that, I think, than from missing a versatile two-way forward (Laich) and possession monster in soft minutes (Semin). (Ovechkin wasn't a positive possession influence last year, either, going by what information is available at BtN.)

Two weeks ago, I advocated for going after forwards and loading up, like Pittsburgh or Chicago. I'd like to revise that now. I think it's better to shore up the defense. It doesn't necessarily need to be full of studs, but there needs to be more competent players there. If Orlov and Green can stay healthy from here on out, that would fit the bill, but players do get hurt. It's nice to have backup, and without depth, you don't have that interchangeability that teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago seem to have, where players can move up and down the depth chart without significantly dragging down or confusing linemates.

That doesn't mean you still don't load up on forwards who can cycle (maybe poach from SJS since they're excellent at cycling). They can take stress off the D. But I think the marginal utility from a D > from a good F right now. On paper, forwards look decent; until last night, the D looked awful.

Always have four D that can move the puck and skate, and you can start focusing on forwards. But you need a bare minimum on the blueline first, and with the health issues, the team only last night again reached that bare minimum. Maybe, in the near future, that needs to be the primary point of focus--especially with any major changes up front probably against McPhee's own "build from within" policy. Get some additional competent D (or truly fix Green's groin this time), and let's go from there.


  1. Do you really believe that Carlson is a good Defenseman? He is basically another winger (similarly to Green). Erskine is a stay at home D much like Alzner however Erskine adds the requisite toughness required. Olesky is ok but must wait and see. Kundratek is another offensive Defenseman; Schultz is just terrible...

  2. Carlson's time to move might be now as his contract is doable within a lot of team's cap space. We may be thinking his upside is higher than it is. Green will be tough to move due to salary and injury history and possible return may not appease GMGM. Shultz to anyone who will have him. Orlov, Alzner and Erskine are 3 mainstays but Erskine could have value with his snarl to a team needing that for playoff run. Kondratek, Hillen and Olesky are NHL depth players of the 4-5-6-7 variety. I like that Olesky will go after anyone, unlike some of the non- contact wimps that Caps have. Trade Mojo now while he's hot and we might actually get something other than a bag of turnips for him.

  3. Yes, Carlson is good. Quoting Friedman from the playoffs last year, in a 30 Thoughts: "even referees think John Carlson is going to win the Norris Trophy someday."

    There's a story Dave Tippett told once about his team choosing which of two defensemen to trade. One made the right play defensively essentially without fail, but had to defend all the time because he was a poor puck mover. The other wasn't as good in his own end, but was defending less than half the time because he could pass and clear the zone, given the opportunity. They traded the first. Carlson is like the second.

    Green is a defenseman. Just because someone has some skill doesn't mean they should be a forward. Or do you think Erik Karlsson should be a winger, too?

    Comparing Alzner and Erskine is an insult to Alzner, who's as good a pure shutdown defenseman as you'll find in the East.

    It's worthwhile to be patient with Kundratek as well. Before coming to this organization he was known as a third pairing prospect, Erskine with less physicality, better skating, same lack of offense. Were all the scouts that wrong?