Thin Blue Line?

The Thin Blue Line is the title of a 1988 documentary about a wrongly convicted man in Texas. And you thought it was the title of the video of the Washington Capitals’ upcoming 2006-07 season.

Yeah, I know. They make those videos after the season. But you wouldn’t know that from the volume of email and podcast queries I’ve received on the subject over the summer. Folks out there are generally worried about the Caps’ blue line corps. I’ll confess to being among them, though perhaps not to the same degree.

Four years ago, the Caps featured a mostly veteran group of defensemen. When Washington opened the 2002-03 season at MCI Center against Nashville on Oct. 11, it dressed a core group of four defensemen – Calle Johansson, Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt – who had been together on the Caps’ roster since 1995-96, a claim none of the other 29 teams in the league could make at the time. Those four defenders brought a combined 2,462 games worth of NHL experience into that season. J-F Fortin (36 games) and Steve Eminger (none) were the other two defensemen dressed for the Caps that night.

The Caps finished second in the Southeast Division that season, but were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Johansson and Klee did not return in 2003-04, marking the beginning of the changing of the (rear)guard in the District.

For what it’s worth, the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup that season. Their six most frequently used defensemen came into that season with a whopping 4,699 games worth of NHL experience. That figure is very much an anomaly; teams have before and since won Cups with far less blueline experience.

No one expects the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this season, but earning a playoff spot seems to be a common and attainable goal if you talk to the players and the brass. Can it be done with the currently assembled defense? The short answer is yes.

The Nashville Predators made the playoffs last season with six defensemen who began the season with just 1,087 NHL games to their credit, though they did add Witt in a late-season trade with the Caps. The San Jose Sharks’ six most frequently used defensemen totaled 1,042 games heading into the 2005-06 campaign. They made the playoffs and advanced to the second round.

Washington’s top six from last season came in with a combined 1,235 games played in the league. This season, the Caps figure to come in somewhere between 1,000 and 1,365 NHL games, depending on whether Ben Clymer, drafted as a defenseman in 1997 but later converted to wing, skates up front or in the back for the Caps this season.

Nashville and San Jose each had a pair of first-rounders among its six defensemen; with Jamie Heward, Shaone Morrisonn, Steve Eminger and Mike Green the Caps could conceivably have as many as four. Pedigree can’t hurt.

Now for a bit of local and historical perspective. The Capitals opened the 1981-82 season on Oct. 7, 1981 at Buffalo. The six defensemen who earned opening night sweaters that season were Rick Green (312 games worth of NHL experience), Pat Ribble (306), Terry Murray (228), Paul MacKinnon (77), Jim McTaggart (52) and Greg Theberge (1). That’s a total of just 976 games worth of NHL experience.

The results weren’t pretty that season. The Caps missed the playoffs for an eighth straight season, posting a 26-41-13 record. Washington surrendered 338 goals, tied for the most it had allowed since its second season in the league, 1975-76.

Up on Long Island, where the New York Islanders were preparing to win a third straight Stanley Cup title, the Isles iced a six-man defensive unit of Denis Potvin, Mike McEwen, ex-Cap Gord Lane, Stefan Persson, Dave Langevin and Ken Morrow. That sixsome totaled 1,841 games worth of NHL experience going into that season, nearly twice the total of the Capitals’ half-dozen defensemen.

Washington made some moves prior to the next season, most notably the deal with the Canadiens that brought in blueliners Rod Langway and Brian Engblom. With Engblom (316), Langway (268), Randy Holt (299), Darren Veitch (126), Lee Norwood (39) and Scott Stevens (0) in the lineup for the season opener against the Rangers on Oct. 6, 1982, the Caps had marked a modest increase to 1,048 games worth of blueline experience.

When the ’82-83 season was in the books, the Caps had cut their goals against by 55 – more than half a goal a game – to a more respectable 283. They also made the playoffs for the first time in their existence. That Caps defense counted two first-rounders – Veitch and Stevens – among its ranks.

This year’s bunch figures to start the season somewhere in the same range of experience as that 1982-83 team. But the ’06-07 Caps have two things the ’82-83 team did not have, namely Alex Ovechkin and Olie Kolzig.

On paper, yes. Thin blue line. Could look a little thinner or a little thicker 82 games from now, and maybe another name or names will be added to the mix between now and then, too. Washington’s defense could be good enough to get the team into the playoffs, and it could be bad enough to be the reason why it misses the playoffs. The fun will be in the finding out.

Random cultural convergence: The best song ever with the words “blue” and “line” in the title is Let’s Active’s “Blue Line.” Better known for having produced many fine records over the last two decades, Mitch Easter was the frontman of the criminally underappreciated trio.

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One Comment on “Thin Blue Line?”

  1. […] Case for the Defense It was right around this time last year when I wrote a short piece about the Capitals defense heading into the 2006-07 season. With training camp upon us and a total of 21 defensemen slated to […]

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