Blueline Blues

In researching and writing the piece about the Capitals’ defense that is currently up on washingtoncaps.com, I was startled by something I had not previously realized. In both 2004 and 2005, the Caps chose a pair of defensemen in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. That in itself is not so startling, but I was stunned when I realized that between Brendan Witt (11th overall) in the first round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft and Steve Eminger (12th overall) in the first round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, the Caps had taken only two defensemen in the first rounds of those eight drafts in between.

Those two first-round defensemen (Nolan Baumgartner at No. 10 in 1994 and Nick Boynton at No. 9 in 1997) played a total of 18 games in a Capitals uniform. And the rest of the Washington-chosen blueliners taken in between Witt and Eminger did not fare much better.

The Capitals drafted 31 defensemen between Witt and Eminger, and only five of those players (Baumgartner, J-F Fortin, Nolan Yonkman, Patrick Boileau and Jakub Cutta) ever donned a Washington sweater. Fortin led the way with 71 games as a Capital. A few others had brief NHL stints for other NHL clubs. It should also be noted that 22 of those 31 defensemen were drafted after the third round, where you can’t necessarily expect to find NHL-caliber talent from year to year.

Although veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig has been entrenched as the team’s starter for the last decade, the face of the Washington defense has turned over and changed drastically during the same period.

When the Caps took the ice for the start of the 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs (the only time in franchise history the Caps have advanced to the Cup finals), their six defensemen (Ken Klee, Calle Johansson, Mark Tinordi, Joe Reekie, Sergei Gonchar and Phil Housley) had a combined total of 3,628 games worth of regular season NHL experience among them. The Caps also had Jeff Brown and Brendan Witt on hand then, and both played during that run to the finals. The eight defensemen had 4,531 games of NHL regular season experience among them.

Fast-forward to the 2002-03 season, Washington’s last trip to the playoffs. The Caps still had Klee, Johansson, Gonchar and Witt, and Washington was the only team in the entire NHL that could boast of having four defensemen together for the previous eight seasons. The Caps were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that season, and the defense began to take on a drastically new look the following season, after Johansson and Klee departed.

The Caps may finally be putting together a strong defensive nucleus to rival the ones they had in the 1980s and 1990s. With Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, they have some talented young defensemen who could form the defensive core of the next strong Cup-contending team in Washington. Other recent draftees such as Sasha Pokulok, Joe Finley, Sami Lepisto, Oscar Hedman, Patrick McNeill, Andrew Thomas, Viktor Dovgan and Keith Seabrook could also develop into NHL-level defenders in the next half-decade or so.

There were no blogs 14 years ago, but it’s not hard to imagine writers of that day holding the same hopes for the likes of Boileau, Bamugartner and Sergei Zimakov. History has shown the NHL Draft to be a crapshoot in the later rounds, and an unpredictable hope chest in the early rounds. In other words, you may need to get some defensemen elsewhere, too.

Over its NHL history, Washington has been a resourceful franchise in terms of picking up defensemen from other sources. The Caps obtained Bryan “Bugsy” Watson from Detroit on Nov. 30, 1976, and pizza lovers in the area owe a huge debt to then-GM Max McNab for engineering that swap. After Watson retired in the area as the league’s all-time penalty minutes leader, he opened a bar-restaurant that serves the best pies in a radius of hundreds of miles. Combine that with the best “hockey bar” around, and that is a deal that continues to pay dividends decades later.

Man, am I hungry. And thirsty. And sorry for the digression.

Leif Svensson, Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Larry Murphy, Gary Galley, Grant Ledyard, Calle Johansson, Al Iafrate, Sylvain Cote, Joe Reekie, Mark Tinordi, Morrisonn and others all came to Washington via the trade or free agent route. But recently, those avenues have not been fertile, either.

Since the end of the 1998 Stanley Cup finals, the Caps have signed, traded for or claimed 38 defensemen. Three of those were converted to forwards. Eight others never donned a Caps uniform. Washington has played 624 regular season games since that lone Cup finals appearance. None of those 35 defensemen have played in more than 155 of those games. Here’s the top five:

Dimitri Mironov 155 (Sign)
Sylvain Cote 139 (Sign)
Shaone Morrisonn 129 (Trade)
Jason Doig 120 (Sign)
Joel Kwiatkowski 114 (Trade)

Given the dry patch of defensemen coming into the organization via both the draft and other routes, it’s amazing the Capitals have been as competitive as they have been over the past 15 years or so. There seems to be a new emphasis on defense within the organization now, and hopefully it will be enough to return to the Caps to the status of perennial contenders.

We’ll discuss this more on Wednesday’s edition of The Capitals Report (podcast), in which we’ll be joined by the aforementioned Reekie. He has some good perspective to share on the Caps’ defense and the development curve of NHL blueliners. The show airs live at 2 p.m. every Wednesday, and is also available for download shortly thereafter.

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8 Comments on “Blueline Blues”

  1. Mr. Moa Says:

    This post pretty much lays out the case for what a lousy GM McPhee has been — unable to develop defensemen via the draft or trade.

  2. Shmee Says:

    Hey Mike,

    Thanks for the insightful post!

    I have been searching for the link to old podcasts for a while, do you know where I can find it?

    Thanks!

  3. Wes Says:

    This post is exactly what I’ve been thinking over the last 2 years. Experienced defense is what got us in the playoffs for all those years. I just hope it happens sooner than later with Olie on the breach of retirement. With him in net and a decent defense we could go far.

  4. dumpnchase Says:

    Mr. Moa,
    I look at it the other way. I think GM has done a good job to keep the team competitive without a steady stream of defensemen. The problem started with the Poile administration and lingered a few years into GM’s tenure. He has obviously noticed it and has taken steps to correct it.

    It’s difficult to get D in a trade or via FA without severely overpaying.He could have gone the Flyers’ route and overpayed a bunch of ancient and slow statue types. With the new CBA, those kind of mistakes can haunt you for years. I like the D the Caps have now, and I think with one good veteran addition (trade or FA, a guy who could slide everyone down one spot on the depth chart) and a tad more experience they’ll be a playoff caliber defense.

    Shmee,
    I’m told that all the old podcasts are available in i-Tunes.

    Wes,
    They’re getting there. Olie thinks he can play till he’s 40, so there should be a “window of overlap” where he is still effective and the D starts coming into its own. Let’s hope so.

  5. HJB Says:

    I couldn’t agree more and I thank you for articulating it.

    Overall I’m very happy with the team and look forward to watching them ferment and bond into a major cup-contending team, but I wouldn’t be too averse to seeing Georgie trade one of the not-quite-in-the-core players (I’m thinking of a name that rhymes with Plitchard Chednick) for an experienced blueliner. Someone like Calle Johansson who can be an anchor for the D and help teach the youngsters.

    Oh, and thanks also for pointing out the superiority of Bugsy’s Pizza. I thank the powers that be every day that I live within walking distance of it.

  6. Shmee Says:

    Thanks will download tonight!


  7. HJB, Richard Zednik today has as much trade value as Calle Johansson today. Both are currently not playing due to age and injuries. Actually, with talk of the Canucks signing Brian Leetch, the Caps might as well give Johansson a call.

    The team picked Zednik up for a third round pick, and since then he’s scored less and been injured more than he was last season. They’ll be lucky to get back the third round pick they put in. Maybe a second like they got for Friesen if some team is absolutely desperate for a forward and he has a couple of pretty goals right before the deadline, but even so…

    The kinds of players the team could trade for a number one defenseman are the kinds of players the team should not trade.

  8. FS Says:

    Second String,

    Zednik is playing far better this year than Friesen played last year. We got a second round pick for the Freezer, why can’t we expect something sort of similar for Zednik?


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