The 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 show up for this week’s rookie camp and/or next week’s training camp, it’s probably worth revisiting.
The Caps dressed seven defensemen for opening night at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 5 of last season. Those seven defensemen brought a combined total of 1,387 games to the table, led by Ben Clymer’s misleading total of 372. Clymer’s total is misleading because he has played on the wing for more than half of his NHL career.
Among those seven defensemen were three youngsters with first-round pedigree: Shaone Morrisonn, Steve Eminger and Mike Green. Each of those three blueliners added at least 68 games to his career total last season. Another promising first-rounder, Jeff Schultz, got his feet wet in 38 NHL games. Each of Washington’s top three picks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft was a defenseman. First-rounder Karl Alzner (fifth overall) is considered by many to be the most NHL-ready player available in the ’07 draft.
Since opening night of 2006-07, Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir have departed. Clymer moved back to the wing. Milan Jurcina was obtained in a Feb. 1 trade with the Bruins. Tom Poti was signed as a free agent. Josef Boumedienne was brought back after three seasons in Europe. Jame Pollock was signed after several seasons in Europe. Undrafted college free agent Sean Collins was signed, and blueline draftees Sami Lepisto and Patrick McNeill were signed to contracts and will turn pro in 2007-08. Poti brings some experience and some puck-moving capability. With 594 career NHL games, he becomes Washington’s most experienced defenseman.
The Caps certainly have better organizational depth at the position this fall, and should be better equipped to withstand the inevitable injuries and illnesses that crop up over the course of an 82-game grind.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Washington dresses seven defensemen on opening night again this season and that their names are Poti, Brian Pothier, Morrisonn, Jurcina, Eminger, Green and John Erskine. (I’d be willing to bet those wouldn’t be the seven if there were to be seven, but again, for argument’s sake.) Those seven have a total of 1,625 NHL games played. That’s an upgrade over last season. And it’s plenty more than the 1982-83 Caps team that leaped to a playoff berth after eight seasons of misery.
It’s also more than a couple pretty fair 2006-07 NHL clubs. The San Jose Sharks’ six most frequently used defensemen combined for just 1,186 career NHL games heading into last season. The Sharks did add veteran Craig Rivet at the trade deadline, though. In Nashville, Kimmo Timonen’s 493 NHL games played heading into 2006-07 accounted for more than half of the 907 accrued by the entire Preds blueline combined. The Predators won 51 games and racked up 110 points with that bunch.
As I mentioned earlier, a few of Washington’s young blueliners added another season and 60-80 games worth of experience last season. The team shaved its goals against total by nearly a third of a goal per game, but it wasn’t enough. The Caps surrendered 300 goals in 2005-06, 29th most in the league. Down to 275 last season, Washington was still a dismal 26th in the league. Still, it is progress. And the Caps probably don’t have as far to go in that department as some would think. Shaving 35 more goals off the total this season would put the Caps in the top half of the league and might mean a playoff spot, based on last season’s results.
Is there a correlation between goals against and the playoffs? Does Mike Keenan ever wear out his welcome? Last season, the top 15 teams in terms of fewest goals against were among the 16 contestants for the Stanley Cup. Among playoff teams, only Tampa Bay (at 24th) fell outside the league’s top 15 in goals against. Every team that allowed 241 or fewer goals against made the playoffs last season.
In 2005-06, three teams who ranked among the top 16 in fewest goals against missed the playoffs: Minnesota, Vancouver and Florida. Vancouver and Florida finished 15th and 16th, respectively. Philadelphia (17th), Tampa Bay (18th) and Carolina (19th) were the three teams outside the top 16 in goals against that managed to get into the playoffs anyway. And of course, Carolina won the Cup despite allowing more regular season goals (258) than any of the other 15 playoff teams.
Realistically, if you want to make the playoffs you need to finish among the league’s top 15 in goals against. How then to cut the number of goals against? Limit scoring chances. Win more face-offs. Possess the puck. Play at the other end of the ice. Limit turnovers. Draw more penalties. Take fewer penalties.
Adding Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and Nicklas Backstrom up front will help in several of those areas. Hopefully, the additional experience on Washington’s blueline and more continued growth this season will also help the team to improve in some of those departments.
Here’s another obvious point: it’s not all about goals against. The Caps could give up more goals in 2007-08 than in 2006-07 and still make the playoffs. It won’t happen, but it could. Winning games 6-5 and 8-6 is the same as winning them 3-2 and 2-1. Goal differential is the key number to look at in concert with goals against. The Caps were minus-70 in 2005-06 (the franchise’s worst mark since 1977-78’s minus-126!); they improved to minus-41 in 2006-07. Turning that minus-41 into a positive number is not as daunting as it would seem. Pittsburgh swung from minus-67 in 2005-06 to plus-27 last season, a turn of plus-94. On the other end of the spectrum, the Flyers had a slide of similar depths in goal differential. They went from a plus-10 in 2005-06 to a minus-84 last season for a net of minus-94.
Previous Capitals teams have shaved as many as 87 goals against off the previous season’s total. In another season, they lopped 55 goals against off the prior season’s number. The 2007-08 Caps needn’t effect such a dramatic change. Getting under 240 would seem a worthy goal. Last year’s Caps scored 234 goals of their own and a modest increase over that figure seems like a reasonable expectation in 2007-08. Although the 234 goals of a year ago was good enough for only 17th in the league, it was the most goals scored by a Washington club since the 1995-96 bunch — generally considered a defensive-oriented squad — also racked up 234. The 1993-94 Capitals were the last team to exceed 234 goals; they totaled 277 over the course of an 84-game slate.
We have no way of knowing how many goals the Caps will have to cut off last season’s total to crack the top half of the league in that department, but based on recent history we can be reasonably certain that if they do get into that area, their first playoff berth in five years could also be in the offing.