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.

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5 Comments on “The Case for the Defense”

  1. Mike L Says:

    The Caps are almost certain to increase their goals for number in that they’ve added two players who scored over 20 last year, along with a veteran defenseman who makes good plays in the attacking zone. Backstrom is an unknown, but if he’s half the player he looks like he’ll be, that will also increase goals for.

    As for a decrease in goals allowed… I don’t think the decrease will be as dramatic as the increase in goals for. Poti is pretty good in his own end, and yes, Schultz, Green, Emminger, Morrisson and Jurcina all have more experience than before, but there is still something missing from the defensive unit, and that’s the guy who is supposed to be the stopper. Maybe I’m jaded because I was here for the Langway years, but when the Caps were successful, they always had someone on the back line who was the man who stopped everything in their tracks. Langway was first, then Tinordi, then Reekie (say what you want, in 1999 when the Caps were terrible, he still had a postiive plus-minus…), Since then, that player has been missing. If Jurcina would develop a bit of mean streak, then maybe he could take up that role…(Maybe they could implant Erskine’s mean streak into Jurcina…)

    Anyway, one more comment. One thing that will hinder and always will hinder the Caps in getting to the top in scoring is the ice quality. The ice here in Washington is not very good. Yes both teams play on it at the same time, but the Caps play 41 games on it each year, all the while sharing their arena during the winter with two basketball teams (The Wizards and the Hoyas). I think the Flyers, Bruins, and Rangers are the only teams that have to deal with that, but the Caps are the farthest south of these teams. Carolina shares with NC State hoops, and the Thrashers share with the Hawks (although it’s debatable as to whether those guys in the Hawks uniforms are playing basketball, or just running around in a panic…) Ice quality may have had something to do with Jagr’s numbers being lower here than in Pittsburgh or New York. His game is a finesse game, and that will suffer with poor ice (Mellon Arena only has basketball once in awhile…)

  2. al Says:

    who would be youre seven then?

  3. dumpnchase Says:

    Mike L,
    Agree that they should score more. I think the defense may surprise us, but I won’t make any grandiose predictions. As for “the stopper” … who was TB’s stopper when they won the Cup in ’04? And Carolina’s in ’06? I think if your whole group of six is good, you don’t necessarily need one. Not that I’d be averse to having one, mind you. And I think Jurcina’s got enough of a mean streak to be effective. Finally, you’re right about the ice, but I dunno what can be done. I was very bad at science.

    I can’t tell you who my seven would be. Haven’t seen some of these guys play yet. I’ll reserve judgment for a bit. Anyway, my point was this: in my example, I listed the seven most experienced D-men. I was merely stating that I don’t believe those will be the same seven that start the season in DC.

  4. Mike L Says:

    The stopper defensemen for Tampa in ’04 was Pavel Kubina, and for the ‘Canes in ’06 it was Commodore. When their teams were up one with less than a minute to go, you *knew* these guys would be on the ice. The Bolts also added Daryl Sydor towards the end of the ’04 season to add to their defense.

    Jurcina’s mean streak… I dunno. He had all off 44 PIMs (22 minors) over 70 games. While I don’t advocate taking stupid penalties, there are times when a defenseman should take an aggressive penalty (roughing, cross-checking) in order to get that into the back of the mind of opponents when they skate against them. Jurcina is talented, but he’d be even more effective if opposing forwards had a slight bit of hesitation in going into the corner with him. Look at someone like Commodore again…he’s not the most talented defenseman in the league, not even close, but he’s very effective in his own end because opponents will hesitate for that slight instant…he’s not dirty, but he is aggressive, and Jurcina needs to be more aggressive… (not over-aggressive like Brendan Witt, mind you).

    As for the ice, the most effective way to fix the ice at Verizon is to eliminate some of the basketball dates on the schedule. The Wizards aren’t likely to go, but maybe they could prevail upon Georgetown to play their home games on campus more often, or, if they need a bigger arena, play at Bender Arena…

  5. dumpnchase Says:

    I still maintain neither team had a shutdown D, and that you don’t need one to win anymore. Commodore played 15:30 a night during the regular season for the Canes in 2005-06. He played 19:27 a night in the playoffs. Hedican and Aaron Ward both played more minutes in the playoffs.

    Also, here’s a shocking little stat for you: Jurcina logged more PIMs per minutes played last season than did Anaheim’s Chris Pronger.

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