A look at the Capitals Defensive Pairings – To Tinker or Not to Tinker?

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(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Last season we were lucky enough to see the best Capitals defense we’ve seen since the peak of the Bruce Boudreau era.  Last season, the Caps achieved a 2.43 goals against average (GAA) ranking them 7th in the NHL; a dramatic improvement over the 2.79 GAA and 21st ranking of the 2014 season. For that reason, I believe this was the best Caps defense since the Caps achieved a 2.33 GAA in the 2010-2011, but it was actually better than that season as well.  At the peak of the Boudreau era, we didn’t simply outscore teams; we created constant pressure that stopped the opponent from generating offense. Proving that, “the best defense is a good offense”; until the playoffs. To find the next season with a GAA below 2.68 we have to go all the way back to 2000-01 when the Capitals recorded a 2.57 GAA.

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Braden Holtby’s fantastic season is a key contributor to the improvement of our GAA.  The goalie needs to be the best defender, and last season Holtby certainly was for the Caps. Our GAA ranking would be higher if the team had not had such a slow start both on the ice and in the net the first few months of the season. The Caps regular season play in 2015 was a world apart from the team that stepped on the ice in October.

orlovSo what should we expect in the new season? It’s obvious that the Caps GAA in January – April would have been lower than the first half of the season and would register a lower GAA over a full season.  Mike Green’s loss may be felt on the power play and to some degree in the overall offense. However, the strong additions to our offensive lines will compensate for any slack so I wouldn’t expect Green’s absence to be an issue.  With Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, the most likely pairing to replace Green and Gleason, I think the Capitals see a net gain by providing more distributed offensive talent and better overall defensive abilities.  Coach Trotz could shelter the pair but think it more likely that he will test them instead to see if he needs to find a strong veteran to plug into that pairing or to bring up help from Hershey, long before the trade deadline.

Brooks_orpik_Washington_CapitalsBut what about the first and second line pairing?  Given their performance last season and no changes to the personnel, you can certainly argue against changing anything.  And maybe the Caps will do just that.  The problem I see with that logic is Brooks Orpik.  Orpik played as well or better than most of us expected last season.  He was durable and brought a heavy game that definitely set a tone the entire group benefited from. But at 35 years old by the time the season begins, do the Capitals really want to keep feeding top pairing minutes to Orpik?  I think that is a fair question and could be the best argument for messing with something that’s been working so well.

230px-John_Carlson_2012-01-11If we do mess with the top 4 pairings, what are our options?  We could simply swap the lines intact, but do you want to drop Carlson’s minutes as well?  The more likely fix would be to swap Orpik and Alzner.  The Carlzner line was a pretty effective shutdown line in seasons past so it’s certainly a possibility.  I actually think that line would be a better pairing after a year apart.  Both have learned some new tricks with different line mates that should make each a better defender.  Orpik and Niskanen no doubt provide a solid second line pair with little drop off from the first line.  You wouldn’t be talking a huge drop in minutes just by shifting the lines however.  Trotz balanced the minutes between the top two lines fairly evenly last season.  The third pairing saw a few minutes less per game, but compared to most teams, the distribution across all three lines was fairly even.

Where Orpik saw extra minutes was on the penalty kill where he was second only to John Carlson in minutes.  Of the 4 players, Karl Alzner saw the least time on the penalty kill.  Does Alzner get more time on the PK?  What seems more likely is that Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt can contribute on the PK and drop the minutes not only for Orpik, but Carlson as well.  Mike Green not playing on the PK drove up the minutes for both Orpik and Carlson.  Dividing those minutes among 6 players instead of 5, or at times last season just 4 players, should help take some of the load off of Orpik.  Dropping his playing time even 1 minute a game in the regular season could pay dividends come playoff time.  I have to think the Capitals are considering making some changes there.

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Even with a possible tweak to the top line pairings and a youth movement on the 3rd pairing, only Dmitry Orlov will be learning a new system.  Even he will have the benefit of being with the team last season and this offseason.  The others should be expected to start quickly with nothing more than a few new wrinkles to learn.  It is unfair to think the defense starts out where it left off in the playoffs.  It is however very fair to expect the drop off won’t be dramatic and we should see a much more solid first 2-3 months of this season than the last.  Add in a better Braden Holtby who we can expect will benefit from a full season with Mitch Korn, and I expect a not insignificant drop in the 2.43 GAA.  How far?  Thats tough to say, but top 5 in the league seems a reasonable target.  The personal and the system are there.  Philip Grubauer should provide more rest for Holtby with much less drop off than we saw with Justin Peters this past season.

Everything is lined up to see the 2015-2016 Washington Capitals post their best defensive numbers of the new millennium!  Is it October yet?

By Ernie Mudd

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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