Coming into the 2015-16 season, the Capitals defensive corps remained one of the deepest in the NHL. With a Top 4 of John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner, and Matt Niskanen, a bottom pairing of promising youngsters Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, and seventh defenseman Taylor Chorney, the Caps had a defense that could help them go on a deep playoff run.
Even with the offseason departure of longtime blueliner Mike Green, the Caps were a solid defensive team. But 37 games into a very successful campaign (28-7-2, 58 points), the Capitals blueline has been hit hard: Orpik has been out of action since November with a lower-body injury and Carlson has missed three straight games (four on Saturday night). These injuries have forced head coach Barry Trotz to shuffle the D-pairings.
The top-pairing is now Alzner and Niskanen, the second-pairing Schmidt and Orlov, and the bottom consisting of Chorney and most-recently Connor Carrick. However, Carrick looked shaky in three games played, recording two shots, no points, and a minus-2. The Caps have recalled offseason signing Ryan Stanton from the AHL’s Hershey Bears and had already recalled Aaron Ness. According to CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley, a decision has not yet been made who will play on Saturday night versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. In 119 career NHL games, Stanton has four goals, 23 assists, and 69 penalty minutes. He played 54 games last season for the Vancouver Canucks, registering a career-high in goals, plus/minus plus-9, and was ranked fourth on the Canucks with 93 hits and 113 blocked shots.
The Capitals current situation is similar to what the 2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins experienced. Niskanen, who was in the final year of his contract, was given a bigger role and recorded career-highs in goals (10), assists (36), and points (46). Unlike the Penguins, the Capitals are a much better team and have the talented depth necessary to cushion their losses. As Niskanen said upon signing: “I think depth is important in today’s game. We had a lot of depth in Pittsburgh last year, and it turned out we really needed it.” The Caps certainly have the depth, but it’s whether that depth can hold up until Carlson and Orpik return. Schmidt, who has played i2n Orpik’s place, has proven more than capable of handling the increased role. Orlov and Chorney have stepped up their games, and Alzner and Niskanen have continued their steady play.
This season, the different defense pairing combinations have have been as follows:. Orpik/Carlson, Alzner/Niskanen, Orlov/Schmidt, Schmidt/Carlson, Chorney/Orlov, Chorney/Carrick, and Chorney and whichever defenseman plays Saturday night. The following chart shows these over the course of the first 37 games:
The question isn’t whether the Capitals have the depth, but if that depth can hold up the fort while the regulars recuperate. It appears they do, as even without their top-pair the Caps remain competitive in games and have won two out of the three games they’ve played without both. Hopefully, for the Caps’ sake, both Orpik and Carlson will return soon to help the Capitals make a run at the Stanley Cup in a few months time.
By Michael Fleetwood