Plenty has happened during the offseason with the Washington Capitals defense, even though the roster will look almost the same as last season.
The starting six, Alzner, Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Orpik, and Schmidt will all be returning this year, but the lineups might look a bit different. Rental player Mike Weber signed with the Blues during the offseason as a free agent, and will not be returning to the lineup.
Karl Alzner, who has not missed a single game since before the 2010-11 season, suffered a partially torn groin in game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and also underwent a sports hernia surgery in June. Alzner has been telling the media that he is very close to game condition, and that if push came to shove, he would be able to suit up on the blue line, but he is still working on leg conditioning to fully bounce back from the injury and surgery. You can expect to see him play in consecutive game number 459 on opening night in Pittsburgh.
John Carlson appears to have completely moved on from his broken ankle in last season that kept him out for 25 games. The 26-year-old New Jersey native had reemerged in the post season to help the Caps make it to the second round, and was averaging over 20 minutes per game for Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey. His play looked consistent and strong in the World Cup, despite Team USAs disappointing performance, and you can expect that he will have another strong season in 2016-17.
Matt Niskanen had a quiet offseason, aside from playing in the World Cup of Hockey alongside John Carlson. Niskanen, who played at least 20 minutes in all but two games last season, and even played for 32 minutes against the Blue Jackets on January 2nd, is looking to come back as the Caps go-to consistent blue-liner. Niskanen also found a new niche spot on the team’s first powerplay line after proving that he could shoot the puck through traffic while on the man-advantage. This addition of depth on the powerplay will give the Caps a bigger advantage and more player flexibility during the regular season, especially since the Caps have had dominating special teams the past few seasons. You can expect that Niskanen will remain a big TOI leader in the coming season.
Dmitry Orlov and the Caps have recently settled on a one year, $2.57 million contract after a lengthy dispute, but money or contract term wasn’t the big key to Orlov’s concerns. Orlov wants a bigger role on the team, and wants to get more ice-time instead of being third-line defenseman. The offensive-minded defenseman will get his chance this year to prove himself and maybe sign a longer contract with the squad if he can solidify his spot as a top-four defenseman. He will most likely be paired with either John Carlson or Matt Niskanen this coming season.
Brooks Orpik was a big talking point last season, and for good reason. The 35-year-old was riddled with injuries, and was demoted to the bottom line after underperforming on his return. The former Pittsburgh Penguin has slowed down drastically in recent years, and still has another three seasons left on his contract. There have been talks about him being potentially picked up during the NHL Expansion draft for the new Las Vegas team, but if that doesn’t happen, the Caps will be stuck with his $5.5 million AAV contract through 2019. He will likely be playing on the third defensive pair with Nate Schmidt.
Nate Schmidt is slated for a return to play on the bottom line with Brooks Orpik. The dichotomy between these two players’ playing styles will be key to having a deep third-line. Schmidt has a very fast, stay-at-home style of defense, which is what the Caps need playing faster teams like the Penguins. After playing his most complete season with the Caps last year, logging 72 games and an average of 18 minutes of TOI per game, Schmidt is looking to come back strong and fast.
The Caps also have Taylor Chorney, who stepped up to the plate last season during Carlson’s and Orpik’s injuries, logging 55 games and 6 points, in his most complete NHL season in his 9 year career. Aaron Ness also had his Capitals debut last season, playing 8 games and recording 2 assists, and will probably see some NHL action this season if injuries do occur. Capitals prospect Madison Bowey will be on his last year of his entry-level contract, and after playing a full solid season with the Hershey Bears, will probably make his NHL debut at some point this season. Bowey, who is only 21 years old, logged 25 assists with the Bears last season.
Hopefully the Caps blue line can stay injury free this season, but even if injuries do occur, the team has some reliable backups in their arsenal. The biggest keys to this season will be blue-line speed, defensive zone clearing, and offensive zone playmaking. If the Caps’ defense can excel in these areas of the game, they will be solid this year.
By Justin Green