Does Defense Win Championships? Let’s take a Closer Look at the Washington Capitals’ Defensive Pairings

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) skates off the ice with defenseman John Carlson (74), defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) and defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) after the New York Rangers scored in overtime to win Game 5 in the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs, Friday, May 8, 2015, in New York. The Rangers won 2-1. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

There has been a good amount of discussion around the changes and flexibility we’ll see this season in our offensive lines. In last night’s season opener, against the reining Stanley Cup Champions, our second line, or what most are referring to as the “Tre Kroner” line showed off their stuff, and then some with Andre Burakovsky reaching the back of the net, twice!

We can have the strongest of offensive lines, but many say that championship seasons come to fruition with a solid core of defense and that “good defense leads to good offense”  – so why is it that we don’t hear nearly as much about the league’s defensive pairings as we do about those offensive lines? This season, NoVa Caps wants to give a fair share of attention to our defense. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at our defensive pairings and our three defensive pairs of: Alzner & Niskanen | Carlson & Orlov | Oprik & Schmidt, which are discussed below.



Alzner – Niskanen
This reliable pair look to stick together as the “top shut down pair” for the Caps this season, even though Trotz mentioned he might break them up this past summer. Last season, “Iron Man” Karl Alzner and “Nisky” Matt Niskanen spent nearly 90% of their time on ice with each other, which might constitute as a marriage in some Canadian cities. It’s understandable as to why they are staying together, they are arguably one of the best shut down pairs in the game.

Between the 1st and 2nd series of this past year’s second round playoffs, they held Claude Girioux and Sidney Crosby to a total of ONE even strength point and that came from a Crosby assist on a goal that shot off Daley’s stick, hit Alzner’s leg, and knuckled into the net (lucky goal).

Karl-Alzner-Washington-Capitals-close-up-practice.jpgAlzner has an iron man streak going but did leave the last couple games of the Pittsburgh series early due to a groin injury. He had sports hernia surgery this past summer but appears to be 100% and ready for the 2016-2017 season. If Alzner can stay healthy throughout the year this pairing should be just as reliable as last season.

In a recent (May 26th) interview with Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, Karl had this to say of his line-mate: “Nisky is a phenomenal defenseman. He’s the guy that gets overlooked sometimes because you don’t really realize how valuable he is until he’s on your team and you see him everyday. … He’s just a guy that does the right things all of the time. If he’s on the team, they’re going to have a better chance to win.

matt-niskanen-team-usa-warmups-jpgAlso look for Niskanen to add to his point total from last year (32!). He has talked a lot about jumping up to the play more this season and showed it a lot in preseason.

Possession Thoughts: As stated, this pair spent a lot of time together exclusively going against other teams top players night in and night out, so their CorsiFor% of 49.85 isn’t bad at all, it’s actually surprisingly good. With the team getting faster and more aggressive, that pairing should still stifle top players and up their possession numbers.

[Corsi For % = Number of Shot Attempts (Defensive Pair)/Total Number (both teams) of Shot Attempts When Players were On The Ice] A % > 55 is considered to be very good.]


This should be a very interesting pair to watch this season and there certainly was a lot of discussion in regards to Orlov during the off-season. His contract wasn’t finalized until just prior to the start of the pre-season, and there were numerous rumors that he may opt to play in Russia this season. There’s no doubt that this pair have all the offensive capability in the world, but the question remains how they will do defensively.

John-Carlson-Washington-Capitals.jpgCarlson has always been known as a good 2-way defensemen, but he is obviously much better in the offensive zone. Orlov does not have the same reputation, he is known solely as an offensive defensemen (a good one at that) that can be a bit scary in the defensive zone. But Trotz, and anyone else who watched, was quite impressed with Orlov’s play on Team Russia in the World Cup tournament.

dmitry-orlovOrlov showed his offensive skills, but also looked to have improved his defensive game while taking on top pairing minutes against the world’s most elite players. He put up his best numbers last season with 29 points on the bottom pairing with just about 0 power play time. If Orlov sticks with Carlson (55 points), both could see career high in stats, it’s a matter of taking care of their own end so they get more scored goals for than against.

Possession Thoughts: The Orlov-Carlson pairing didn’t spend too much time together last season, just barely 30 minutes, but the numbers are promising. Their CorsiFor% came in at a strong 54%. If those two can keep those numbers going throughout this upcoming season, as stated, they could have a big offensive year.

Brooks-orpik-washington-capitals.jpgWith the promotion of Orlov there had to be a demotion and Orpik drew the short straw. Orpik, our Assistant Captain at 36 years old may be declining in performance, but he still provides value and leadership to the team, and to the bottom pairing. He should slide in nicely with Nate where they’ll face lesser competition instead of facing high-end players with elite speed that use him like a traffic cone. He’ll also be able to play back to allow the quick skating, offensive defensemen and his pairing mate, Nate Schmidt to move up the ice to create some scoring chances, his biggest asset.

nate_schmidt-washington-capitals-jpgThis is also a significant year for Schmidt since it’s a contract year for him. If Schmidt can prove that he, like Orlov, can play 2nd pairing minutes he could find himself there next season if Orlov moves on due to the expansion, etc. Both Schmidt and Orlov had a tough last couple months of the season and playoffs, but experience pays dividends so hopefully they’ve both learned.

Possession Thoughts: Surprisingly, there are no possession stats available on an Orpik-Schmidt pairing so they must have spent very, very little time together last season. I would guess they would not have been great together since Schmidt-Weber (an Orpik type player) had a terrible 36.76 CorsiFor%, though that was a small sample of almost 43 minutes.

Something that could help to boost their percentage is playing Schmidt on the left side since he is more creative and would need his forehand more coming out of the zone to create chances. Orpik on the other hand doesn’t create a lot, so he should be fine on his backhand.

By Luke Adomanis

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