With a quarter of the 2016-17 NHL season complete, the Capitals are once again one of the NHL’s best teams. Coming into the season, the Caps’ defensive unit was one of the best in the NHL, with players like John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner headlining the blueline, and young up-and-comers Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt providing promise for the future. NoVa Caps is reviewing the blueline at the quarter-mark.
In order to truly evaluate the blueline, we will be taking a look at each individual player’s performance so far this season. Only TWO of the team’s defensemen (Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov) have found the back of the net this season, something that the Caps hope improves, as they partially rely on offensive production from the blueline.
Current Stat line: 21 GP, 0 G, 8 A, +3 rating
Analysis: Coming into this season as the Capitals’ best all-around blueliner, Carlson has vastly under-performed in the first quarter of the season, with just eight assists in his first 21 games. He has received a large amount of criticism this season and rightfully so. While his offensive performance has been subpar, he has also struggled with decision-making this season, and has 26 giveaways to just eight takeaways thus far, an inexcusable amount for a defenseman of his caliber. Some have attributed his poor offensive start to playing with an equally offensive-minded Orlov, but Carlson sees plenty of chances on the power play, so playing with Orlov is not entirely to blame.
Current Stat line: 21 GP, 0 G, 9 A, +2 rating
Analysis: Already in his third season with the Caps, Niskanen has proven to be a steady two-way rearguard once again. While he too remains without a goal, he has played far better defensively than Carlson this season, as he has fewer turnovers and isn’t as reckless when decision-making. While he too could stand to improve his offensive numbers, Niskanen has evolved into a well-rounded defensive player as well. Like Carlson, his offensive numbers should start to improve, but overall, he has had a good start to the season.
Current Stat line: 21 GP, 2 G, 2 A, +7 rating
Analysis: As the Caps’ best shutdown defender, Alzner is off to an excellent start in a contract year. Through 21 games, he is on pace for a career-high eight goals and a respectable 16 points. One of only two Caps defensemen to score a goal this year, Alzner has continued to impress defensively, as he ranks second on the Caps in blocked shots, and third among skaters in average ice time. As mentioned before, Alzner is in the final year of his current contract and if he continues his stout play, will set himself up for a nice raise from his current $2.8 million salary.
Current Stat line: 21 GP, 0 G, 5 A, +8 rating
Analysis: Despite seemingly endless criticism after he struggled in last year’s playoffs, Orpik has continued to be a solid stay-at-home at the age of 36. Despite a reduced role this season, Orpik leads the Caps in blocked shots and is second in plus/minus. While he does make mistakes occasionally, he is usually able to rebound quickly and make sound defensive plays. He is second on the team in hits and ranks 12th in average ice time. Orpik’s play thus far is promising for the Caps.
Current Stat line: 21 GP, 1 G, 6 A, +6 rating
Analysis: After a promising year in which he finished with 29 points last season, Orlov has seen a bigger role this season, playing alongside John Carlson. He is averaging 19:07 minutes a night, good enough for sixth-most on the Caps, and is enjoying a fantastic start to the season, with seven points in his first 21 games. At his current pace, he would finish with four goals, and 23 assists. After struggling defensively last season, Orlov has made big strides, as he has moved the puck much better out of his own zone and made better decisions with the puck. After signing a one-year contract this past summer, Orlov’s nice start could end with him getting a nice raise come June.
Current Stat line: 18 GP, 0 G, 5 A, +1 rating
Analysis: After having a large role due to injuries to key defensemen last season, Schmidt’s workload has expectedly decreased with the return of a healthy blueline. Playing on a third-pairing with the veteran Orpik, Schmidt has become one of the Caps’ most consistent two-way defensemen. While he may not put up the offensive totals expected of Orlov, Carlson, or Niskanen, Schmidt has become more involved in the offensive rush, and as a result, should see his offensive numbers steadily improve over the course of the season. While mostly solid on defense, Schmidt does make occasional mistakes. However, his play thus far is encouraging, considering that the Caps risk losing Alzner to free agency after the season.
Current Stat line: 3 GP, 0 G, 1 A, +1 rating
Analysis: Coming into last season, Chorney was a longtime journeyman, who never managed to find his footing in the NHL. However, due to injuries in the lineup and his own consistent play, Chorney established himself as a solid defenseman who played a good defensive game; this resulted in a two-year contract extension. So far this season, Chorney hasn’t managed to get into the lineup too much, with the six blueliners in front of him playing well. However, in the three games he has dressed in, Chorney has played exceptionally well and despite little playing time, has not shown a bit of rust. As the season progresses, it’s likely that Chorney will see more games, but for now, he’s a reliable seventh defenseman that Head Coach Barry Trotz can call upon when needed.
Overall, the defense has played well through the first quarter of the season. However, the Caps need more offensive productivity from the point, Carlson and Niskanen in particular. If the Caps want to have a chance to win every night, they’ll need their highest paid blueliners to step up offensively when they need it. The blueline was once a weakness for the Caps, but it has now become one of their many strengths.
Overall Grade: B+
By Michael Fleetwood