NBC Sports Washington
While it was widely expected that the Capitals’ defensive corps would face some challenges in the 2017-18 season after the losses of multiple key defensemen this past offseason, the situation the unit is currently facing is somewhat of a shock just eight games into the season. Top 4 defenseman Matt Niskanen was placed on long-term injured reserve sevaral days ago, and the Capitals have been forced to replace him with rookie Madison Bowey, who, although showing flashes of his potential, has struggled at times to contain opposing forwards. Fellow rookie Christian Djoos Christian Djoos has played better, but the unit has struggled in what could be one of the team’s true tests this season.
Niskanen was placed on long-term injured reserve on October 14, and per NHL rules, must miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days, and has already missed seven days and three games, two of which the Caps have lost. On the season as a whole, the Capitals have allowed 27 goals against, or 3.38 goals against per game, which ranks 26th and 22nd in the NHL. The Capitals’ defensive depth took a major hit this past offseason, as they lost Top 4 blueliners Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner, and Kevin Shattenkirk to the Expansion Draft (Schmidt) and free agency (Alzner, Shattenkirk), respectively, leaving them without much Top 4 rearguards with NHL experience, save for John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and 37-year old veteran Brooks Orpik, who is better suited to a role as a third-pairing blueliner.
While the Capitals have veteran blueliner Taylor Chorney, he is more of a depth defenseman than an everyday player. To cushion the loss of the aforementioned players, the Caps currently have been rotating Chorney, Aaron Ness, Bowey, and Djoos into the lineup. However, the two rookies have had to deal with their fair share of struggles as rookies in their first true taste of NHL action. In three games played, Bowey has averaged 15:04 minutes of ice time, while recording a minus-2 rating, and a Corsi rating of just 42.2%. However, the Caps have started play in the offensive zone 68.8% of the time he is on the ice. Meanwhile, Djoos has played in five games, scoring one goal and adding an assist for two points with an even-rating and has also averaged 15:04 minutes of ice time, with an impressive 58.4 Corsi rating.
While both have not played anywhere close to horrendous, sooner or later it’s likely that both players will experience the struggles with the daily grind and fast pace of the NHL that most young players experience at some point or another in their first NHL action. As a result, the Caps have needed veterans such as Carlson and Orpik, as well as Orlov, to step up in the absence of Niskanen. Carlson has averaged a career-high 26:20 of ice time a night, and has seen his role increase dramatically. Head Coach Barry Trotz has stated his expectation that Carlson will become the go-to defenseman for the Caps. Carlson has yet to score a goal, but has recorded five assists in eight games played. Orlov has struggled somewhat through the first eight games played in the season, recording just one assist and a minus-2 rating, with a 45.8 Corsi rating, but is expected to rebound. Perhaps the most criticized of the Caps’ defensemen (whether warranted or not), Orpik has recorded one assist, averaging 21:47 minutes of ice time a night, with a respectable minus-1 rating, and leads the Capitals with 18 blocked shots and 24 hits.
While the Caps have managed to fare relatively well with the loss of Niskanen, the big question is whether or not Bowey and Djoos will be able to continue playing as well as they have to this point over the next week or so. The Capitals’ defense is currently in a situation that, while not a complete crisis, will prove to be an early test for a weaker blueline that has not had to deal with a problem like this for the last few seasons.
By Michael Fleetwood