Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, many media members and fans celebrated the healthy return of defenseman Dmitry Orlov to the Capitals lineup. Orlov, who had posted 19 points in 60 NHL games last season, had started the season in the AHL due to the lockout but had not suited up for the Caps this season. Two concussions suffered in Hershey kept him out of the lineup for 3 months and he only returned to game action a couple weeks ago. While Orlov's return was welcome, the statistic that he represented was not. The Capitals are just 29 games into the NHL season and Orlov is the 12th defenseman they have used because of injuries and poor performance. The Capitals have not had good chances of making the playoffs when they use more than 10 defenders and when their top 4 can't stay healthy. The Capitals had better hope Mike Green comes back healthy tonight, because when the team's top defenders can't stay healthy and get into a rhythm, all parts of the team suffer.
While wingers, checking centers, and even goalies can often come and go through a season without having much of an effect on a team's systems play, teams suffer the most when defensemen rotate through the lineup. Defense in hockey is much like the offensive line in football. Unit cohesion is especially important because defenseman protect the most important player. The defense corps doesn't get a lot of attention unless they screw up, and the offense doesn't work right without them. Nothing is more important for a defenseman in the NHL than positioning, as there is almost no time to make up for mistakes against the biggest and fastest hockey players in the world. A new defenseman learning his place in a system is just, he also needs to know where his partner is going to be for a pass and where the forwards are going to be on the breakout. Even the veteran defensemen have trouble because they no longer can rely on whatever chemistry they had with their injured partner. Another thing about defensemen who substitute in for injured defensemen: they usually weren't on the opening night roster for a reason, and this gets magnified when they substitute in for a top-4 defenseman. People can say injuries are no excuse for losing, but major pro teams sure lose a lot of games when they put minor league defenders in the lineup.
The 2012-13 edition of the Washington Capitals has been struggling to maintain a healthy blueline since the first game of the season. In the first period of the season opener in Tampa, new Capital defenseman Jack Hillen was sent crashing into the boards by Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier, separating his shoulder. The injury forced him to miss the rest of that game along with the next 25. The remaining 5 Capitals defenders were mostly out of shape at this point, with only a week-long training camp and none having played during the lockout, and they were unable to keep a 3-3 hockey game entering the third period from becoming a 6-3 rout for the Bolts.
The next game featured a more normal lineup of 6 defensemen, but two defenders who had suited up for the opener were sitting out. Hillen, with 231 games of NHL experience, and Jeff Schultz (374) were scratched in favor of rookie Tomas Kundratek who would be suiting up for his 6th career game. It was game 2, the Caps had already dressed a total of 8 defensemen, and they lost 4-1. It wasn't until the John Erskine, the 9th defenseman of the season, played in the fourth game (and Hamrlik was scratched) that the Caps actually started picking up points in the standings.
The Capitals are not completely out of the running right now because for the most part they began the season flush with defensemen. When it was obvious Hamrlik wasn't playing well, they stuck in big veteran John Erskine. When the swift puck mover Jack Hillen went down, Tomas Kundratek came in the fill the gap from Hershey. They were also fortunate to get Tom Poti back from his 2 year-long absence with a groin injury, giving their defensive depth an unexpected boost when they needed it most, even if Poti has only played 16 games so far. When Kundratek went down, the Caps were lucky to get Hillen back. And when it became clear Poti was hurt, it was just the right time to recall Dmitry Orlov after his concussion. Steve Oleksy has also been a gem as an undrafted free agent. Not overly large or flashy, he has made simple plays and has fit right in. Even so, the Capitals inability to keep a healthy top 4 and the need to call up the 11th defenseman on the depth chart in Cameron Schilling does not bode well for their playoff chances. The disasters that were the 1996-97, 1998-99 and 2006-07 seasons in Washington are a testament to that.
With an established top four of Mike Green-Karl Alzner and John Carlson-John Erskine, the Capitals have gone 6-3-1. That the team's top four has only played 10 games together out of 29 is troubling enough, but no other player has the effect of John Erskine. The team lost its first 8 games without him, and including the March 9 game when Erskine left in the first few minutes, the Caps are 2-11 without him and have averaged 2 goals per game and have allowed 4 per game against. With Erskine in the lineup, the Caps are 10-5-1, scoring an average of 2.9 goals per game and allowing just 1.9. The defense can be explained in no small part because the penalty kill. The Capitals have allowed the most powerplay goals in the league at 26 and have the league's second-worst kill rate of just 75.9%. Without Erskine, the Capitals have allowed 18 goals on 50 chances, a 64% kill rate. With Erskine, the Capitals have allowed just 8 goals on 58 chances, a kill rate of 86.2% that would have them sitting at 5th in the NHL if kept up throughout the season. It's not magic: besides Steve Oleksy, Erskine is the only Capitals defenseman who averages more than 1.1 hits a game. He still leads all Caps defenders with 43 hits in 17 games, Carlson is second with 32 in 29, and Oleksy is 3rd with 24 hits in just 9 games.
Without Mike Green, the hurt really shows on the powerplay. The Capitals' powerplay is sitting at 3rd in the league at 24.2% (24/99), but they have only gone 6/32 (18.8%) in the last 10 games without Green and 10/42 overall without him (23.8%). This may not seem so bad on the surface, that the team is less than 1% more effective on the powerplay with Green (14/57, 24.6%) than without him, but also consider that all 4 shorthanded goals scored against the Caps this season have come with John Carlson on the ice taking Green's spot on the top powerplay unit. Subtracting the shorthanded goals from the totals, the Caps are really just 6/42 with the extra man without Mike Green, a 14.3% rate, a full 10 points below where they are with him. In 16 games this season, Green has 3 powerplay assists and has helped the Capitals maintain possession even when they're not scoring. This keeps the penalty killers hemmed in their own zone and builds up momentum for the Caps, even when they don't score. Carlson has not been up to the task, posting just one powerplay assist all season. Carlson has repeatedly had trouble keeping the puck in the zone from the point and just as repeatedly passes to Ovechkin's backhand when he's trying to wind up for a one-timer, effectively ruining Ovechkin's shot. Allowing shorthanded goals is a recipe for disaster, and the Capitals have been losing a lot of games lately when a powerplay goal or two might have made the difference. If the Capitals can get Mike Green back healthy tonight, it would significantly improve their chances of winning the special teams' battle.
Since 1996-97, the Capitals have made the playoffs 10 times and missed 6 times. The times the Capitals missed the playoffs were the times they (1) played a large number of defenseman and (2) couldn't keep their top defensemen healthy. Take 1996-97 for example, the Capitals played 12 defensemen, but only one played as many as 66 games and only 3 played over 60. There is also a difference between playing a lot of defensemen by choice and out of necessity: experienced NHL defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn also played 2 games for the Caps that season when he was acquired mid-season, but he was traded again almost as soon as he arrived. The results tell a sad story, the Capitals missed the playoffs by 2 points, and the Capitals did no fare well in the games when they were forced to dig deep into their minor league system because of having so many injuries. The team lost its only game with Patrick Boileau in the lineup and went 1-2-3 with Stew Malgunas.
The 1998-99 season was a disaster for the Capitals on the injury front. A season after making the Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals returned mostly the same team and found themselves selling off their team at the deadline and firing their head athletic trainer after the season. Top defenseman Calle Johansson missed the last 15 games of the season and the team went 2-13 in those games, but the problems started long before then. Sergei Gonchar missed the first quarter of the season while holding out for a new contract and put up 21 goals in 53 games. By the end of the season, the injury troubles got so bad the Capitals had basically called up every defenseman from their AHL team and even some of them got hurt.
Another major instance of this was the 2006-07 season. The Capitals had been rebuilding the roster but were sitting pretty at 15-10-7 entering play on after a win on December 16. The had just played 6 of the previous 7 games without top-4 defenseman Jamie Heward because of a facial injury but did not feel major effects because they were still using their top 7 defenders. The win on 12/16 cost the team the services of 20-minute defenseman John Erskine, who left early in the game with a broken foot, and it began a stretch of 9 games in which the Capitals used 12 different defensemen. Starting with the game on 12/19, the Capitals lost 7 of their next 8 games to fall out of playoff contention at 16-17-7. That 8 game stretch saw the team average 2.25 goals for and 4 goals against, where the previous 9 games had seen the Caps average 4.33 goals for and 3 against. While #1 defender Brian Pothier and de facto #2 Jamie Heward played all 8 games, Heward's ice time kept dropping because of his injuries. Bryan Muir suffered a broken foot on 12/19, forcing converted forward Ben Clymer to skate on defense for a night. Shaone Morrisonn missed a stretch of 4 games with mononucleosis and #5 and #6 defenders Mike Green and Steve Eminger each missed a game with the flu. This forced the Capitals to call up four different defensemen from Hershey who had a total of 18 NHL games worth of experience, a recipe for disaster.
The best seasons for the Caps came when their defensemen were healthy. The 1999-00, 2000-01, and 2007-08 seasons saw the Caps have remarkably a stable blueline. Only 10 or fewer defenders played for the Caps each season, and usually the extra defenders were by choice. 1999-00 saw the Caps top 6 each play at least 59 games, but the top 5 all played at least 73. The next season the top 5 all played at least 68 games, and the top 4 all played 72 or more. On top of that, the 3 other defensemen who played at least 29 games were all veterans, as was the 9th D who was a trade deadline depth acquisition (5 games). The 2007-08 season saw the Caps carry 8 defenders and only use 9. The defense saw a major player get hurt in Brian Pothier halfway through the year, but the other defensemen were so healthy that the #8 defenseman only saw 20 games. The 5 remaining top-6 defenders all played at least 71 games, and the #7 played 51. The Caps won their division each time.
From an historical perspective, unless the Capitals get healthy in a hurry, their playoff chances do not look too good this year. John Erskine is the linchpin of the defense and the team badly needs him to get back into the lineup. They may be able to get by with the rest of their top-7 healthy to pick up the slack, but they're going to need to start winning now.