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.