COMMENTARY | The Washington Capitals went into the offseason with two glaring holes on their roster. They addressed the second line center with the signing of Mikhail Grabovski, but there is still the major question of who will round out the top four on defense.
Until this weakness is addressed, the Capitals can never be true contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Looking at the Capitals' defensive roster, the top three is very clear. Mike Green, the two-time Norris Trophy candidate for the NHL's best all-around defensemen, is the best blue-liner on the team in terms of skill.
He is complimented nicely by Karl Alzner who is the Capitals' best defensive player. He has established himself as a dependable shut-down defenseman capable of handling top-line minutes and top-line opponents. His defensive acumen allows for Green to push the puck offensively without leaving the team too vulnerable to a counterattack.
John Carlson had a very slow start last season, but silenced any doubters as the season wore on with his play on the blue line. Though more offensively minded, he still shows defensive ability worthy of the second pairing.
Green, Alzner, and Carlson could rival the top three defensemen of any team in the NHL. This is a very solid foundation for the Capitals defense. The problem is who to pair with Carlson.
With three more spots to fill, the Capitals must choose between Connor Carrick, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and Steve Oleksy. Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek also could potentially be added to this list, but both have been sent down to Hershey.
The Capitals may have plenty of depth on defense, but they lack anyone capable of rounding out the top four.
John Erskine filled this role last season, ranking fourth among defensemen on the team with a career-high in average ice time per game . He seemed to excel at the role initially, having arguably his best season with the Capitals.
And then…the playoffs happened.
The Capitals have a history of early playoff exits and last year's first round defeat to the New York Rangers was no exception. Washington allowed 16 goals in the seven game series and Erskine was on the ice for eight.
Obviously he was not directly at fault for all eight of those goals. Hockey plays are complex and it is hard to assign blame for each play, but this remains a telling statistic. Erskine showed a lack of speed and positioning throughout the series, often trailing behind the play when New York countered or out of position in his own end. That is unacceptable from a top four defenseman.
While it may seem clear that Erskine is not good enough for the top four, head coach Adam Oates clearly thinks otherwise.
"He's not losing his job. He's not," Oates said of Erskine after the Capitals preseason game in Philadelphia. "It's not even up for grabs. He's top four on our team."
Oates' public vote of confidence may have more to do with the Capitals' limited options, however, rather than his confidence in Erskine's abilities.
General manager George McPhee did not make any major offseason moves on defense with the only acquisition being that of Tyson Strachan. Strachan appeared to be more of a minor league addition or depth player and has already been re-assigned to Hershey .
If you assume that Oates will keep Green and Alzner as the top pairing, and there is no reason why he would not, then the Capitals will need a partner for Carlson. Oates traditionally likes to pair left-shooting defensemen with right-shooting defensemen for balance. As Carlson shoots right, possible partners include only Erskine and Hillen. Hillen is more of an offensive-minded player, meaning the only real fit is the more defensively oriented Erskine.
So while the Capitals have a great top three and tons of depth, they still lack that fourth man.
Many hoped that Orlov would continue to develop and eventually take over that role, but he has already been re-assigned to Hershey. He has great potential which he flashed in the 2011-2012 season during his 60 games with the Capitals. Then, he suffered a concussion in December of 2012 and just has not looked the same.
Without Orlov, the Capitals are stuck with Erskine for the time being. The Capitals are already tight against the salary cap with the addition of Tom Wilson to the roster, there is just no room to address the problem on defense.
Will one player matter all that much? For the regular season, perhaps not. The Capitals finished last year as one of the hottest teams in the league winning 11 of their last 13 games with Erskine. The Caps might be able to survive in the regular season, but in the playoffs when the level of competition rises, teams take advantage of an overmatched Erskine.
Look at the defensemen on the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks from last year's Stanley Cup Finals. You would be hard-pressed to replace any of the 12 with Erskine.
Not only should he not be a top four defensemen, on championship quality teams he would struggle to make the top six.
The so-called 'young guns' have already reached the upper twenties; the Capitals' championship window will not remain open forever. If this team hopes to make a deep postseason run, the problems on defense must be addressed.
The playoffs have shown that despite how dangerous the Capitals are offensively, they will only go as far as the defense allows them. The defense as it is now is not nearly good enough.
JJ Regan is earning a master's degree in journalism at American University and is a currently a freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- Washington Capitals
- John Erskine