COMMENTARY| At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, defense stood out as a major weakness for the Washington Capitals as they lacked mid-level depth. Some early season injuries contributed to that problem, yet the stand-ins head coach Adam Oates has used have played key roles in the Capitals' current surge up the standings. Are the Capitals more set along the blue line than they originally thought?
Heading into the season, the Capitals had no answer as to who was their number four defenseman. They had top-level talent in Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and John Carlson and they had plenty of depth, but they lacked that final player to round out the top four; they were missing that mid-level defensive talent.
Curiously, the early season solution seemed to be to ignore last season's playoff performance and plug John Erskine into the top four. That experiment came to an end when a lingering upper-body injury forced the Capitals to place Erskine on long-term injured reserve . An early season injury to Jack Hillen further restricted the Capitals' already limited options. The team had to look to their less experienced depth players to fill out their lineup. Could the Capitals manage to tread water with so many depth players on the blue line?
They did much better than that. With their 4-1 win over St. Louis Sunday night, the Capitals moved into first place in the Metropolitan division. They are 7-1-1 in the month of November and have outscored their opponents 32-20 during that stretch. They did not do it by shielding those recent additions.
Nate Schmidt was called up from Hershey after Erskine was placed on IR. Since then, the 22-year-old has played 17 games and averaged 19:07 minutes of ice time per game. That's more than the 16:54 that Erskine, the supposed number four, was averaging.
Just as the season began, the Capitals claimed the 22-year-old Alex Urbom off waivers. Prior to this season, Urbom had played only 14 NHL games. With the Capitals, he has already played 15 games this season and is averaging 15:03 minutes.
With the Capitals now enjoying so much success with these replacement players, are they better off defensively than perhaps they had originally thought?
As well as the team has played lately, defense still remains a position of need. The Capitals rank 20 th in the NHL in goals allowed per game despite having the second best penalty kill. This team is winning despite its defense, not because of it.
That's not to suggest that Schmidt and Urbom are not contributing. Schmidt has three assists and plays very strong positional hockey. He rarely gets caught out of position and holds the offensive blue line very well. Urbom has a goal and an assist. He has a rocket for a shot and it is a wonder he does not have more assists with the type of rebound opportunities he can create. If he can work on his accuracy, he will be very dangerous every time he steps into the offensive zone.
The problem is that both of these players are still learning. Both are 22 years old and have yet to fully grasp the NHL level of play. Both have, at times, appeared timid in their own zone. Urbom also struggles in the offensive zone where he seems to play with reckless abandon at times, firing the puck in the general vicinity of the net but usually nowhere close to getting it actually on-net.
Right now, the Capitals can get by with a subpar defense because of how well they are playing both on offense and on special teams. The problem, however, is what happens when a weak defensive Capitals team reaches the playoffs?
And that's really what it is all about now after years of postseason failures.
Are these two going to somehow become less timid if they see ice time in April or May? Of course, Oates' hope is that will not be necessary with the return of Erskine and Hillen, but that's the point: when those two return, Schmidt and Urbom will see much less ice time at the NHL level, if any. It is hard to argue the Capitals are set defensively if these two players won't even play come April.
These guys are replacements and have done very well in that role, but they do not make up for the lack of a number four defensemen. They prove that this team has plenty of defensive depth, but that's something we already knew coming into the season.
JJ Regan is a freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and is earning his master's in journalism at American University. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
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