Blueline Musical Chairs

The Washington Capitals will soon be faced with a situation the most other GM’s in the NHL would love to face; an over-abundance of defenseman.  The Capitals are currently without the services of Mike Green and Tom Poti, but all reports have them slated to return by the start of the playoffs at the latest.  If this holds true, the Capitals will have nine….count it, nine defenseman on their roster.  The Caps’ coaching staff and more specifically Bob Woods will have their work cut out on determining who sees game action, and who keeps warm in the press box.

Mike Green will likely be out another two weeks.  If I am Bruce Boudreau or George McPhee,  Green doesn’t play until the last week of the regular season.  There is no need to play him and risk further injury, especially since it is a head injury Green is dealing with.  Green initially took a Brooks Orpik slapshot to the side of the head, and then was on the receiving end of an elbow from Rangers forward Derek Stepan.  Again, if I’m Boudreau I shut down Green until the last week of the regular season.  This will negate further injury to Green and give him a few games to get back into form for the playoffs.  Mike Green will play a key role in how successful the Caps are in the playoffs.

 Tom Poti is also on the shelf battling brittle groin syndrome.  Poti has been nursing a groin injury for the past month.  Poti is skating and is hoping to get back into the lineup in the near future.  Poti has been key piece of the puzzle on the penalty kill, and is always noted for his puck moving ability.  For an offense that has struggled for the past two months of the season, Poti’s ability to outlet the puck to the forwards has been missed. 

 So with the injuries to Green and Poti, George McPhee went out at the deadline and picked up Florida Panthers defenseman, Dennis Wideman.  Wideman is a puck moving power play specialist.  This is just what the Capitals needed to offset the loss of their two best puck movers, one of which was the power play quarterback.  Wideman has been strong in each of first three games with the Caps.  He led the team in total ice time in his first game, and has been eating up minutes in the other two.  He has averaged 23.67 minutes and is a +3 in those games.  Wideman is also signed through the 2012 season, so he is not a rental.

 But what this does is create quite the log jam on the blueline once Green and Poti return to action.  As previously mentioned, the Capitals will have nine defensemen on the roster. 

 The Caps will likely play six defensemen.  So who will sit?

 In order to answer this question, it’s easier to point out who is going to play.  We all know Mike Green will be in the lineup.  He is part of the core, and an elite puck moving defenseman in the NHL.  He brings the offensive upside that has defined the Caps over the past three seasons.  We also know that Scott Hannan will have a spot.  McPhee traded for Hannan for this purpose; his leadership and veteran experience.  He brings playoff experience as well.  Karl Alzner and John Carlson will have spots in the lineup.  They have arguably been the Caps’ best defensive pair all season long.  John Carlson moves the puck well and has the heavy shot from the point, while Alzner has really taken form as a legitimate shutdown defenseman in the NHL.  Both are in their first full season with the Capitals, but neither has succumbed to the pressures of the NHL.  Dennis Wideman will also have a spot.  He was brought here to rescue the Capitals’ power play which has plummeted to 25th in the NHL.  What a difference a year makes as the Capitals finished last season with the best power play in the league.  Wideman’s presence on the power play will hopefully allow Ovechkin to move down on the power play.  I feel Ovechkin is more effective on the left circle or down low, as opposed to on the point.

 So this leaves us with Jeff Shultz, Tom Poti, John Erskine, and Tyler Sloan.

 The Tyler Sloan issue should be dealt with rather easily.  Sloan should be in the AHL with the Hershey Bears.  He has the second worst relative plus-minus (-1.46) of any of the nine defensemen…by a long shot.  Sloan also has the worst Corsi rating on the team.  He also has the worst on-ice +/- of any of the nine defensemen.  Sloan is a borderline NHLer who will finally be squeezed from the lineup due the new found depth the Capitals have at defense.

 So the battle for the sixth spot on the blueline will be between Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, and John Erksine.

 A case could be made for any of the three remaining.  John Erskine certainly brings playoff mentality to the lineup.  He brings blue collar work ethic to the lineup, along with shut down qualities.  He will always stick up for his teammates, he’ll drop the gloves whenever necessary, and he will make opposing forwards pay the price in the crease.  He has been one of the team’s most improved defenseman from a season ago.  He is just the type of defenseman a team wants in the playoffs.  But Erskine has some liabilities as well.  He certainly isn’t the team’s best defenseman in his own zone, and when a team is struggling offensively like the Caps are, that poses a significant risk.

 Jeff Schultz isn’t having the year he had last year, but who on the Capitals is?  It’s been a down year for just about everyone on the roster.  Statistically, Schultz is a middle-of-the-road defenseman.  He isn’t making the egregious errors in his own zone, but every so often he’ll make a play that leaves you scratching your head.  One thing Schultz does well though is the breakout pass out of the defensive zone.  He has a knack for this and its benefits the team tremendously.  Schultz is a big body, which you can’t have too much of.  He also has the best chemistry with Mike Green, who will be back in a couple of weeks.  That alone may be reason enough to keep him in the lineup.  The play of Mike Green holds incredible weight on the Caps success.

 And last but not least you have Tom Poti.  Poti hasn’t played since January 12.  The big question mark here is whether Poti will ever be 100% this season.  His season has been injury plagued.  With so much riding on what happens in the post season, it certainly wouldn’t be prudent to add a player to the lineup who isn’t 100%.  There is too much depth on this team to risk that.  The only way Poti gets back into the lineup is if he is completely healthy.  Poti earns his stripes on the penalty kill.  He is behind only Hannan and Schultz for penalty kill minutes per 60, and has been on the ice for just three goals against on the PK.  Granted, he has missed a lot of time this season – but in all his time in DC he has been a solid penalty killer.  Poti also brings an element to the power play.  He’s great passer and puck mover.  But the addition of Wideman may leave Poti as the odd man out.

 It will be interesting to see how Boudreau plays his hand.  He has more than enough options to choose from.  Perhaps he goes with a rotation between Schultz, Poti, and Erskine.  One thing for sure though is that continuity will be a key when the playoffs start.  I’m not sold that rotating these guys in and out of the lineup is a means to achieving that continuity. 

Follow me on Twitter: @JCScriven

Email: cordmeister1@gmail.com

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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.

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