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Green Bluelines and Dog Days

We’re finally into the back nine of another summer that’s longer than we’d like it to be. Less than a month from now, we’ll have practices and scrimmages to write about. Until then, we’ll look forward a bit and look back a lot. Over the course of the summer to date, we’ve spent some time in this space looking at summers past and seasons past. Thinking back to the busy month of August five years ago, one of the stark differences between then and now is the amount of coverage available to Caps fans and hockey fans in general. Newspapers were still king in 2005, but we’ve come a long way since. Last month’s summer camp was given the blanket coverage treatment by many wise, pithy and capable bloggers, many of which also possess cameras and keen eyes. Since then, we’ve been treated to much more of the same even without any “actual” hockey to cover. I enjoyed Russian Machine Never Breaks’ take on which of the 2009-10 Hershey Bears should enjoy NHL success at some point. As a guy who has believed for a while now that Chris Bourque belonged somewhere in the NHL, it was good to see some numbers that point to a similar conclusion. Last week, the incomparable Peerless posted a piece on blueline experience. He analyzed the backlines of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions, and compared them to what the 2010-11 Caps blueline looks like at this point. Shortly thereafter, a post from A Capital Offense expounded on this topic a bit further. The discussion of blueline experience is near and dear to me. I spent a good bit of last summer researching the blueline corps of the Stanley Cup champs of the post-expansion era. Peerless did a great job of breaking down each team’s blueline, looking for similarities, and he also broke down the amount of regular season experience each defenseman had with the championship team, noting that the 2007 Anaheim Ducks had several experienced NHL defensemen who were relative newcomers to the Ducks. The Capital Offense turned back the clock a bit further, seeking to find the Cup-winning defense from the last 30 years that is most similar to Washington’s current blueline mix. Capital Offense identified the 1980 Islanders and the 1984 Oilers among the teams with less regular season blueline experience than the current Caps. That’s true, but the league was different in those days because the NHL was still relatively recently removed from massive expansion. Here’s what I mean. When the Isles won in 1980, they did so in a league that had gone from six to 21 teams in a span of 13 years. That process (plus the presence of the rival World Hockey Association from 1972-79) created many more “major league” blueline jobs and had a downward effect on the average blueline experience around the league. The 1966-67 Toronto Maple Leafs copped the last Stanley Cup of the Original Six era. They did so with a group of five defensemen (three of which were [/caption] holdovers from the team’s run of three straight Cups from 1962-64) that entered the playoffs that season with 4.202 career regular season games played. Remember, this was during an era in which teams only played 70 games per season. Teams also dressed only four or five defensemen a night in those days. Those five Leafs blueliners averaged better than 800 regular season games played per man. Even though the 1965-66 Montreal Canadiens won the Cup with a much less-experienced blueline corps, the Habs averaged more games played per defenseman than many of the Cup winners from 1968-80. The league began to solidify after the addition of the four WHA clubs in 1979-80, and even when another round of expansion occurred in the 1990s, the blueline experience level of Cup-winning teams did not dip. The Caps’ current top six of Tom Poti, John Erskine, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner and John Carlson enters the season with a total of 1,747 career games played. Assuming those six skaters add another 420 games (an average of 70 games each) over the course of the upcoming season, they’ll surpass the total of 2,148 of the 2009-10 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Peerless’ point was to show the Caps would be well served by signing veteran free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell. And The Capital Offense piece reassured Caps fans that Washington can compete for a Cup next spring in spite of a rather green blueline. I agree with both of them, and I’m just chiming in with some context and adding this: in 2010-11, the NHL will be 10 seasons removed from its most recent expansion. The last time the league could make that claim was in 1989-90. It’s great to have so many insightful, interesting and provocative hockey pieces to read every day. Especially the dog days.