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Caps Are Green on the Blueline

December 6, 2013

Based on the make-up of the NHL’s opening night rosters for the 2013-14 NHL season, the Caps came in with an average age of 27.2 years, which is more than a half a year below the league average of 27.8. The Caps started the season tied (with Ottawa) for the circuit’s eighth youngest roster.


Defenseman Patrick Wey was recalled yesterday from AHL Hershey. If he gets into the lineup, the 22-year-old Pittsburgh native would be the 11th player with fewer than 100 games worth of NHL experience to suit up for the Capitals this season.


Several of those players joined the Caps after the start of the season, which has likely lowered the team’s average age even further. That group includes 22-year-old goaltender Philipp Grubauer and 22-year-old defensemen Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Alexander Urbom. All four of those players are on the Washington roster as of Friday morning’s practice session.


Where Washington is decidedly green is on its blueline, perhaps the most precarious position in which to be green. An analysis of the top six defensemen for each of the 30 NHL teams over the first third of the 2013-14 season reveals that the Capitals’ defense corps ranks 29th of the 30 teams in the league in terms of total regular season games played in the league.


The analysis was a very unscientific one; I simply took each team’s six most frequently used defensemen – strictly in terms of games played this season – and totaled the total regular season games played for each of those groups of defensemen. The games played totals are through games of Nov. 26.


1.     San Jose Sharks 3,727

2.     Dallas Stars 3,178

3.     St. Louis Blues 2,936

4.     Philadelphia Flyers 2,927

5.     Montreal Canadiens 2,780

6.     Los Angeles Kings 2,775

7.     Chicago Blackhawks 2,643

8.     Tampa Bay Lightning 2,629

9.     Phoenix Coyotes 2,530

10.  Florida Panthers 2,415

11.  Calgary Flames 2,392

12.  Pittsburgh Penguins 2,329

13.  Boston Bruins 2,246

14.  Colorado Avalanche 2,102

15. Vancouver Canucks 2,051

16. Winnipeg Jets 2,050

17. New Jersey Devils 2,027

18. Ottawa Senators 1,926

19. Edmonton Oilers 1,892

20. New York Rangers 1,846

21. Buffalo Sabres 1,836

22. Columbus Blue Jackets 1,726

23. Anaheim Ducks 1,660

24. Toronto Maple Leafs 1,561

25. Carolina Hurricanes 1,429

26. Detroit Red Wings 1,405

27. Minnesota Wild 1,180

28. Nashville Predators 1,105

29. Washington Capitals 1,099

30. New York Islanders 792



For a few games while Mike Green was out of the lineup with a lower body injury, the Caps were dressing a group of blueliners that had just over 600 games played in the league. At the tender age of 25 and with fewer than 300 games in the NHL, Karl Alzner was the greybeard of that bunch. Washington defeated the Red Wings in Detroit and St. Louis on home ice but fell to the Penguins at Verizon Center in the three games that Green missed.


Washington Capitals (1,099): Mike Green (454), Karl Alzner (287), John Carlson (258), Steve Oleksy (48), Alexander Urbom (32), Nate Schmidt (20).


Also: John Erskine (461), Jack Hillen (255), Tyson Strachan (125), Connor Carrick (3).


If not for the injuries to Erskine and Hillen, the Caps’ total would be about 50 percent higher, but still in the bottom third of the league. Erskine (lower body) appears to be slowly nearing a return to the lineup, but Hillen is still months away from returning.


A possible side effect of the Caps’ young group of defensemen is the sheer number of shots the opposition has taken at the Washington net this season. The Capitals are surrendering an average of 35 shots per game, tied with Buffalo for 28th in the NHL. Only Toronto (36.6) has allowed more shots per game.


It doesn’t have to be that way. Nashville (13th in NHL with an average of 29.6 shots against) and Minnesota (second in the league with just 24.7 shots allowed per game) are the teams directly ahead of the Caps in terms of blueline experience, and they’re both more than holding their own as far as merely limiting shots against.


If you look at Corsi numbers (pct. of all shot attempts taken) in 5-on-5 close situations, Minnesota ranks ninth at 52.5% and Nashville is 23rd at 48.4%, just behind the Capitals who are 22nd with 48.5%.


If you look at overall Corsi numbers, you’ll see that New Jersey has the lowest level of experience among the top eight teams (the ones ahead of Minnesota). The Devils rank fifth in the league in Corsi despite ranking 17th overall in blueline experience.


On the other hand, Phoenix (ninth in experience) and Calgary (11th) are both bottom five teams in terms of Corsi.


Teams dress 18 skaters, and only six of them are defensemen. So yeah, the forwards are absolutely going to have an impact on a team’s Corsi performance, too. But if we take this a step further and look at the makeup of past Stanley Cup playoff champions on the blueline, we see the Caps – unless they’re counting on being an outlier a la the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens – probably need to bolster the blueline in terms of experience before they can seriously consider contending for the Cup.


Here are the six most frequently used defensemen for each of the last 26 Stanley Cup champions. The six players listed are the six that played in the most playoff games for their team that spring; the regular season preceding it is not taken into account at all.


Game totals for each player do include regular season totals only, and are totaled right up to the start of that spring’s playoffs. I started with 1986-87, because it’s the first season in which the current total of 16 wins was required to claim the Cup.


1986-87 Edmonton Oilers (2,421): Kevin Lowe (614), Paul Coffey (532), Charlie Huddy (418), Reijo Ruotsalainen (405), Randy Gregg (333), Steve Smith (119).


1987-88 Edmonton Oilers (2,012): Kevin Lowe (684), Charlie Huddy (495), Randy Gregg (348), Steve Smith (198), Craig Muni (170), Jeff Beukeboom (117).


1988-89 Calgary Flames (2,963): Rob Ramage (755), Brad McCrimmon (747), Al MacInnis (449), Jamie Macoun (392), Rick Nattress (331) Dana Murzyn (289)


1989-90 Edmonton Oilers (2,688): Kevin Lowe (838), Charlie Huddy (641), Randy Gregg (453), Reijo Ruotsalainen (446), Craig Muni (310).


1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins (3,383): Gordie Roberts (900), Larry Murphy (860), Paul Coffey (809), Ulf Samuelsson (477), Peter Taglianetti (262), Paul Stanton (75).


1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins (3,037): Gordie Roberts (973), Larry Murphy (937), Ulf Samulesson (539), Kjell Samuelsson (407), Paul Stanton (129), Jim Paek (52).


1992-93 Montreal Canadiens (1,517): J.J. Daigneault (468), Eric Desjardins (312), Mathieu Schneider (255), Lyle Odelein (214), Kevin Haller (162), Patrice Brisebois (106).


1993-94 New York Rangers (3,175): Kevin Lowe (1,086), Jay Wells (958), Jeff Beukeboom (500), Brian Leetch (437), Sergei Zubov (127), Alexander Karpovtsev (67).


1994-95 New Jersey Devils (3,358): Scott Stevens (961), Ken Daneyko (716), Bruce Driver (702), Tommy Albelin (400), Shawn Chambers (366), Scott Niedermayer (213).


1995-96 Colorado Avalanche (2,413): Uwe Krupp (557), Curtis Leschyshyn (511), Sylvain Lefebvre (488), Alexei Gusarov (338), Adam Foote (280), Sandis Ozolinsh (239).


1996-97 Detroit Red Wings (3,649): Larry Murphy (1,315), Bob Rouse (894), Slava Fetisov (488), Niklas Lidstrom (451), Vladimir Konstantinov (446), Aaron Ward (55).


1997-98 Detroit Red Wings (4,588): Larry Murphy (1,397), Jamie Macoun (1,059), Bob Rouse (965), Slava Fetisov (546), Niklas Lidstrom (531), Anders Eriksson (90).


1998-99 Dallas Stars (3,775): Craig Ludwig (1,256), Shawn Chambers (621), Darryl Sydor (549), Derian Hatcher (528), Sergei Zubov (461), Richard Matvichuk (360).


1999-00 New Jersey Devils (3,582): Scott Stevens (1,353), Ken Daneyko (1,070), Scott Niedermayer (597), Vladimir Malakhov (466), Brian Rafalski (75), Colin White (21).


2000-01 Colorado Avalanche (3,786): Ray Bourque (1,612), Rob Blake (675), Adam Foote (593), Jon Klemm (408), Greg de Vries (336), Martin Skoula (162).


2001-02 Detroit Red Wings (4,834): Chris Chelios (1,260), Steve Duchesne (1,113), Fredrik Olausson (978), Niklas Lidstrom (853), Mathieu Dandeneault (443), Jiri Fischer (187).


2002-03 New Jersey Devils (4,450): Scott Stevens (1,597), Tommy Albelin (871), Scott Niedermayer (811), Oleg Tverdovsky (615), Brian Rafalski (308), Colin White (248).


2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning (2,842): Darryl Sydor (943) Pavel Kubina (455), Nolan Pratt (374), Brad Lukowich (373), Cory Sarich (372), Dan Boyle (325).


2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes (3,541): Glen Wesley (1,311), Bret Hedican (872), Aaron Ward (552), Frantisek Kaberle (386), Niclas Wallin (273), Mike Commodore (147).


2006-07 Anaheim Ducks (3,099): Scott Niedermayer (1,053), Chris Pronger (868), Sean O’Donnell (850), Joe DiPenta (151), Francois Beauchemin (144), Kent Huskins (33).


2007-08 Detroit Red Wings (4,439): Chris Chelios (1,616), Nicklas Lidstrom (1,252), Brian Rafalski (614), Brad Stuart (579), Brett Lebda (198), Niklas Kronwall (180).


2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins (2,990): Sergei Gonchar (929), Hal Gill (789), Mark Eaton (452), Brooks Orpik (376), Rob Scuderi (300), Kris Letang (144).


2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks (2,152): Brent Sopel (588), Bryan Campbell (561), Duncan Keith (404), Brent Seabrook (392), Niklas Hjalmarsson (111), Jordan Hendry (92).


2001-11 Boston Bruins (3,132): Zdeno Chara (928), Tomas Kaberle (902), Andrew Ference (640), Dennis Seidenberg (455), Johnny Boychuk (121), Adam McQuaid (86).


2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (2,202): Willie Mitchell (719), Rob Scuderi (537), Matt Greene (461), Drew Doughty (316), Alec Martinez (115), Slava Voynov (54).


2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks (2,982): Michal Rozsival (783), Duncan Keith (607), Brent Seabrook (599), Johnny Oduya (511), Niklas Hjalmarsson (306), Nick Leddy (176).


Average over last 26 years: 3,193


Average over last five years: 2,692


Only once in the last 26 years has a team won the Cup with fewer than 2,000 games worth of NHL experience. That team, the aforementioned 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens, had a future Hall of Fame netminder (Patrick Roy) and it earned 10 of its 16 wins that spring in overtime.


Also, it’s worth noting that although J.J. Daigneault was the Habs’ most experienced blueliner with 468 games played to that point of his career, five of the six Montreal defensemen went on to play 899 or more games in the league with four of them reaching the 1,000-game plateau.


At 26, Daigneault was the oldest and most experienced of the Canadiens’ defensive corps but the Canadiens must have had some concerns about the lack of experience on their blueline. At the trade deadline that spring, Montreal obtained 33-year-old veteran Rob Ramage from Tampa Bay, surrendering a minor league defenseman and a 23-year-old blueliner (Eric Charron) who was once a Habs first-round draft pick. Ramage only played in seven of Montreal’s 20 playoff games that spring. Ramage brought 1,023 games worth of NHL experience (and 80 games in the WHA) with him from Tampa Bay.


Aside from the 1987-88 Edmonton Oilers – who rotated out Paul Coffey and Reijo Ruotsalainen and rotated in the younger Craig Muni and Jeff Beukeboom after winning the year before – the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks had the least blueline experience of the last 26 Cup winners.


Chicago kept half of that defensive core in place when it won again three years later. Amazingly, Brent Sopel (2010) and Michal Rozsival (2013) were the Hawks' most experienced defensemen when they won the Cup. Your best blueliners don't have to be your most experienced ones. When the Wings beat the Caps in 1998, Nicklas Lidstrom was only the fifth most experienced blueliner on that Detroit club.


Four of the last five teams to win the Cup have had fewer than 3,000 games worth of NHL experience, so the trend seems to be getting away from what it had been from 1990-91 through 2007-08. During that stretch, only three teams won the Cup with fewer than 3,000 games worth of experience, and two of those teams had Roy in net.


The average number of games played by a Stanley Cup-winning team’s defensive corps during that 17-season run was a staggering 3,498. Among all 2013-14 teams, only the San Jose Sharks exceed that figure.


One last thing. As we all know, the Caps’ lone trip to the Stanley Cup final came in 1998 when they were swept at the hands of the Red Wings, the team with the second most experienced defense (4,588 games) of the last 26 Cup champs. But that Caps’ team was a fairly grizzled bunch in its own right.


1997-98 Washington Capitals (3,564): Phil Housley (1,131), Calle Johansson (783), Joe Reekie (641), Mark Tinordi (615), Sergei Gonchar (238), Brendan Witt (156).


Also: Jeff Brown (747), Ken Klee (220).


A few observations:


All of the top six are lefties.


Both Brown and Klee were righties. Brown was obtained in a straight-up deal for another veteran righty (Sylvain Cote) at the trade deadline. A prolific offensive defenseman during his time, Brown suffered what turned out to be a career-ending concussion during the playoffs that spring. He appeared in only two playoff games for the Caps.


When it was all said and done for the above eight blueliners career wise (and actually, it isn’t; Gonchar is at 1,204 and counting), Tinordi had the shortest career at 663 games. His career ended after the 1998-99 season because of an ankle injury. Brown’s career was next shortest, then Witt’s (890), then Reekie (902), then Klee (934).


The average career length of those eight defensemen is 993 games. If Gonchar plays every game for Dallas the rest of the way this season, he’ll single-handedly lift the group to the cusp of a 1,000-game average career.


Even with Brown sitting out, the Caps were above the average in experience for that 17-season run during which blueline experience was king when it came to winning the Cup.


If we assume that the “new” average is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 games, the Caps still have some work to do. And that’s even assuming that Erskine and Hillen are able to return. The group can probably add another 300 man-games or so the rest of the way, and beyond that, a deal to bring in an experienced vet – ideally a top four lefty – would appear to be the only way to lift the current group up over even 2,000 games before the playoffs.


I wonder what Roman Hamrlik’s doing these days. I kid.