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Green Light on Blueline

May 23, 2013

During the course of the 2012-13 NHL season, Washington Capitals defensemen totaled 27 goals and 64 assists for 91 points. That’s a rate of 1.9 points per game from the blueline, and it’s the second highest figure that Washington defensemen have managed over a full season since 1995-96.


The 2009-10 Caps blueline rolled up a total of 180 points (37 goals, 143 assists) with Mike Green accounting for more than half (19) of the goals all by himself. That 2009-10 Caps team posted the most blueline points of any Caps club since 1993-94.


Washington’s uptick in blueline involvement in the offense seems to stem from the way the Caps play the game under coach Adam Oates.


When things are clicking nicely Oates’ system, Washington defensemen should have a bit more time to make a good, clean first pass out of their own end. It saves unnecessary wear and tear of the defense, and it is a crucial tenet of Oates’ “go north” philosophy.


“It’s been a focal point all year,” says Caps defenseman Jack Hillen. “Coach Oates came in and said, ‘We don’t want you guys to get hit and we want you to break the puck out out cleanly.’ We’ve worked on it all year. Each team forechecks a little differently, but the keys to us are the same. It all starts with a good neutral zone. It all starts with a good neutral zone and having a good gap so we can try to slow them down so they don’t get speed coming through. That’s the first step.”


Caps defensemen should have active sticks on pucks in the neutral zone, forcing turnovers that in turn can utilize Washington’s team speed to fuel a short-iced transition game.


“They’re trying to get us involved a little bit more,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson early in the season, speaking of the Oates system, “be a little bit more aggressive here and there whereas before we were kind of laying back. I like it. I think it’s going to benefit me and our team. We’ve got a fast team this year and we’d like to utilize that as much as possible.”


And once they’re in the attack zone, Caps defensemen are naturally expected to get shots on net whenever shooting lanes are available. But Oates also wants his defensemen to actively pinch along the walls to keep pucks alive and feed Washington’s desire for a northbound, territorial game.


“We know what it’s like to play against teams that pinch and jump up in the play,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “It makes it really hard to play against. We’re trying to take bits and pieces of what we think makes teams hard to play against and use it. We hate when teams pinch on us and we’re trying to get the puck out because most of the time you have to chip it off the glass and you don’t get to come out [of the zone] under control.


“It’s a lot of little things that even guys like me and [John Erskine] can do to help out offensively without having to go end to end or anything like that. We’re just trying to chip in any way we can.”


The Caps’ offensive output from the blueline continued into the postseason. Defensemen had a hand in nine of Washington’s 12 playoff goals. The six Caps defensemen combined for three goals and 10 points in the team’s seven playoff games this spring, with all six blueliners recording at least a point.


Green missed 13 games with a lower body injury in 2012-13. Hillen missed nearly half a season with an upper body injury. Had those two been healthy, the Caps likely would have put up better than two points per game from the backline in 2012-13.


Hillen averaged .39 points per game in 2012-13, the second highest figure of any lefty Caps defenseman with more than 20 games played since Sergei Gonchar left town nearly a decade ago. Hillen gives credit to Washington’s forwards for drawing the opposition down low in the attack zone to open up the top of the zone more for the Caps’ defensemen to take shots and get them on net.                                            


“You don’t just count on your forwards for offense,” says Hillen. “It’s a five-man unit out there and I think there’s a lot of trust on both sides. Forwards do such a great job of cycling and wearing [the opposition] down. The [defensemen] aren’t just open because they’re not covering us, they’re open because the forwards are doing a heck of a job wearing them down with cycles.


“The reason the points are open is because [opposing] forwards have to collapse in case there is a breakdown, and that is all because of a forward doing a cutback or beating them one-on-one or something. And then the trust in the forwards that the [defensemen] are going to get the puck through.


“I remember talking to a couple of the forwards [early in the season] and they said that they didn’t like to pass the puck up to the [defense] because it was just going to go back into the corner. But now that they trust us that we’re not going to get it blocked and we’re going to get our shots through to the net. That’s great when your teammates have trust in the defensemen to do that. That’s how you’ve got to create offense against some teams when they stay in coverage.”


Green missed more games than he played in during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. Washington’s system and coaching changes during those seasons had a depressing effect on his offensive output, but Oates’ presence changed all that.


Green averaged .34 goals per game in 2012-13, the second-best single-season figure of his career. His rate of .74 points per game is the third-best mark of his career, and his best since 2009-10.


“I think we have that balance now of playing fine defense and detailed defense and still being able to create offense and offense within the system,” says Green. “You’ve got to give credit to Adam. Adam has brought that structure in. He has paid attention to all the players, all of the positions, rather than just the forwards or power play or penalty kill or whatnot. He is very detailed in every aspect of the game and that has helped us tremendously.”