Caps Young Blueline Still Growing
Washington's group of young, homegrown defenders is gaining experience.
Ten different defensemen have played 450 or more games for the Washington Capitals. Four of those men – Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy – were teammates on the Caps at the same time during much of the 1980s. The other six – Calle Johansson, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Sylvain Cote, Ken Klee and Joe Reekie – all played in Washington simultaneously during the mid- to late-1990s.
These days, the Caps hope they are building another group of young defensemen who can grow up together and play together on the District blueline for years to come. Among the team’s current group of defensemen, Shaone Morrisonn has played the most games in a Capitals sweater at 309. After just four full seasons with the Capitals, Morrisonn already ranks 14th on the Caps’ all-time list in games played by a defenseman.
Among the team’s all-time top 10 in games played on the backline, only half – Hatcher, Stevens, Gonchar, Witt and Klee – were homegrown players, drafted and developed by the Capitals. Witt was a first-round choice (11th overall) in 1993, but it would be nearly a decade before the Caps would draft another defenseman in any round who would go on to play as many as 100 games in a Washington sweater. The team’s recent focus on drafting and developing young blueliners has already started to pay some on-ice dividends.
Mike Green scored 31 goals last season, becoming the first blueliner in the league to score 30 or more goals in a season since Hatcher did so for the Caps in 1992-93. Among all Caps-drafted defensemen, Green has played the most games (242) for the team since Witt was chosen in 1993. Green averaged nearly 26 minutes a night last season, and is the type of dynamic offensive defenseman that has been a vital cog on most Stanley Cup champion teams of the expansion era. Green will celebrate his 24th birthday in October. He is under contract for the next three seasons.
Signed as a free agent two summers ago, veteran Tom Poti has been a steady and consistent presence on the blueline since. Although he hasn’t put up as many points as he did earlier in his career, Poti has been far better than advertised defensively since coming to the District. He plays 20-plus minutes a night, is capable of playing in all situations and is by far the most seasoned blueliner of a relatively inexperienced unit. With 717 career games played, Poti has more than twice as much experience of any other Washington rearguard. He has two years left on his current pact.
Like Green, Jeff Schultz was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Schultz is the polar opposite of Green as a player; he is a lanky, stay-at-home defenseman who relies on smarts, reach and positioning to be effective in his own end. Schultz is a combined plus-30 over his first three seasons in the league. He and Stevens (plus-59) are the only Caps defensemen ever to record a plus-30 or better for their first three NHL campaigns.
Karl Alzner will celebrate his 21st birthday later this month. The Caps’ first-round choice (fifth overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft made his pro debut last season. He averaged better than 19 minutes a night in a 30-game NHL stint, and also acquitted himself well with the Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears during the remainder of the 2008-09 campaign. He is ready for regular NHL duty and could land an opening night roster spot with a strong camp showing.
Obtained from Boston in a 2004 deal that sent Gonchar to the Boston Bruins, Morrisonn has been a steady and consistent – if unspectacular – presence on the blueline in the District since the start of the 2005-06 season. A stay-at-home type, Morrisonn is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Now entering his seventh NHL season, Morrisonn has been a plus or even player in each of his previous seasons in the league.
At 29, John Erskine is the third eldest of all the Washington defensemen. Heading into his 10th season as a pro, Erskine has played in just 273 NHL games largely because of various injuries. He has averaged 44 games a season in his three campaigns with the Capitals. Erskine played an average of just under 17 minutes a game during the 2008-09 regular season, but logged better than 19 minutes a night in the playoffs, third among the team’s defensemen. An old-school defenseman who relishes the physical aspects of the game, Erskine is under contract for the next two seasons.
Signed by the AHL Hershey Bears as an emergency fill-in during the team’s 2006 Calder Cup title run, Tyler Sloan parlayed that opportunity into a 26-game NHL run last season. The swift-skating Sloan acquitted himself well in Washington and was a stalwart on the 2009 Calder Cup champion Bears team. The 28-year-old Calgary native also got into two Stanley Cup playoff contests with the Capitals. Sloan is slated to gain unrestricted free agent status at the end of the upcoming season.
Just a few weeks younger than Poti, Brian Pothier is – like Poti – a Massachusetts native who inked a four-year deal to come to Washington as a free agent. Pothier is a terrific skater and a good puck mover with a right-handed shot. A serious concussion suffered in January of 2008 put his career on hold and in peril for more than a year, but Pothier worked diligently to get back into the lineup late last season.
If he is able to stay healthy and return to pre-injury form this season, Pothier could give the backline a needed scoring boost. Aside from Green’s 73-point effort in 2008-09, no other Capitals defenseman managed as many as 15 points. Pothier has averaged 26 points for every 75 games played during his NHL career. He is entering the final season of his current contract.
Despite logging the lowest average ice time per night (16:09) among regular Washington defenders last season, Jurcina finished second among Caps defensemen with 14 points. He led all Caps defensemen with 79 games played last season and followed up with a good showing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. A 26-year-old with a big frame (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), a booming right-handed shot and some untapped upside, he could set himself up for a nice payday next summer with a strong 2009-10 showing. Jurcina was awarded a one-year deal in arbitration this summer and is on the unrestricted free agent track for next summer.
With Morrisonn, Pothier, Jurcina and Sloan set to become unrestricted free agents at season’s end and with Schultz again headed for restricted free agent status, the team’s remaining crop of young and promising defensemen will be vying for position on the 2010-11 depth chart as soon as the upcoming campaign gets underway.
John Carlson is the crown jewel of the group. A 19-year-old who excelled in the OHL and did not look at all out of place in an extended playoff trial with the Bears last spring, Carlson is a dark horse candidate to force himself onto the Washington roster this fall. It’s more likely that he’ll start out in the AHL, but it’s just a matter of time before he is patrolling the Verizon Center blueline.
Dmitri Orlov is a second-rounder (55th overall) from the 2009 draft who showed well at the Caps’ summer development camp. Orlov will play in the KHL in his native Russia this season, but he has the looks of a future NHLer.
Josh Godfrey is a second-rounder (34th overall) from 2007 whose chief asset is a booming right-handed point shot. He spent more time (37 games) with the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays than he did with Hershey (13 games) in his pro debut last season, and he’ll need a strong 2009-10 showing to put himself into the mix for one of next season’s looming blueline vacancies.
Joe Finley is a first-rounder (27th overall) from 2005 whose size (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) has long intrigued and tantalized Caps fans. Finley is set for his much anticipated first pro season in 2009-10, but there has been talk of shifting him from defense to a wing position.
Sean Collins and Bryan Helmer are veteran pros with NHL experience who could be summoned from Hershey if the need arises. Patrick McNeill is a third-year pro from the 2005 draft who is seeking to make an impression upon the team’s brass.
It is not difficult to envision Washington with a homegrown and developed core of Green, Schultz, Alzner and Carlson (and perhaps Orlov or another dark hoarse candidate from a recent draft) on the blueline in the years ahead. Right now, that group is still very green and needs to be augmented by veteran additions from the outside such as Poti, Pothier, Morrisonn and Jurcina.
Heading into last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps’ six most frequently deployed postseason defensemen had an average of 360 NHL games played among them. In the last 20 years, only one team – the 1992-1993 Montreal Canadiens – has won the Stanley Cup with a less-experienced set of defensemen.
The Caps’ young blueline corps will gain another needed season’s worth of experience before it is tested in the playoffs again. Good health, a return to form from Pothier and breakthroughs from Alzner and/or Carlson could quickly upgrade this group between now and then, otherwise an outside addition may be necessary prior to the trade deadline.