As of now, the Washington Capitals have played 28 games, amounting to an under-achieving record of 12-15-1, good for 13th place in the Eastern Conference. Many of us expected more from this group, and unfortunately a lack of effort, heart, and execution may find the Caps outside of the playoff picture. Multiple teams were reported to have scouts taking in the Caps/Sabres game on Sunday night at Verizon Center, with Mike Ribeiro regarded as the blue-chip prize available should DC be a seller.
With that in mind, let’s assess how each of the players has performed based on the expectations for them going into 2013. Today, we’ll review the defenseman.
(Editor’s note: This article was written on March 19th, before the Caps took on the Penguins)
Karl Alzner: Alzner started the season with his classic “Carlzner” d-pairing, John Carlson. Problem is, they were on for tons of goals against, so new coach Adam Oates made some noise and split the long-time partners up. Since then, we have seen a noticeable improvement in Alzner’s game, while Carlson has stuck out like a sore thumb. Overall, Alzner has been one of the Caps’ better blue-liners in the defensive zone, and has shown the occasional tendency and ability to step up offensively in Oates’ new system.
John Carlson: Oh, yes, the other half of the “Carlzner” pairing. Yikes. I would be hard pressed to find someone in hockey that could convince me Carlson has been a positive for the Caps this season. That said, Carlson has registered 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists), and sits at +2. However, statistics don’t always tell the full story.
Too often this season, Carlson has found himself out of position defensively, rushing to get back joining the play offensively at the wrong times, and simply not making plays with the puck that we have become accustomed to John Carlson making. The 23-year-old still has a lot to learn, but perhaps getting him away from another young defenseman in Alzner will help expedite that process.
John Erskine: It would be hard to argue that the recently extended 32 year old defenseman is not having a career season. In just 17 games played, Erskine has racked up 5 points (3 goals, 2 assists), to go with 20 penalty minutes and a +6 rating. Not bad for a guy with a career -16 rating and 14 goals, eh?
Erskine has not only found himself into the lineup this season when he’s healthy, but has also proven himself to be an invaluable piece of the Capitals blue line. Of the 17 games Erskine has been in the lineup this season, the Caps have gone 10-6-1. Again, the Caps are 12-15-1, but 10-7-1 with John Erskine in the lineup, and only had a minus rating in four of those games.
Furthermore, in the ten games Erskine played where the Caps won, Erskine skated an average ice time of 19:44, while in the seven they lost; he only averaged 16:30 on ice. Just something to think about..
Game. Set. Match. Erskine get’s an A.
Grade: A (+?)
Mike Green: Well, well, well. This might be the most we talk about Mike Green all season outside of keeping talks limited to his paper-thin groin muscle. Green has only participated in 16 games this season, racking up 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists) and a +1 rating. This after he only played in 32 regular season contests last year, and 49 the season before that. All for a guy who has a $6.08 million cap hit through 2014-’15. Yikes.
However, there is no doubting that having Green on the ice, without a doubt, makes the Caps a better team. Aside from having a solid puck-moving defenseman who can quarterback both the power play and the breakout, Green played 11 of 16 contests with a plus or even rating, averaging 25:59 the games he has played this season. He is still an elite defenseman, but one that needs to learn how to keep healthy.
Jack Hillen: How much can be said about a guy who has played in 3 games all season? Not much, right? Can we hand out a grade of “Band-Aid?”
Tomas Kundratek: The Capitals blue line rookie has impressed so far during his young tenure. Called up to be the versatile puck moving defenseman that Mike Green could not be, Kundratek has contributed 7 points (1 goal, six assists) in 25 games on NHL experience. Kundratek has skated an average of 16:08 per game, and has an unfortunate -7 rating.
However, statistics do not always tell the full story, and Kundratek’s stat line can be argued to be an example of just that. What calling up Kundratek gave the Caps was a fast moving defenseman, who has a good sense of what to do with the puck offensively, making effective and efficient break out passes to the right guy on a consistent basis. For a 23-year-old NHL rookie, Kundratek has more than held his own, and has made a case for keeping a spot in the line up upon Mike Green’s return.
Steven Oleksy: Another injury, another defensive call up. When injuries forced Adam Oates to look to Hershey for a right-handed defenseman, Steven Oleksy found himself with an opportunity to crack an NHL line up. The 27-year-old defenseman immediately proved to be a tough customer, dropping the gloves in only his fourth NHL contest, earning the decision against Carolina’s Drayson Bowman.
Oleksy has contributed 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) in 4 games of NHL service, and has quickly become a fan favorite in DC. He has some offensive upside, and typically makes the smart play with the puck, clearly earning the trust of his head coach, skating an average 19:12 a night, and played 27:55 in Carolina when Tomas Kundratek went down injured.
Oleksy will never develop into a Mike Green type of player, but if he can keep his feet moving at a quick pace and prove to be reliable handling the puck, he could be another defenseman who makes a case for himself to stay with the big club. Not bad for a guy who was a healthy scratch when he first arrived in Hershey with Oates this season..
Dmitri Orlov: Remember that guy? The Russian defenseman who got hurt in Hershey during the lockout? No? Oh well.
Tom Poti: Let me first start by saying this; Tom Poti’s comeback was an incredibly inspiring story. For a guy who missed two years of hockey with an apparent career-ending groin injury to come back and contribute in the NHL at any level is truly astounding.
That said, of all the defenseman who started the season on the big club, Poti has only averaged less time on ice (15:13) than Jeff Schultz (14:25), and, if you even count him, Jack Hillen (13:46). He has two assists and a -2 rating in 16 games, and 8 shots on goal. Away from the statistics, his puck moving has been inconsistent at times, and his skating, while at an NHL level, is not what we had known Tom Poti as when he signed his initial $3.5 million/year contract with the Caps in 2007-’08, or even his extension signed just two years ago. It would be very surprising to see the Caps re-up Poti past this season.
Jeff Schultz: Oh, Jeffery. The things I have to say about you. You know when you know Jeff Schultz is playing a solid game? When you’re not constantly screaming his name at him/your television, depending on where you are watching from. Unfortunately, I can recall a hell of a lot of times I have screamed at him/my television.
Schultz is in his third year of a 4 year, $2.75 million cap hit deal, playing a measly 14:25 a game, good for dead last among defenseman who started the year with the club, minus Jack Hillen and his whopping 3 games this season. Schultz has managed to contribute 3 assists and a -7 rating, good for dead last among all ten defenseman who have suited up in DC this year. Schultz has all around been one giant liability on the ice, constantly mismanaging the puck and being burned due to his slow skating.
From HockeysFuture.com, here is a talent analysis of Schultz from when he was drafted in 2004:
“Standing at 6’6, Schultz becomes even more imposing when he laces up the skates. Schultz quarterbacked what is arguably the largest junior defense in recent memory, and provided an offensive spark from the blueline. The awareness that Schultz possesses in the offensive end in junior was above average for a defenseman, and his ability to distribute the puck from the point, excellent. At the NHL level, however, he does not project as an offensive defenseman.
A facet of Schultz’s game that could use improvement is his skating. He has a very long stride, but at times looks uncoordinated out on the ice, and almost clumsy.”
Schultz has never become neither the offensive defenseman he once was, nor a reliable presence on the blue line. For better or worse, the big blueliner is signed through next season, and if he is going to remain a Capital until or beyond then, Calle Johansson has got to work on turning Schultz into the imposing defenseman the Caps once thought they had drafted.