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Caps Defense Taking Shape, part 2

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
While communication and chemistry with one’s partner play a part in the maturation of young defensemen, those traits all stem from the most basic element: experience. Just the act of lacing up the skates for the game, and then getting out there and playing generally makes for better defensemen, although there are certainly growing pains along the way.

“The more games you play the more comfortable you get out there and the less pressure you feel,” says Schultz. “I remember when I first came in I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to live up to expectations. Now I’ve played so many games and I’m more comfortable. Things come more naturally now.”

When the comfort level is there, offense often follows. This year’s bunch of defensemen has already contributed 32 goals (more than half of them from Green) and 125 points to the Washington cause. That goal total is already the most amassed by a group of Caps defenders since 2001-02. Washington blueliners are on pace to record 146 points this season, which would be the most by any Caps blueline corps since the 2000-01 bunch put up 147.

The 1999-00 bunch totaled 148 points and the Stanley Cup finals edition of 1997-98 totaled 151, the most of any group of Caps rearguards in the last decade. The current group is not far off those numbers, and could exceed them in 2008-09, if not this season.

“I don’t know what it is,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of the defense corps’ offensive resurgence. “I haven’t said, ‘go,’ I just haven’t said ‘stop.’ If they’ve got a chance to go and they’re in position to go, [then] go.

“Brian Pothier is an offensive defenseman. Why stifle him? Mike Green, if you stifle him from being offensive, then you’re not using his abilities and his assets. With Schultzie, we’ve just got to find the right guy for him to ricochet the puck off of. It’s not anything that we’re doing special, except we’re allowing them to jump into the play. We’re not saying, ‘Don’t jump into the play.’”

Green’s 17 goals are the most by any Caps defenseman since Gonchar bagged 18 in 2002-03.

“I think it’s just the mindset,” says Green. “When Bruce came here he made it very clear that we were going to start scoring goals. We were losing games by one or two goals when if we would have done simple things to score goals like we’re doing now and playing a system, we would have had a lot more points.

“I think it’s also just confidence. Guys feel like their role as fourth-line guys isn’t just to go out and hit guys. They’re playing the system and they’re getting opportunities to score. It’s all about creating offense. Bruce has really instilled this in us: if you play this way, you’re going to score goals. So we just go out and play that way.”

While the group’s defensive maturation and improvement has come about in the season’s second half, the Caps’ blueliners began producing at the other end months earlier. That’s something Washington is actively seeking from its rearguards.

“First and foremost, you want defensemen that know how to defend,” declares McPhee. “You have to be able to do that before anything else. But you’re team is a lot better off is they can defend and be part of the offense as well. That’s what we’ve been trying to emphasize here. We still have guys like Morrisonn and Jurcina who can do more offensively. Schultz has gotten the message. Poti can do it, Pothier can do it and Green can do it. If a couple more guys can generate some offense, then it would be a real terrific crew.”

The Caps also have the not-unpleasant problem of carrying eight defensemen all season. While it has made for a difficult campaign for Eminger, who has played in just 16 games to date, it’s a better situation than being short of NHL defensemen.

“We want to play all of them,” says Boudreau. “When you have six, seven, eight defensemen playing well, you’ve got assets. There aren’t a lot of teams in this league that have that many good defensemen. So it’s great for them and if it shows up on the scoreboard, it’s great for us.”

There are eight defensemen here this season, and more are climbing the ladder and could arrive as early as next season. Sami Lepisto, a third-rounder from 2004, has had a tremendous first pro season in North America with the Hershey Bears. He has gotten a taste of the NHL, getting into three games with the Caps.

First-rounders Karl Alzner (fifth overall in 2007) and Joe Finley (27th overall in 2005) could turn pro by training camp of next season as could Josh Godfrey, a second-rounder from 2007. The defensive largesse in the system also enabled the Caps to deal Theo Ruth, a blueliner chosen in the second round in 2007, to Columbus for veteran center Sergei Fedorov at the trading deadline. Washington was able to deal away a solid defense prospect without feeling the pinch, a luxury it has not had for quite some time.

“You look around the room and we’ve got Greenie and Schultzie and Jurcina, Emmy and Erskine and then soon Alzner and Godfrey,” says Morrisonn, forgetting to mention himself. “We’re all young defensemen and I think it’s important to have a solid D and have depth on defense.”

Because the core of the current group of defensemen is so young, they could be patrolling the District blueline for a while together. The intricacies of the new collective bargaining agreement and the league’s salary cap system make it difficult to keep a good team together in the NHL these days.

“I’d love to be here for a long time with the same guys,” says Morrisonn. “You get such great chemistry with your partner, even all six guys and that makes a difference on the ice, just knowing all their tendencies. You understand the system and each other.  I think that’s really important. For forwards, when you’re always switching lines, it’s hard to build chemistry. It’s the same for defense. If you’re playing with the same guys over the years then you build relationships, not only on the ice but off the ice. I think it’s very important. With Witter and Gonch and those guys, there was obviously chemistry.”

That chemistry may ultimately lead to longevity and stability. Those characteristics would be a welcome change from the previous three seasons when 29 different defensemen skated for the Caps. Only nine defensemen have been needed this season, and most of them expect to be around for next season and beyond.

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