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Caps Defense Taking Shape

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Beginning in 1995-96 and going through the end of Washington’s last playoff season of 2002-03, the Capitals had a remarkable core of defensemen that remained intact and matured here in the District while playing together. That foursome of Calle Johansson, Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt was together on the same blueline in Washington for eight straight seasons, a claim no other NHL team could make at the time. In this era of free agency and free player movement, keeping a group of four defensemen together for eight seasons is a fairly remarkable feat.

The foursome began to go their separate ways after that 2002-03 season, with Witt the last to depart D.C. in a Mar. 2006 trade with Nashville. Only Johansson has retired; the other three are still in the league with more than 750 games worth of NHL experience to their credit.

It has taken a few years, but the Capitals once again seem to be on the verge of having a strong blueline corps that can remain intact and together for several seasons in Washington.

“We knew there was going to be some turnover there when we were rebuilding the team,” says general manager George McPhee. “It’s obviously a really important position because if you have good goaltending and good defense, you’re in every game whether you are scoring or not.”

The Washington defense is young (average age: 25.5 years) and sizeable (average size: 6-foot-3, 214 pounds). It’s made up of home-grown talent (Steve Eminger, Jeff Schultz and Mike Green) and imports from other organizations (Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, John Erskine, Milan Jurcina and Tom Poti).

With more than 650 regular season games played, Poti is the most experienced of the youthful bunch. Pothier and Morrisonn are both approaching 300 games played, but neither figures to reach that milestone this season.

The Caps’ defense has been in a state of transition since the start of the 2003-04 season. After drafting Witt in 1993 and developing him as a solid NHL regular, the Caps were unable to draft and develop another legitimate NHL blueliner for a decade. Free agent singings and minor trades failed to address the concern, and the problem began to manifest itself on the ice during that 2003-04 campaign when the Caps surrendered 253 goals, the most allowed by a Washington team in a decade.

When the overpaid and underachieving ’03-04 Caps dropped to the bottom of the NHL standings and with the 2004-05 lockout looming, McPhee began to rebuild the Washington roster. A series of in-season trades brought in several young prospects and draft picks, but only one defenseman (Morrisonn came from the Bruins in the deal that sent Gonchar to Boston).

Beginning with the 2004 draft, the Caps have been diligent about drafting defensemen. Between Witt (11th overall in 1993) and Eminger (12th overall in 2002), the Caps drafted and signed only one defenseman in the first round. That was Nolan Baumgartner (10th overall in 1994), who played just 18 games in a Washington sweater.

In the last six drafts, Washington has chosen six defensemen in the first round and three more in the second round. Among those nine defensemen are Eminger, Schultz and Green.

“It wasn’t an easy process,” says McPhee. “We’re getting to the point where we’re happy with our defense. We don’t give up much anymore. They’re active, they’ve got size, they move the puck well, they defend well, they generate offense. It’s what you have to have if you want to be a good team. It’s comforting going into games knowing that it’s not going to be chaos in your own end of the rink. These guys are not only talented enough but experienced enough now to do the right things to keep the puck out of our zone or when it is in our zone to get it up the ice quickly.”

The 2005-06 Caps surrendered 306 goals, the most by a Washington team since 1981-82. That number was trimmed to 286 last season and figures to shrink significantly in 2007-08. With a dozen games remaining, the Caps have allowed 205 goals. Washington’s recent performance has been even more impressive. After allowing an average of 3.12 goals per game during their first 52 games, the Caps have allowed just 2.39 goals per game during the last 18 contests. Discounting empty-net tallies, Washington has surrendered three or fewer goals in 17 of its last 18 games.

“In fairness to these guys, they were put in situations early on where maybe they didn’t deserve to play as much as they did,” says goaltender Olie Kolzig. “That was the situation we were in, that’s what management wanted to do. They wanted to get these guys in and play them, put them in good and bad situations and make them learn. I think because of the experience they’ve had the last couple years, they’re legitimate defensemen now. It’s the second toughest position to jump right in and play, with goaltending obviously being the first. It’s not just about handling the puck. It’s reads, it’s being physical, it’s knowing when to ‘go,’ it’s chemistry with your partner. These guys are finally starting to get a handle on it.”

With the relative youth of the defensemen currently on the club, the Caps may have the nucleus of the next long-term defense core here in Washington.

“In five, six years, it could be one of the best D in the league again, both defensively and offensively,” says Morrisonn. “I think that’s one of the things that’s been missing the last five years here, the cohesion on the back end. It’s chemistry with the D, the D having chemistry with the forwards and everybody getting to know everybody and what they’re going to do in certain situations. Now we’ve finally got six guys who have played the majority of the year together, and we’re playing a lot better defensively. It might not show as far as the goals against, but we are.”

McPhee echoes Morrisonn’s thoughts on chemistry.

“We’ve sort of stabilized our team now and they’re all playing well,” says the Caps’ GM. “You have to underscore the value of experience and being able to play together and communicate and knowing the tendencies of your partner and the other guys you are playing with. The slightest miscommunication leads to turnovers and leads to scoring chances. The value of having guys playing together can’t be emphasized enough.”

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