ARLINGTON, Va. – Having several reliable defensemen with varying skill sets is a luxury that has recently been afforded to the Washington Capitals.
A veteran-laden top five provides Washington with defensive stability that has been fleeting in recent seasons.
“Their strengths come on different days,” coach Barry Trotz said of his defensemen. “The strength of some pairs are maybe heavy and more weight to them, the other pairs may be quicker and faster and they use their strength to their advantage.”
With the caveat that sample sizes are small so early in the season, each defenseman’s role and how Trotz opts to deploy each pair are becoming clearer.
Brooks Orpik and John Carlson serve as the shutdown pair while also anchoring the penalty kill. Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, who average the most even-strength ice time per game among Capitals defensemen, have been the most consistent at maintaining puck possession and can face tough competition if need be. Mike Green, currently paired with Nate Schmidt, is the point producer with five points in three games.
Each defenseman’s particular talents lend themselves to versatility, allowing Trotz to interchange his players as the circumstances dictate.
“We’re not tied down into anything,” Niskanen said. “They’re flexible based on what group’s going well or if one pair has a rough go or a rough period, the coaches can adjust the ice time that way. We have a good mix here of skill sets with, per se, more skill guys on the right side then some shutdown guys. Coaches can mix and match that way and adjust accordingly that way.”
It also allows for evenly distributed minutes, with Washington’s top five averaging between roughly 20 to 23 minutes per game.
“If we can stick around 21, 20 [minutes] for the entire season, you should be able to go all the way and still feel pretty good,” Alzner said. “I think you can stay in the game and be focused and [have your] head in the right spot at 20 minutes, 21 minutes. We're in the money spot right now, I think."
The Capitals’ defense doesn’t face a particularly daunting challenge against the Florida Panthers, the lowest-scoring team in the League with four goals in four games. Florida, which defeated the Buffalo Sabres 1-0 on Friday, is winless in its past eight visits to Verizon Center (0-7-1).
Trotz warned his team not to overlook any opponent.
“I think one of the things we want to make sure is that we respect every team that comes in because every team in the National Hockey League is a good team and can beat any team on any given day,” Trotz said. “But I also don’t want to fear anybody. I think a sign of maturity is you look at it that way.”
Here are the projected lineups:
Jussi Jokinen – Aleksander Barkov – Jimmy Hayes
Jonathan Huberdeau – Nick Bjugstad – Scottie Upshall
Sean Bergenheim – Brandon Pirri – Tomas Fleischmann
Tomas Kopecky – Derek MacKenzie – Brad Boyes
Brian Campbell – Aaron Ekblad
Willie Mitchell – Dmitry Kulikov
Dylan Olsen – Erik Gudbranson
Scratched: Colby Robak
Injured: Shawn Thornton (lower body), Dave Bolland (lower body)
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Troy Brouwer
Marcus Johansson – Andre Burakovsky – Brooks Laich
Jason Chimera – Eric Fehr – Joel Ward
Liam O’Brien – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Chris Brown
Brooks Orpik – John Carlson
Karl Alzner – Matt Niskanen
Nate Schmidt – Mike Green
Scratched: Michael Latta, Jack Hillen, John Erskine
Injured: Tom Wilson (fractured left fibula), Jay Beagle (upper body), Aaron Volpatti (upper body), Dmitry Orlov (wrist)
Status report: Bolland sustained a lower-body injury against the Sabres and is not expected to play. Pirri should make his season debut in Bolland’s place. … Montoya and Peters will each make their first starts of the season.
Who’s hot: Backstrom enters his 500th NHL game with 499 career points. Only Ilya Kovalchuk scored his 500th point in his 500th game since 1943-44, according to Elias Sports Bureau. … Burakovsky ranks second among rookies with five points. He is the first Capitals player to start his career with a four-game point streak since Ovechkin’s eight-game streak in 2005.