With Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, the Washington Capitals boast one of the League's most solid defensive foundations. While those three figure to be integral pieces of the franchise for the foreseeable future, the defensive depth behind them, although plentiful, is more tenuous.
The Capitals opened training camp on Thursday with 10 defensemen who appeared in an NHL game last season, nine of whom suited up for Washington. Injuries forced the Capitals to use 12 defensemen throughout the season, second-most League-wide, and kept the fourth, fifth and sixth defensive positions in a constant state of flux.
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 26
SOG: 96 | +/-: -3
Things eventually settled down in the latter stages of the season, as veterans John Erskine
and Jack Hillen
, as well as journeyman Steve Oleksy
, wound up as the bottom half of the Capitals' defensive corps. According to coach Adam Oates
, that is how it will remain at the beginning of the season.
"I'm not in a big believer in, 'It's open competition.' I'm not," Oates said. "The guy who was there was there for a reason. And I'm not going to put pressure on him in a two-week window to lose his job."
Oates, however, was quick to add that the incumbents must recognize that those below them on the depth chart, NHL-tested defensemen like Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek and prospects Cameron Schilling and Nate Schmidt, are angling for their spots.
Cognizant of that, Hillen and Oleksy took the necessary steps to improve their respective games this summer. On the advice of Oates, Hillen adjusted his stick, switching from a heel curve to a bigger curve in order to handle the puck better, and bolstered his skating ability by taking lessons with skating coach Barry Karn, who has worked with teams throughout the League. According to Hillen, his focus during camp is not on any sort of competition, but solely on himself.
"For me personally, it never pays for me to look around and see what other people are doing," Hillen told NHL.com. "I've got to focus on me, I've got to focus on my job and just being the best I can be every time and not worrying about who's in camp or who's doing what or what the coaches think of whomever. I've just got to worry about myself and play the best I can and then things will take care of themselves."
Oleksy continued training with former Detroit Red Wings star Igor Larionov in his native Michigan, working out alongside Edmonton Oilers right wing Nail Yakupov and New Jersey Devils center Andrei Loktionov, among others.
"When you're showing up to the rink every day, especially with a guy like Igor, who's so passionate about the game, and then playing against guys like Nail and Andrei, they push you to get better," Oleksy told NHL.com "That's huge for me, especially playing against two pretty explosive offensive guys. A lot of guys aren't able to get that in the summer, but for me, it was nice to be a part of that."
As for Erskine, who averaged a career-high 18:28 of ice time per game last season while skating with Carlson on the Capitals' shutdown pair, his spot, at least externally, is the most up for grabs after a less-than-stellar finish to the season. Yet Oates plans on giving the 33-year-old even more responsibility this year.
"[Erskine] is a very valuable member of our team," Oates said. "We need his physical play. He played more minutes than he's ever played in his life, so you've got to give him a transition to get used to that."