Johansson (red) laughs during the preseason Capitals Alumni Game. (Photo: Chris Gordon)
The Washington Capitals’ defense allows the second most shots per game in the NHL. They’ve put perhaps their best defensive prospect, Dmitry Orlov, through recall-scratch-repeat hell. Now that Orlov is finally playing, he’s paired with a guy who has a similar skill set, Mike Green.
Then there’s the frequent shuffling of the Caps blue line deck. Due to injuries, on-ice struggles, waiver pickups, and call-ups from the minors, Washington has used twelve different defenseman this season. Just about every blue liner in the organization has gotten a shot as part of the 2013-14 Caps D corps.
As we head towards the stretch run, the Caps seemed to have settled on a lineup for now: John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Connor Carrick. Though Washington’s defense has been its biggest flaw, its recent improvement may also their best chance at making — and succeeding — in the playoffs.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with assistant coach Calle Johansson, the man who runs the Caps’ blue line, and asked him about some of his decisions, including some of the positives from this season.
The full transcript is below.
Lately, Dmitry Orlov has been playing with a ton of confidence. He was sent up and down to the minors multiple times earlier this year. It’s been kind of a tough situation for him. Recently, he’s been playing great hockey. What have you seen from him that’s allowed him to go to the next level?
Well, I don’t know, he’s just gotta understand that he’s a great player. I’m telling everybody this who’s asking, that he’s gotta be happy with doing simple things. You know he’s highly skilled, but he doesn’t have to use all that skill all the time, you know. A simple pass, a five-foot pass, ten-foot pass, and breaking up a play is more than enough sometimes — it’s great to do that; he’s gotta be happy with that. I think he’s coming into that state of mind now that the little things are really important.
What do you like about Dima playing with Mike Green? They’re both similar players offensively.
Yeah they are, but I like them because they can both skate, they can both pass the puck, and obviously like they’re both offensive threats, so it’s a good punch when things are rolling and they’re playing good and they’re a threat to the other team, you know, when they’re playing together. I think our forwards like to play with them because they can get the pass on the tape and stuff like that.
With Orlov too, he sometimes will lead the rush and skate all the way up the ice. What do you want to see out of him on plays like that? Would you prefer him not to?
No, it’s important to us that he does skate the puck out if he can, that he uses that asset, but he’s gotta know what he’s doing with the puck and he can’t put himself in a position, once he’s skated it up the ice, to be late coming back. He’s gotta be able to do something, whether it’s a shot on the net, a pass, dump it in, whatever it is, but he’s gotta be able to come back and not turn the puck over. That’s the most important thing.
The pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner — I know for the first couple of years they always played together and last year they were broken up every now and then. What is your plan with them? Are you guys gonna keep them together moving forward? What do you like with them playing together and what do you like when they’re not playing together?
Obviously when they’re playing together, they know each other so well now, in and out. They’ve played a lot together. That’s what I like. I also like that they’re reliable, you can use them against the other team’s top line, they’re really good at that, but it’s the same with everything, sometimes when things don’t work, either for them or for another D-pair, you’ve gotta switch things up and get fresh blood or something like that, whatever you want to call it, so it’s more of a fresh start sometimes when you switch them up or break them up. Last year I thought we had D-pairs that worked really well together when they were switched up. John Carlson played great together with Erskine, Erskine was hurt a lot this year and that’s why they didn’t play together and he didn’t play at all so we decided to put them together. If [Carlson and Alzner] keep playing together? I can’t tell you that right now. I don’t know myself, but at least I can tell you that tomorrow (Sunday) they’re playing together, as far as I know.
With Carlson too, he’s had a great year. His goal scoring has been tremendous, he’s been getting the puck on net more. It seems like he’s more accurate with his shot, but he’s also moving the puck better. What have you seen from him that’s allowed him to go to the next level?
I think you mentioned it with the offense, it’s also a lot of confidence, and he’s a year older, same thing there. I mean as a hockey player in this league you gotta be consistent, you gotta do the same thing day in and day out, night after night, and really focus on the simple things, and I think he’s doing that and everything offensive is basically bonus. When you do good things defensively and you do things right from the start you’re gonna get in the right positions, you’re gonna get the scoring chances, you’re gonna get the shots off, everything falls into place kind of. It’s not that he’s focusing on getting a scoring opportunity, that happens when you do other things right.
I think a lot of fans don’t understand how key it is to get the puck out of the defensive zone quickly — that’s the most important thing. I think I know what your answer would be for Sochi, but do you think Carlson has played his way onto Team USA?
Absolutely. No question in my mind, no doubt about it. If there are six D better than him, or three on the right side, whatever you want to say, American defensemen, I’d be shocked.
That’s a big statement!
Yeah, well I see this guy play every day, and there won’t be three better defensemen on the right side than John Carlson in this league.
[Editor's note: Johansson was right. Carlson was named to Team USA on January 1st.]
I think one other thing is that this year the Caps’ defense has seen cameos from a lot of younger guys, for example Nate Schmidt. We look a lot at possession numbers and he’s had tremendous numbers this year. Even being sent down, were you excited about how well he played? Because it seemed like he really moved the puck well, he got it out of the zone fast, he worked well with everybody too.
I think he did, yeah. No, I’m excited. I still am excited. We’ve gotta realize he’s a young kid and it takes time to become a great defenseman in this league and he will be some day. Hopefully sooner than later, maybe. Probably too. Just because he’s sent down, it’s not demotion. It’s a long season. I think he’ll be back up.
I want to ask you is about Connor Carrick. He came in, he had an unbelievable training camp. There were some bumps I think in the first couple games but what are you looking for him long term and were you excited about how he played in the preseason and the regular season?
Yeah, I was. I was really excited. For being such a, I shouldn’t say such, but a smaller guy, size-wise, he plays tremendously tough, like he’s not afraid, he’s strong, and it’s the same thing with him, young kid, he needs to just learn that things are happening really quick in this league. As a defenseman you need to do maybe two things or three things at the same time, you need to focus on your players, their players, and the puck, and it’s a lot of stuff different from playing in juniors or the American league, but it’s coming, it’s coming. You gotta have patience with those kids, and we will. He’s also gonna be a good player.
Last thing and this is silly. On CBC’s After Hours, when you guys played on Hockey Night in Canada a few months ago, the announcers asked Adam Oates about why you would get so mad at him during practice while you guys were still in your playing days. Apparently, you would get irritated with him because he’d be laughing and smiling during practice, not taking things seriously enough. Do you remember that at all?
With Oatesy? Oh yeah, I do. But he’s one of the few guys that could do that. A lot of the guys, 90% of the guys, 99% of all the players need to be focused in practice, the whole time. Some guys have that light switch, they can turn it on and off, and he’s one of those guys. But when he did it, some other guy tried to do it, and he couldn’t. You know what I’m saying? So our good player does something silly, now the not so good players tried to do the same thing and it turns out like [poo], you know? So that’s what bothered, me. But we were good teammates, and I wasn’t really pissed because he did it, it was because other players followed him.
Now you guys work together on the same coaching staff, with Olie too. Has the experience been great coming back?
Yes, it’s been great, it’s been really good. It’s fantastic! Especially coming back to the team we played for together too. Not only did we play together, but it was here we played, so it’s a great feeling.
Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Jake Ware for transcribing the interview.