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 OrlovJohn 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.

  • gocaps

    why would you post an interview that you did a few weeks, now, and not then?

  • So much interesting stuff in here.

    1. “Just because he’s sent down, it’s not demotion.”

    de·mo·tion (noun) 1. reduction in rank or status.

    So, yes, it is a demotion.

    2. “It’s important to us that he does skate the puck out if he can.”

    This contradicts what Oates told Ed Frankovic a little over a month ago, that the D should deal the puck away within 5 feet.

    3. “John Carlson played great together with Erskine [in 2012-2013].”


  • Here’s Ed’s article

    “The coach told me after the game that he prefers that his defensemen move the puck within the first five feet once they get it, and that has to be an adjustment for guys like Green and Orlov, who like to carry the biscuit.”

  • Ben Reed

    Those two statements don’t necessarily conflict.

    Calle: Orlov should skate it out “if he can”
    Oates: “we prefer” that D do not skate it out

    Both leave room for skating it out, and both seem to emphasize the “simpler” option of not skating it out.

  • Igor Kleyner

    “Pay attention to what I mean, not to what I said”

  • Igor Kleyner

    Re Green pairing with Orly… I think the only way for the Caps to avoid having to scrape Greenie of the boards a few times every game is to play him with a D who can handle the puck well and skate it out of the zone. Yes, it would be nice if that D was also a 6-4 230 lb shutdown stud; unfortunately, we don’t have any of them, and none are coming any time soon. But one thing that definitely happened since 52 was paired with 81 – he is hit less in our end. The teams used to just zero in on him, because they knew he will have to be the puck carrier; not so anymore.
    Not comparing MG with Lidstrom – but the fact that for many years he played with another D who could handle the puck (e.g. Murphy, Rafalski) probably contributed to his success and longevity.

  • Fair, but if you’re writing your standard operating procedure for a defensive breakout, this is still ambiguous as hell.

  • Schmidt is smaller than me (he’s 6 foot, 190 pounds), but I liked how he moved the puck with Green. I’m really hoping he can get another crack at the lineup, paired with Green, with Carlzner doing shutdown, and Orlov + [trade guy] as the bottom pair.

  • Topher Gee

    It seems like they are trying to teach him risk management the hard way. I my mind if there is open ice north and south then Green, Orly, Carly and even Alzner should take it. If there is a man in front short possession passes will work for the system.

  • Igor Kleyner

    Neither Schmidt nor Orlov is a top 4 on a decent team – *right now*. I think Orly has a somewhat higher potential and physical ability, but a quite a bit worse decision making. Latter can be learned though (hopefully not at the price of playoff spot this season)
    Also, I think Binky’s fan club crew is in the parking lot slashing your car tires right now.

  • Ben Reed

    Not really. You can’t be too rigid, I think even Oates realizes that. The 5 foot rule seems to be priority #1, and lower on the list is skating-with-the-puck. Sounds like Oates/Calle have tried to re-programming Orlov’s brain to more highly prioritize the 5 foot rule, without entirely excluding skating with the puck.

  • JH

    Great interview – thanks so much for posting this! I have one bone to pick with RMNB…. Re Orlov — Peter, I think you took the “it’s important he skate the puck out” a bit out of context. The emphasis sounds like its on the “if he can” part, if you look at the rest of the sentence. He also says later on how important it is to get the puck out of the zone quickly. I just think maybe you’re doing too much word-parsing.

  • Let ’em try!

    I’m pretty impressed with Orly and Schmidt overall, though I admit my expectations might be a little out of whack considering the team I follow.

  • Hey, no need to down vote guys. That’s a fair question.

    I didn’t have the time to get around to it even though I really, really wanted to.

    For me, it’s time intensive to transcribe an interview like this and write the intro the way you want. I intentionally always ask very general things to players and coaches so that I can flex it to a few weeks later if I need to. Jake, a friend of the blog’s, was nice enough to transcribe it for me since I’ve had no time.

    Anyways, I got engaged, am helping plan a wedding in a few months, have a 40-hour a week job, got pets, and then, oh yeah, RMNB. Not complaining about that – I’m extremely thankful for everything in my life currently, but it can be a difficult juggle sometimes. And stories like this are the ones that get put on the back burner unfortunately (because I think they can stand the test of time). Hope that answers your question.

  • Ben Reed

    I used to believe Orlov’s ceiling is Sergei Zubov, but he is closer to a Phil Housely type right now. If he can land somewhere between those two, he can be a top 4 on a contender.

  • Thanks, JH!

    What I took from the interview was that the coaches are evaluating the defenders on how quickly they can get it out of the zone and how good of a first pass they can make. Make the simple play. Even if it’s a five foot reverse behind the net.

    Also, if you’re open and the opportunity presents itself, guys like Orlov and Green do have the freedom to take chances. In fact, they’re encouraged to do so. The only thing is: you MUST get back and defend if you do. Don’t cause an odd man rush the other way.

  • mr. ducksworth

    Peter – We are going to have to disagree a little bit on the ‘demotion’ concept. Schmidt is a young guy with a two way contract which allows him go back and forth between hershey and the bigs. The benefit of him playing in Hershey is that he can get more ice time while also working on some things that he has been told to improve. Perhaps he is there now while the team can evaluate carrick’s progress at the NHL level and then they will be switched back in March for the final stretch.

  • I don’t think so.

    Oates “prefers” Orlov deal the puck within five feet. Calle prefers Orlov carry the puck unless he cannot.

    Isn’t that a fair representation of what they said? It’s possible one or both misspoke or are not great at articulating in English, but they should be accountable for how they describe their systems.

  • Peter, I’m not sure, really (which may lend credence to your articulation argument 😀 ). You would think there’s a difference in their philosophy here between a contested play in a clogged defensive zone (5 feet preference) and a player having a bunch of open ice (that can actually skate). I don’t think Oates was talking about every play, like it’s a set rule.

    Regardless, I’m happy they let one of their best skaters and puck handlers, skate and handle the puck. I think that’s promising. Orlov’s been given a lot of trust here and he actually looks like he’s starting to develop. His possession stats with Green lately have been awesome. I think there is some serious upside in his game in a few years, if he can continue to tilt the ice while he’s so young.

  • Ben Reed

    Quack quack, Mr. Ducksworth.

    You may have paid for your jersey, sir. But you didn’t earn it.

  • Yeah, I’m with you on all of that, but sending a guy down is– denotatively — a demotion. He was sent from the top level to the lower level, and that’s what that word means, I’m not trashing Calle or Schmidt or anything, just saying that was a silly turn of phrase.

  • VeggieTart

    I’d like to think that any mistakes Schmidt, Orlov, and Carrick make are primarily due to youth and inexperience. But the kids all show good hustle, and I look forward to watching them develop.

  • I think this is just a words thing. Like, when you say “you can’t be too rigid”, that can mean “it is impossible to be rigid enough” or “it is unwise to be excessively rigid.”

    A team has its system. That system is the corpus of preferred tactics. A breakout is one of those tactics. Having an S.O.P. for a breakout doesn’t mean it must always happen– that’s just impractical. But it does mean it’s preferred and should be done when it can be.

    So one of the following two things must be true: I) There’s no clear SOP for breakouts on the Capitals, or II) If there is, these guys aren’t good at talking about it.

  • “I don’t think Oates was talking about every play, like it’s a set rule.”

    People keep saying “rule”, when it’s really just a preferred tactic. It’s not like it *must* happen, it just means what happens under normal circumstances

    So what do the coaches prefer to happen? Deal the puck or not? There’s still a conflict there.

  • Jane

    Cant wait for Peter to do the interview with Johansson. That would be epic! )))

  • Janey

    right on! : )

  • Ben Reed

    “Having an S.O.P. for a breakout doesn’t mean it must always happen– that’s just impractical. But it does mean it’s preferred and should be done when it can be.”

    Agreed. I think we’re on the same page here.

    “I) There’s no clear SOP for breakouts on the Capitals, or II) If there is, these guys aren’t good at talking about it.”

    I think a “clear S.O.P.” emerges from the coach’s comments, which is that the priority is to get rid of the puck ASAP, but if no one is open and you have time to go ahead and carry it. That squares with your previous observation, which I agree with, that even standard operating procedures must account for multiple possibilities and the D are tasked with prioritizing them a certain way. Much like a QB going through progressions.

  • Janey

    Congratulations on your engagement and your up-coming wedding Ian!

  • Yeah, I hope you’re right. I wish we could get the guys to talk more about what is expected of them– particularly the D, who are struggling so much.

  • Also Ian’s house froze last week

  • Ben Reed

    The more I think about Oates and his “territory” system, the more I think it’s just a misconstrued effort to win the possession game. Like, duh, of course it’s better to play offense than defense, and transition to that point quickly. What is frustrating is that, from what we observe, the “how” of getting there seems oversimplified to the point of actually negating skilled players.

  • Oh yeah, the night before I was planning to finally do the story last week, our electricity in our house went out at 2am when it was -5 outside. I didn’t sleep and I stayed with the ferrets in the upstairs bathroom that we had insulated for most of the night. How did I forget about that fun experience!

  • Thanks, Janey! I’m a lucky guy.

  • <3 these dudes

  • Nailed it.

    Chipping in a puck to get zone time without actually having the puck on your stick or generating shots doesn’t seem to win games.

  • Reverse of the Chris Farley Show

  • Ben Reed

    Exactly. Playing “downhill” is a result of good possession, not a means. It seems like he has it backwards.

  • GMGMNeverBreaks

    No classic rock lyrics?

  • Bart_in_Va

    No mention of the elephant in the room: Erskine.