Photo: Rob Carr
We’ve assumed for so long that the problem with the Caps is lack of defensive depth. I’d wager 90% of everything written about the Caps and Wednesday’s trade deadline states that the team lacks a solid, number-four, right-shooting defenseman. It’s been pretty obvious that filling that one spot would help fill the ranks of Washington’s defense.
That makes a lot of sense. Since October, the Caps defense had essentially been Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and any other three guys.
But I’m not so sure anymore. Indeed, I’m starting to wonder if the Caps wouldn’t be able to succeed merely by upgrading their bottom pairing– namely John Erskine and Connor Carrick.
But first, let’s take a look at the guys who have flanked Mike Green on the second pairing: Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov.
Orlov and Schmidt have respectively shared 387 and 232 minutes with Mike Green this season, time during which the Caps have outshot their opponents 600 to 473. Both versions of the pairing have generated a lot of offense, but defensive breakdowns have soured some on their viability. Orlov had begun to get a reputation for defensive mistakes even before his suspension for wrecking Brayden Schenn. Nate Schmidt showed a surprising amount of offensive flash (more than the touted offensive defenseman Orlov), but he was still prone to rookie mistakes and was returned to Hershey midway through December.
I’m not so sure anecdotes of mistakes here or there should shake us from trusting the genuine on-ice dominance these players have broughten.
I now think either of those players could or should occupy the fourth D-man slot. Whichever one doesn’t might make a fine stand-in for John Erskine on the bottom pair, which is where I think the real trouble is anyway.
Carrick and Erskine pull up the non-Urbom rear of the Caps defense when it comes to puck possession. Though they’re performing better together than they do apart, it’s clear that the Caps are getting shellacked when they’re on the ice.
Despite facing weaker competition than the other two pairings (the red bar), Carrick and Erskine– Carskine (sorry)– allow more shot attempts towards the Caps net (the blue bar). Alzner and Carlson allow a similar amount of shot attempts, but they’re regularly going up against the best opponent lines in the league. Carrick and Erskine, meanwhile, are getting softer and fewer minutes– and they’re still getting clobbered.
Over his last ten games, Erskine has played about 31% of the Caps’s 5v5 minutes. (That’s more than I would’ve thought, though Carlzner’s and Greenlov’s special teams duties might explain why.) In that 31% of ice time, Erskine was on ice for a whopping 38% of the opponent’s shot attempts. That might have been okay if he generated enough offense to offset it, but he did not. 31% of the Caps shot attempts came in Erskine’s 31% of ice time: average.
Carrick is no different. Together, Carrick and Erskine rank 194th and 195th in puck possession out of 232 defensemen who have played at least 15 games. That’s bottom quintile stuff.
I’d propose that the Caps might already have their fourth defenseman– either in Schmidt (yay!) or Orlov (sure, okay, why not). Then I’d add that George McPhee would have a much easier time acquiring a left-handed, bottom-pairing defenseman who can produce and prevent better than John Erskine– not a high bar to clear. Short of a trade, Adam Oates could always just ice these pairings– already in the Caps system– and effect a big upgrade in on-ice performance:
That wouldn’t be so bad, would it it?