Washington Capitals Defense Not a Stanley Cup Winning Group

Washington Capitals Defense: Upgrade for Stretch-Run?

Washington is an NHL best 42-10-4 with 88 points in 56 games so far in 2015-16. They’ve allowed a league-low 128 goals against, while ranking 2nd in goals for with 187 (four behind Dallas).

The Capitals standout’s this season are goaltender Braden Holtby – having a Vezina/Hart Trophy worthy season. As well, Russian’s Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov carrying this team offensively. Getting little credit in 2015-16 is the underrated Washington Capitals defense group.

The Washington Capitals defense (top 7) is a combined +81 so far this season.

This defensive group is led by Matt Niskanen and John Carlson. Both are proven productive NHL defenseman, Niskanen with 24 points in 56 games, Carlson with 31 points in 44 games. Both are impactful pieces for Washington with their league-leading 23.6 percent success rate on the powerplay. Carlson averages 3:13 PP Toi/GP while Alex Ovechkin mans the other point (most of the time). Niskanen averages 2:12 PP Toi/GP. Carlson has 13 PP points, while Niskanen has 11 so far in 2015-16.

On the top pair playing alongside Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner is proving himself a capable shut down defender. He’s also developing into one of the NHL’s top penalty killers from the back-end. Niskanen, Alzner, and Carlson share PK duties, ranking 5th in the NHL at 84.2 percent. 

Paired with John Carlson on the second unit is Nate Schmidt. Schmidt’s emergence in 2015-16 is largely due to much improved defensive play. He’s a +13 with 13 points in 51 games this season. He’s also proving an effective penalty killer.

On the third unit is Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov. After missing 40 games, Orpik recently returned (playing two games). He’s only appeared in 16 games in 2015-16. Filling in during his abscence was the seventh man, Taylor Chorney. Chorney just inked himself a new two-year deal based on his performance in Orpik’s absence. Orlov, a former 2nd round pick from 2009 has emerged this season. After overall slow development to begin his career – while showing glimpses of his offensive abilities, Orlov hit a wall in 2014-15 after missing nearly the entire season due to injury. He’s since rebounded with 21 points in 56 games this season, serving as an offensive threat on the third pairing for the Washington Capitals defense. 

As outstanding as the Washington Capitals defense core has been, the big question remains, “Is this defensive group good enough to win a Stanley Cup Championship?”

The 2015-16 Washington Capitals is the best team this franchise has produced during the Ovechkin-Backstrom era. They’ve gone into the playoffs with similarly great teams over the past decade – only to fall short when it matters. Who knows when/or if Washington will ever be in a better position to win a Stanley Cup before their star veterans start to decline.

Only two teams in the salary cap post-lockout era (2005-present) have won the Stanley Cup with a similar talent level group as the Washington Capitals defense. The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, with names such as Glen Wesley, Frantisek Kaberle, Aaron Ward, Bret Hedican, Niclas Wallin, among others. Pittsburgh’s 2009 defensive group also comes to mind, with players such as Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Mark Eaton, Rob Scuderi, Hall Gill, and current Caps defender Brooks Orpik.

Feb 11, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Capitals defeated the Wild 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

If we look at the rest of the Stanley Cup winners, the 2007 Anaheim Ducks had two of the NHL’s best d-men at the time, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. 2008 Detroit Red Wings had arguably a top three defenseman of all-time in Nicklas Lidstrom. The 2011 Boston Bruins had Zdeno Chara at the peak of his career – again one of the best NHL d-men at the time. The 2012 and 2014 Los Angeles Kings had Drew Doughty – arguably one of the game’s best defenders since breaking into the league. Lastly, the 2010, 2013, 2015 Chicago Blackhawks with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and to some extent Niklas Hjalmarsson (the most underrated core piece for Chicago). Long story short, there’s something to be said about having one of the NHL’s premier blueliners for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

This once again begs to ask the question, “Can the Washington Capitals defense win a Stanley Cup in 2015-16? Simple answer, no, probably not.

It’s not a knock on the defensive group by any means – but, perhaps there’s an argument to be made for Capitals GM Brian MacLellan to add a defenseman (preferably a rental) on/or before February 29th’s NHL Trade Deadline.

As of today, they’ve only got approximately $1.156 million dollars in cap space. There’s two ways to free up money:

1) Trade Marcus Johansson. Rumors earlier in the season had suggested he would be made available if Andre Burakovsky emerged into a top six player. It took awhile, but that’s finally coming to fruition. Johansson earns $3.75 million dollars against the cap, and becomes an RFA (restricted free agent) in the summer. At this point, it’s unclear whether Washington is able to, or even willing to pay Marcus Johansson the increased pay raise he’ll be looking for.

2) Pull off a Toronto David Clarkson type miracle, somehow finding a way to unload Brooks Laich and his $4.5 million dollar cap hit (signed through 2016-17). Call this one very unlikely.

3) Given Chorney’s performance in Brooks Orpik’s absence, Washington conceivably is able to trade Dmitry Orlov and his $2 million dollar cap hit. (in this scenario, prospect Madison Bowey steps up in 2016-17 to replace the void left by Orlov)

If Washington feels the need to add leading up to the deadline, they can package a player from above with prospects and/or draft picks for a defensive upgrade. Sticking an upgrade in Nate Schmidt’s spot, letting him slide down to the third pairing can be the difference between reaching the Stanley Cup Final, or falling short in Game 7 of Conference Semi-Final.

Potential Rental Options:

Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche

He’ll be an RFA in the summer. Latest rumors suggest contract negotations are slow and haven’t progressed. Not that Colorado can afford to give up talented young defensemen – sometimes you can’t control the business side of things. If Joe Sakic feels compelled to move him, Marcus Johansson and a 1st round pick is a good starting point.

Keith Yandle, New York Rangers

It sounds as though Yandle has no interest in re-signing with New York. The Rangers will feel pressure to obtain something for him after giving up top prospect Anthony Duclair in 2014-15. There should be a long lineup of teams vying for his services down the stretch run. It’s a matter of finding the right return for New York.

Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver Canucks

He hasn’t yet been asked to waive his no-trade clause, per latest reports. He’s a veteran player capable of logging big minutes, with proven NHL experience. He’s as defensively responsible as Schmidt (if not more) with a bigger offensive upside.

*Statistical information obtained via NHL.com, salary cap information obtained from GeneralFanger.com