WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Tomas Vokoun #29 of the Washington Capitals makes a save against the Buffalo Sabres at the Verizon Center on September 30, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Led by two key newcomers and the return to health of two defensemen plagued by injury last year, the Washington Capitals enter the 2011/12 season with the strongest defense they've ever had in the Alex Ovechkin era.
Every team in every sport has an identity. For the Washington Capitals. that identity in recent years has been one of an offensive juggernaut. Last season, however, the Capitals had an identity crisis. When the offense dried up around the midway point of the season, head coach Bruce Boudreau transformed the Caps into a defensively-sound squad that won tight games almost regularly. Gone were the highlight-reel plays. In their place came stingy, yet simple defense.
Despite yet another postseason disappointment, the Caps' change in style paid dividends. Washington's goals against per game was fourth-best in the NHL at 2.33 GA/G, down from 2.77 in 2009-10. The penalty kill also saw a vast improvement, skyrocketing from 78.8 percent in 2009-10 (25th) to 85.6 percent (second).
All of this was done with a defensive corps plagued by injuries. Mike Green missed 33 games in the regular season with several head injuries, while trade deadline acquisition Dennis Wideman suffered a leg injury in March that kept him out of the remainder of the regular season and the entire postseason. Green and Wideman are now healthy and ready to start Saturday's season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes. In fact, the Caps' crop of defensemen might be the best they've had in almost two decades, one that will be a huge key to the team's success this season.
The only significant change to Washington's "D" was the loss of rental Scott Hannan, who ultimately signed a one-year contract with the Calgary Flames. But Hannan's departure was more or less sealed about a month before he signed that contract when the Caps signed Roman Hamrlik away from the Montreal Canadiens July 1. With Tom Poti on long-term injured reserve, the 37-year-old Hamrlik inherits the position of elder statesmen (he is six years older than the next-oldest defenseman, John Erskine). Other than overall experience, Hamrlik gives the Caps a steady and versatile presence on the defensive end. Hamrlik and Green should make up the team's second pairing, one that will definitely earn respect throughout the season for its two-way game.
Meanwhile, above Hamrlik and Green should be Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who broke out last season as one of the league's best pairings. In their rookie seasons, Alzner and Carlson shot up the Caps' defensive depth chart and were counted on to stop the opponent's best forward lines on a nightly basis. Alzner is the consummate "stay-at-home" defenseman, while Carlson, like Green, has the offensive game to join the rush and contribute on the scoreboard.
Wideman, Erskine and Jeff Schultz round out the bottom pairing, but that doesn't mean that they aren't effective. Erskine will start the season on the injured list, but Schultz and Wideman will be yet another solid tandem that provides decent defense and the ability to score, which can only help the Caps' offense rebound from a 94-goal drop between 2010-11 and 2009-10.
Speaking of defense helping offense, one of the most unique aspects of Washington's defensive corps is its power play ability. Green, Carlson, Hamrlik and Wideman have all played the role of quarterback on the power play, bringing the puck into the zone and setting up the play. Nine of Wideman's 10 goals last season came with the man advantage, while Green and Carlson combined for six power play goals. Hamrlik had two for the Canadiens last season, but when factoring in the health of Green and Wideman, the Caps' power play might return to prominence after a mediocre 17.5 percent last season.
Of course, behind the six defensemen on the ice is one of the league's best goaltending duos. Tomas Vokoun signed with Washington for one year and $1.5 million in what was the steal of this summer's free agency period. Vokoun's .922 save percentage is the NHL's best since 2005, and he did that on one of the league's worst teams, one that has not made the playoffs in a decade. Vokoun was the reason why the Panthers stayed competitive on most nights, but he does not have to be that good with the Caps. On a contender for the first time in his career, Vokoun should thrive on a team that actually has a chance to win in the playoffs.
Behind Vokoun will be Michal Neuvirth, who proved himself worthy last season when he wrangled the No. 1 position away from Semyon Varlamov. Boudreau said after last Sunday's preseason finale that Neuvirth is not a backup, but a "1A." Neuvirth has admitted on several occasions that Vokoun was his hero growing up, and having a fellow Czech goaltender to teach him will only help in his development.
The adage "defense wins championships" is thrown around so much that it has almost become trite. For the Capitals, though, it might ring true. Much attention is paid to the high-flying forwards - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, among others - but when the puck gets into the defensive zone, seven others will be responsible for getting it out. Those six defensemen and whichever goalie starts that given night will be integral to the Caps' finally reaching their ultimate goal.