getting defensive

(photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In today’s Washington Post, beat writer Tarik El-Bashir does a nice job of laying out the problems with the Washington Capitals offense during the team’s current four-game losing streak. While we agree that players not named Alex need to step up their offensive output, the more troubling aspect for us is on the defensive end.

We understand when Capitals general manager George McPhee says he’s not interested in mortgaging the team’s future to acquire a top-line defenseman like Chris Pronger from Anaheim. A price tag of Karl Alzner, Simeon Varlamov and John Carlson is definitely too steep for a rental player who, although still an impact player, would have to admit his best days are behind him. But in our humble opinion, the Capitals defensive rotation as currently constructed is simply too flawed to make Washington a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this year.

Mike Green might very well be the best offensive-minded defenseman in the NHL, but even he would have to admit his play in his own zone is still a work in progress. Tom Poti is easily the team’s best defensive defenseman, but he’s been saddled with injuries of late. If not for Alexander Semin, defenseman Shaone Morrisonn would be the object of Caps’ fans ire because he’s just as likely to make a bone-headed decision or take a ill-advised penalty with the game on the line.

The biggest problem though, is that the other three regular defensemen – Milan Jurcina, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz – all essentially play the same role. They’re all big bodies who should throw their body around and keep opponents out of the goalie’s crease. Ideally, one of the three would excel at this and free up other spots in the rotation for other styles of defensemen. But in Washington, we’re treated to one for the price of three.

Jurcina is easily the best of the bunch. He’s really improved his play and seems to have grown into the role and become more comfortable with who he is and what he brings to the game. We’ve heard for a while stories of his booming slapshot shattering glass panels at Kettler, but it’s only recently that he’s begun to assert himself more during actual game situations.

Erskine, who is nicknamed Dumb & Dumber by some Caps fans for his slight resemblance to Jeff Daniels’ character in the movie, plays a physical game as well and like teammate Donald Brashear, doesn’t mind throwing down to keep opponents honest. But at his very best, he’s nothing more than a sixth or seventh defenseman on an NHL roster.

Out of the three, Schultz is easily the most maddening. The former first rounder is only 23 years old, but we’re convinced he’s allergic to contact. When you’re 6’6” and 224 lbs., you shouldn’t be afraid to throw your body around or at least be willing to clear the crease when forwards are taking multiple swipes at a loose puck in front of your net. He’s averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time and has a plus/minus rating of plus 14, but it’s not because of anything he does.

He’s logging so much ice time on a consistent winner that the law of averages says he’s bound to be out there when Alex Ovechkin and friends do all the heavy lifting. His play is so suspect that friends in the press box automatically lean over and ask, “Was Schultz on the ice?” whenever the opposing team scores a goal. Like we said, he’s just 23, so there’s hope that he will follow Jurcina and grow into a competent defenseman. The issue is, this is a team built to win now. Had they been able to bring in one additional defenseman, preferably someone solid in the defensive zone, this team truly could have made a run at the Cup this year. As it stands now, the team has no choice but to roll the dice and wish for the best.

And a quick note to those media types who continue to question if goalie Jose Theodore is dependable enough to backstop a legitimate playoff run – if the Caps gave him six full-fledged, reliable defensemen, there’s no reason to believe Theo couldn’t get it done. But when half of the blueliners are solid and half aren’t, you get games like Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh, which featured breakaways, odd-man rushes and disappointment while the Capitals continue to search for answers. It’s easy to blame the goalie, but more times than not, he’s not the only player at fault when the opposition lights the lamp.


  1. Ben
    March 10, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Oh boy, et tu, Murph? Schultz is by far the best of the 3 “sub-par” defensemen you mentioned, and it’s not even close. I won’t bore you with the statistics (head to Japer’s Rink for that), but I’m coming to his defense here. Just because he is big, and doesn’t hit, people think he sucks. He is a highly effective poke-checker, has very good stick skills, makes smart decisions and crisp passes with the puck, never takes penalties and besides Poti is our best penalty killing d-man. He had a phenomenal game against Pittsburgh Sunday, completely shutting down Malkin.

    Jurcina and Erskine on the other hand constantly make bone-headed decisions, flub the pick, take silly penalties, etc. They hit occasionally, so fans think they’re just the bees knees. But hitting alone does not a solid defenseman make. Consider this: Erskine has 6 takeaways all season. Alex Semin had 6 against the Pens on Sunday.

    Bottom line is that, while we all agree that physical element is sometimes lacking from our D-Corps, just because Erskine and Jurcina do it better than Schultz do not make them more effective overall.

  2. Ben
    March 10, 2009 at 12:33 pm
  3. b murf
    March 10, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Ben, first of all, thanks for checking in. We always love to get feedback – even if it’s to call us morons. We grew up loving rough and tough defenders like Rod Langway and Scott Stevens, so Jeff Schultz shying away from guys half his size pains us. Like we said, he’s still young and his game is still evolving, but we’d love to have enough depth to have given him more time in Hershey to grow. You mention him on the penalty kill, but all I ever notice is Schultz failing to clear the puck ojt of the zone. Lift some weights, for god’s sake!

    We’re not in love with Erskine or Schultz. We’d rather have Alzner and a veteran from the trade deadline.

  4. Ben
    March 10, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Well of course I’d like a Scott Stevens or a Rod Langway, but what team doesn’t want a hard-nosed Hall of Fame blueliner? Those guys are once-in-a-while special, and we have that on the offensive side of the puck.

    So for now, McPhee has to make do with cost effective, effective players. For the numbers (and I strongly suggest you head to the Japers’ link) Schultz qualifies as just that. Jurcina and Erskine, not so much.

    Yes, I agree, Schultz’s lack of physicality can be maddening at times, but he has yet to fill out his frame, which is enormous. Strength and power come in time and he’s only 23! I’d rather start with a smart player and have him build up the physical game than a reckless head hunter with no defensive sense try to figure it out.

  5. Krol2
    March 10, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    I’d like to start with a smart player and build him up too. And if you were smart you’d go after the man standing in your crease instead of watching the puck slide by you and do nothing.

    They wanted all those guys for Pronger? Yikes.

  6. Dave at Caps News Network
    March 11, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    it’s not so much the desire for Schultz to turn into a headhunter out there. far from it. it’s that when he has the NATURAL opportunity to use his considerable size and strength, he should.

    he’s like the kid in 6th grade that got a big growth spurt and doesn’t want to hurt the smaller kids around him so he shies away from contact.

    i love his other skills, which statistically one has a hard time arguing with. he just needs to step up his physical game, that’s all. what’s wrong with wanting a complete player?

  7. Ben
    March 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Of course nothing is wrong with that, I think we can all agree with that sentiment. What I’m saying is wrong, however, is suggesting he’s our worst defenseman due to his (albeit troublesome) flaw. When you take the whole, he’s miles ahead of Jurcina, Erskine and Morrisson.

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