In Defense Of Jose, The Defense In Front Of Jose

The late 20th century philosopher Kilo Ali famously noted that "The playas gon' play, Them haters gonna hate."

While Ali couldn't have had Jose Theodore in mind when he penned those words of wisdom, they certainly apply - Jose's going to play his game and people are going to criticize him (though I believe you and I have yet to reserve our seats on Le Petit Poulet Bandwagon).

But while how far and in which direction Theodore varies from the median NHL goaltender is of some importance, something that is being widely overlooked is just how good the team defense behind which Theodore will play is becoming.

I mentioned it yesterday, but as no one wanted to wade into the murky statistical waters with me, I'm going to repeat it and expound upon it today: Statistically, the Caps had the best team defense in the Eastern Conference.

If you want to know how this determination is happened upon, take a look at pages 8 through 11 of Allan Ryder's 2008 NHL Review (PDF), but it basically comes down to a combination of shots allowed (the Caps gave up the third fewest in the Conference at 27.5, with a 27.0 average under Bruce Boudreau) and the quality of those shots (the Caps lead the Conference in defensive shot quality; see Ryder at p.8).

The obvious question, then, is "If the team defense was so good, why was the team goals against average so mediocre?" You know the answer to that one - it was the goaltending itself. The Caps got the second worst contribution from its goaltender in the League (see Ryder at p.12). Only Tampa got less from their netminders over the course of the season (Colorado, for the record, was in the middle of the pack, though one of their goaltenders was somewhat better than the other). No goalie in the NHL who played more than 51 games gave up more 5-on-5 goals per sixty minutes of ice time than Olie Kolzig did, and no goalie who played more than 36 games gave up more 4-on-5 goals per sixty than Kolzig (but we're all sure he "can still be a dominant goalie in the NHL.")

So what makes the Caps' team defense so good? A few stats from the forwards jump out:
  • Boyd Gordon made the sixth-largest defensive contribution of any forward in the League. Viktor Kozlov was ninth (thanks to the second-largest even strength contribution of any forward) and David Steckel 16th (see Ryder at p.21).
  • Further to the point on Kozlov, he had the seventh-best 5-on-5 plus/minus on-ice per sixty of any forward in the League (min. 30 games played). You're making a huge mistake if you don't think Kozlov is valuable to this team.
  • The Caps were ninth overall in team faceoff percentage, and if Sergei Fedorov returns, the team will have three pivots who won better than 55% of their draws in 2007-08.
In D.C., the best defense is sometimes a strong offense, and when you throw two (or three?) scoring lines out there with a couple of the best defensive forwards in the game thrown in the mix and an emerging blueline - Mike Green had the sixth-largest overall contribution of any NHL blueliner (see Ryder at p.23), Jeff Schultz is a combined +37 in two professional seasons, Karl Alzner is widely regarded as the top defensive prospect not yet in the NHL... and none of those players is yet 23 years old - you've got the makings of a very good team at both ends of the ice.

Taking all of the above together, two main points emerge. First, Bruce Boudreau gets plenty of credit for his work igniting the Caps' offense (and rightly so), but not nearly enough for his impact on the team's defense - a truly deserving Jack Adams Award winner if there ever was one. The fact that there aren't any individual defensive statistics from the blueliners that jump off the screen as contributing to the team's stout overall defense is a testament to Gabby's defensive scheme.

Second, and this is where Jose Theodore re-enters the blog post, when you consider how good the Caps' team defense was last year (far better, incidentally, than Joel Quenneville's Avalanche team D was) and how atrocious Olie Kolzig was, you can see how a decent (but by no means elite) netminder like Cristobal Huet was able to come in and put up the ridiculous numbers that he did (11-2-0/1.63/.936). This team has the ability - even with its Milan Jurcinas and John Erskines - to make goalies look good.

The bottom line is that with the probable returns to the lineup of defensively responsible forwards Sergei Fedorov and Chris Clark, a year's maturation of the team's young players and a full year of Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, the Caps are poised to become something few would have expected - one of the better defensive clubs in the League. And that can't do anything but help the new guy between the pipes.

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