One source of frustration around these parts during the regular season last year was the allocation of large minute totals to the Caps' best players. One huge advantage the Caps have is that Mike Green is capable of playing 25+ minutes per game, and Ovechkin and Backstrom are capable of playing 20+. But just because they can doesn't mean they should.
I'm not going to say that the early playoff exit was because the young guns were tired -- the whole thing is far more complicated than that, and both of the Stanley Cup finalists had some of the league leaders in TOI so it's not clear that it even matters. But I will say that every minute a player is out there is a chance for that player to get hurt. I think one of the major goals of this offseason has to be to put together a team deep enough with high quality players that Boudreau feels comfortable giving the supporting cast a more prominent role.
Let's look at how Boudreau allocated the minutes last year. First, the regular season:
The first player that draws your eye is obviously Mike Green. A team's defense corps all together will average slightly above 20 minutes per game over the regular season, because of overtime games. Green's up above 25 minutes -- he really was out there the whole time (just ask the caveman). The reason why Green is so high up there is apparent -- look at the tiny little green bars on everyone else. Green was the only defenseman who played any significant time on PP. Green hogged so many total minutes, only one other defenseman crossed the 20 minute mark. The Caps had as many forwards average 20+ minutes as defensemen.
Speaking of those forwards, a team's forwards should average slightly more than 15 minutes per game. The forwards TOI distribution shows a clear "shelf" -- the division between top two line players (Eric Belanger and above) and third and fourth line players. Ovechkin and Backstrom are up above 20, with Semin and Laich not far below. The forwards' division of TOI is much closer to what you'd expect from a typical team than what you see from the defensemen.
The defensemen also have a "shelf" -- everyone from Corvo up -- though it's less pronounced. And when you take into account the fact that Corvo only joined the team late in the season, that shelf becomes more striking. For most of the year, there were only three defensemen who Boudreau really trusted.
Only Ovechkin is really in league-leader territory here. His 21.47 per game was # 4 in the league for forwards. (Backstrom's 20:32 is # 21 for forwards; Mike Green's 25:28 is good for # 9 among defensemen, a full minute less than Duncan Keith and nearly two less than Joni Pitkanen) But I raise questions about playing time for all of the young guns. For a team on its way to 121 points, was it really necessary to play them quite so much? I hope seeing how little this year's epic regular season really means will help the players and coaches figure out that perhaps they ought to conserve more resources for the playoffs.
Here's the Playoff TOI:
At first glance it looks pretty similar, but I'm much happier with the Playoff TOI because you really do need your best players to carry the load when the chips are down. It's very interesting that the "shelf" for the forwards was everyone above Knuble this time -- four wings and only one center.
Green probably played too much, but it's hard to fault Boudreau in the playoffs for that. Still, you have to wonder if Green might have been more effective if he wasn't asked to be everything in every situation for this team.
The D again has a 4-man shelf, but with Carlson replacing Corvo. And how good does John Carlson look here? From the AHL to a solid 20 minutes in the NHL playoffs. He was the team's # 2 penalty killer in the playoffs -- wasn't he supposed to be an offensive defenseman?
* * *
Looking at this, the team's two main needs stand out. They need a second line center who can earn playing time above the "shelf" with the rest of the top forwards. And they need to find a way to even out the TOI distribution among the defensemen. The Caps were too top-heavy this year. The team needs rounding out. The further development of players like Schultz, Fehr, Carlson and Alzner should help. But the team could also definitely use some help from outside the organization by way of a second line center and a solid defenseman -- gentlemen who can round the playoffs TOI "shelves" out to 6 really good forwards and 4 really good defensemen. Look at Chicago -- that's what it takes to win a Cup.