Shoring Up the Blueline

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: Dennis Wideman #6 of the Washington Capitals brings the puck around the net against Jack Hillen #38 of the New York Islanders at the Verizon Center on March 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

On paper, the trade that brought Scott Hannan to DC was a good one – acquiring a stay-at-home defenseman, and an experienced one at that, was important for a team whose defensive depth beyond the "top" six had dried up a bit since last year. And on paper, the trade that brought Dennis Wideman to DC was also a good one – bringing in a guy capable of breathing life into the power play while shoring up the depth even more for the stretch run was key, especially for the relatively low price at which he came. Two good trades from just a stats and facts point of view, two guys that look good on paper.

On the ice, however, they’re proving to be much more than merely "good trades".

Hannan’s acquisition came at a crucial time in the ongoing evolution of this team. Coinciding with (but hardly the cause of) their worst losing streak in years, the arrival of Hannan provided the team with a veteran who could be counted on to kill penalties, block shots and serve as a calming presence on the blue line. And with the introduction of Wideman to the lineup, the Caps added more firepower on a power play that has sputtered this season and another capable puck-moving defenseman in an age where you seemingly can’t have too many.

Both of these players would be decent additions for a team with an eye toward a lengthy playoff run. In the wake of injuries to – and uncertain timelines for the return of – Mike Green and Tom Poti, however, they’re absolutely critical. Poti and Green are routinely among the team leaders in ice time, with each getting plenty of special teams work, as well. Their absence has left a void on defense, one that would have had to be filled by a combination of NHL and AHL defensemen on a nightly basis without outside help. Instead, the extra responsibility has been able to go to two highly capable defensemen who have so far stepped in without missing a beat.

Hannan’s ice time has risen gradually over the course of his tenure in DC, particularly since the injury to Green, and now routinely logs over twenty minutes a game; meanwhile he’s posted a negative plus-minus just four times since the Caps snapped their losing streak back on December 19 and is a plus-8 over that span. And despite not being known for his offense, he’s also got thirteen shots in the twelve games since Brooks Orpik’s slapshot felled Green…which equals his shot total in his previous twenty-seven games as a Cap. Add in the fact that he’s not afraid to speak up when needed, and his value has soared in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, in just two games in DC Wideman has averaged over twenty-four minutes of ice time, fired three shots on net, been credited for nine hits and been on the ice for three of the five goals the Caps have scored while being on for just one against – the result of a two-on-one caused by a bad pinch by John Erskine. Over seven minutes of his total ice time with the Caps has come shorthanded; over five minutes of it has come on the power play. He’s already shown an ability to make smart plays in his own end and could conceivably chip in on offense in the future, as well.

But the importance of having guys like this in the lineup extends far beyond their ability to simply replace big-minute players out with injury. Potentially their bigger role will be to alleviate (and guide) the Caps’ young defensive pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. It’s no secret that both have struggled in recent weeks, particularly Carlson; with both Poti and Green out, the team has had to lean on 27 and 74, placing as much of a mental burden on them as a physical one by forcing them into roles for which they’re not quite ready.

Having Hannan around has helped that to some extent, but the addition of Wideman has done even more to start to ease the burden; since the deadline, Carlson’s ice time has gone from 23+ minutes a night down to around 20, a huge difference for someone who appears to have hit a wall.

Ultimately the impact of Scott Hannan and Dennis Wideman won’t fully be known until the postseason, when the Caps will likely have one or both of their big-minute blueliners back in the lineup. Whether the extra veteran presence, the extra depth and shut-down capability and offensive spark can contribute to the team's postseason success remains to be seen. For now, though, the two are filling in where they’re desperately needed – and hopefully making the team better as a result.

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