Of the roster moves the Capitals have made over the last couple of weeks, the signing of veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik may be the least sexy. It didn't involve any off-ice drama, any high draft picks. or the return of a former captain, and it didn't even address the team's most obvious need. Despite that, Hamrlik, who's a versatile player with more than 1,400 combined NHL regular season and playoff games, should have an immediate and significant impact on the Capitals blue line - but where will he do it? How is he best utilized? Who should he play with? That's what we thought we'd look at, using the following assumptions:
- Restricted free agent Karl Alzner is re-signed.
- Tom Poti is unable to play to start the season, if at all.
- There are no other roster moves that change the composition of the team's defense corps.
The easiest place to start isn't with Hamrlik, or with Mike Green. It's with Karl Alzner and John Carlson, last year's best defensive pairing. The two suit one another's style of play, with Carlson being more likely to get involved in the offensive zone, more likely to fire shots from the point, and more likely to play the body, while Alzner is comfortable being the last line of defense and playing smart, nuanced hockey in his own, getting the puck out the team's forwards. The pair also has familiarity, having played together not just in Washington last year but in Hershey for a good portion of the 2009-10 season as well, and offer the right-handed/left-handed combination Bruce Boudreau favors. While there's an advantage to breaking to two up and getting them comfortable playing with different partners, there's no reason to break the two up on a night when you need your best lineup on the ice.
With the Alzner-Carlson pairing set, it makes sense to turn to Mike Green for the next step. Dennis Wideman's the first guy to rule out given that his skill set is largely redundant with, rather than complimentary to, Green's own. Jeff Schultz and John Erskine are both lacking in skating and puck-handling ability, which means Green's opportunities to impact the offense end of the game would be somewhat limited as his partner struggled to move to puck up to offensive players. More importantly, the fact that Erskine and Schultz are lacking in skating and puck-handling means the onus would be Green to retrieve the puck when it is played deep in the Capitals' end, which would make him an easier target for opposing forecheckers, something that would be a concern even if Green hadn't already had more than his fair share of injuries at the NHL level.
Hamrlik's not simply the best option by process of elimination, however. Rather, the well-rounded nature of his game is ideal for a partnership with Green. Although Hamrlik can hold his own as a skater, puck-mover, and shooter on the point, he isn't a player who needs to be active in the offensive zone to be at his most effective. Whereas some of the Caps' other blueliner options have skill sets that necessitate a particular style of play to get production out of them - Erskine or Schultz will never be asked to become major offensive factors, for example, because doing so would mean such a sacrifice in terms of defensive quality that it would hurt the team as a whole. Unlike the two of them, Hamrlik is able to tailor his game to the situation and remain effective.
What that means is when the Capitals need Hamrlik to move the puck up the ice and lighten the load on Mike Green, he'll be able to do it; if they need him to be the pair's defensive conscience, he can do it; and if the Caps need him to create in the offensive zone, he can do it, all without sacrificing too much in terms of overall productivity. This versatility is not only beneficial for a player paired with Mike Green, but also for a role the pairing would be likely to play. If last year is any indication, Alzner and Carlson should see the most minutes against opposing team's top lines and the third pair will be, understandably, given sheltered minutes. What that means for the second pairing is the quality of opposition and style of play can vary from night to night and thus what is expected of the pairing can vary from night to night and thus versatility on the second pairing is a mark in the Caps' favor.
Using Hamrlik with Green on the second pair also has a trickle down affect on the team's third pair, to be made up most likely of Dennis Wideman and either Jeff Schultz or John Erskine. All three are perfectly fine NHL players, but all three would be better served playing in somewhat limited and controlled minutes. For Erskine and Schultz it would be less pressure on their skating ability and puck skills; for Wideman it would mean more chances to use his puck-moving and offensive skills. For all three, it would mean a lower likelihood of committing a mistake that winds up in the Capitals' net, and all three are being put in a better position to succeed, which is what a major part of strategy is in the NHL.
Ultimately that's what finding the best place for Hamrlik is about: getting each guy on the Capitals' blue line into a position they can be most productive, and pairing him with Mike Green achieves that by taking pressure off of the majority of the Capitals' defense corps and giving his teammates their best chance to succeed.