Last December I was reading Elliotte Friedman's "30 Thoughts," a weekly ritual, when something caught my eye. It wasn't specifically Capitals-related (though there are some Caps nuggets in there), but I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since. On December 13 Friedman wrote:
27) Brian Rafalski got hit twice going back for pucks against Nashville last Wednesday. If Jonathan Ericsson doesn't get it no matter what side it goes to, Mike Babcock is displeased. Same goes for Brad Stuart and [Nicklas] Lidstrom.
I went back and looked at that game, as well as some other Detroit games, and saw the strategy in action. Let's take a look at how Babcock wants the system to be executed, and then we'll see the breakdown that led to the comment in 30 Thoughts.
In this first example, we'll see that the puck gets dumped into Lidstrom's corner, but Kronwall skates cross-ice to retrieve the puck, while Lidstrom provides support:
Rather than adhering to traditional "left/right" distinctions to determine defensive assignments, Babcock has instructed his defensemen to perform specific roles, irrespective of position on the ice. Here is another example, which makes the point even more clearly:
When the puck is dumped in Lidstrom is actually in better position to retrieve the puck. The puck is clearly going to wrap around the boards behind the net, and Lidstrom is already in the slot with no man to cover. On the contrary, Stuart has pressure on him, and he needs to pivot and chase a further distance to retrieve the puck. But because of Babcock's demands, Stuart chases down the puck and eats a bodycheck. Now let's take a look at the breakdown that inspired Friedman's note in 30 Thoughts.
This looks a lot like the first example posted. Rafalski ends up chasing to retrieve the puck in the far side corner, and takes a hit for his troubles. I'm sympathetic to Ericsson in this example, but clearly Babcock was not. Nashville had pressure coming down the near boards, and Ericsson had to step up to prevent an easy entry into the zone. But based on Friedman's comment, that's not an excuse; Babcock expected Ericsson to turn tail and retrieve that puck to save Rafalski from taking that hit.
That's great, but what does it have to do with the Capitals? Click through to find out after the jump.
Mike Green is the Capitals' best offensive defenseman; this is no secret. It's also no secret that he's targeted physically every time he takes the ice. Whether it's the Flyers openly discussing how they need to put more bodies on him during the first-round series in 2008, the shoulder injury and subsequent targeting in 2009, Dan Bylsma talking about being physical with him on 24/7, or the concussion he received in 2011, Green has been the subject of physical punishment ever since his emergence as the premier offensive defenseman in the NHL.
Detroit has obviously made it a priority to protect their best defensemen from being on the receiving end of heavy hits from physical forecheckers. Given the fact that Green has missed significant time due to injuries to his head and shoulders, it may be time for Bruce Boudreau to consider trying a similar tactic with Green. Add in the fact that GM George McPhee claimed that the banged up nature of his puck-moving defensemen, including Green, was a significant factor in the Caps' loss to Tampa Bay in the playoffs, and it seems even clearer that the Caps should do something to preserve their most valuable assets.
But that the Caps have not attempted to protect Green in the way Detroit protected Rafalski and Lidstrom last year can be attributed, in part, to the fact that they haven't really had the personnel to protect him. One of the keys to Detroit's protection scheme is that Stuart, Ericsson, and Kronwall all can skate well and are all capable passers. They need to be able to skate in order to track pucks down all over the zone, and they need to be able to pass so that they can move the puck out of danger when they do get to the loose puck.
The Caps simply haven't had enough blueliners that could skate and move the puck in recent years. Dennis Wideman and Green didn't play together, and John Carlson was paired with Karl Alzner last season. There have been times when some might have thought that Tom Poti could have been the guy to play the left side with Green, but that pair never saw much time together, and Poti was out all last season. Instead, Mike Green has gotten a steady diet of Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn on his left side. Neither of these players can be described by the terms "mobile" or "puck-mover." And this has meant that, more often than not, Mike Green has had to chase down the loose pucks, and take the physical beating that comes with such a job. Let's take a look at how this plays out.
This first example looks a lot like the hit on Rafalski that prompted the Friedman comment. The camera angle doesn't do any favors, but the puck gets dumped in on Schultz' side of the ice, and Green has to retrieve the puck, taking a hit in the process. The Caps can't get the puck out of the zone and Green takes a second hit trying to help get the clear.
As noted above, it's a difficult position for Schultz to be in. He has to hold the blueline so he can't cheat to retrieve the puck, but it's not unfair to expect a rearguard to hold the blueline and then retrieve the puck. That's exactly what Stuart did on the hit above where Lidstrom maintains position in the slot. However, Schultz simply doesn't have the mobility to hold the line, pivot, and then chase down the puck. Green is left to chase the puck and (with the help of a half-hearted backcheck) he takes a solid hit into the end boards.
Now let's take a look at why puck skills are so important. Even if Green's partner can get to the puck, he'll still need to be able to do something with it if this strategy is to be viable. But again, Green hasn't had the luxury of a partner with much in the way of puck skills.
The clip above starts off looking great - the puck goes in to Green's corner, but Schultz reads the play well and chases down the loose puck. Babcock would be happy. However, instead of passing the puck around the back of the net to Alex Ovechkin, wide open on the far wing, Schultz puts the puck back in to the corner. Green has to get the puck in a vulnerable position, and (former) Cap-killer Jon Sim punishes Green. Schultz really needs to take a look and realize where he has the help. The Caps get out of the zone without much problem, but that's another punishing hit that Green never should have taken.
The risk to Green isn't just in the form of chasing and passing pucks; the lack of speed (raw or relative) among fellow blueliners can leave Green alone without support:
Green covers his man as the puck enters the Caps' defensive zone, but when the puck goes into the corner Green has nowhere to go with it. Scott Hannan is too slow getting to an area where he can provide some support, so Green ends up having to eat the puck and take a serious hit from Mike Rupp. The net is blocking out the potential passing lane, so Green would have to throw the puck to no man's land in order to get rid of it. That's not a particularly wise move in the defensive zone, and the result is pain. A quicker partner may have gotten to the far corner and provided Green with an outlet before the pressure could get on top of him.
[Bonus commentary: What is David Steckel doing in this play? He absolutely has to get that puck in deep, but he must have gotten confused into thinking that he had some offensive flair. He's the last guy that should be stick-handling at the blueline, and the turnover results in Mike Green being smeared on the glass.]
Here's one last clip to demonstrate how the lack of D-speed has put Green in trouble (and how he's good enough to get out of it):
Again, Schultz takes too long to get to the puck and that allows Boston to set up the forecheck. Green eventually ends up with the puck in the corner, and he takes the time to set up a crisp breakout pass. Unfortunately, after the time he took to corral the puck and set up his pass, Brad Marchand is on him and all too willing to finish his check. Smile though, Caps fans, because Green stays on his feet and reminds everyone why he's the best offensive defenseman playing in the game today.
This post isn't meant to be fodder for the Anti-Schultz crowd - Schultz has his virtues. He's very good at what he does. He's still a player that can play solid penalty-killing minutes and play against tough competition; for example, he may be the best Capital defender against Evgeni Malkin. But he's not very mobile, and he's not the greatest puck-handler (or the quickest decision-maker). If the Caps want to think about protecting Green by giving him a partner that can skate to loose pucks and take that pressure off of him, Schultz is not well-suited for that role.
Someone who could fit that role very nicely is the newest member of the Caps' blue line, Roman Hamrlik. Hamrlik is both mobile and a smart passer. He could be the guy to help take pressure off of Green, and the Caps' Brass has already discussed the potential of those two playing together. That might help keep Green healthier throughout the season, which can only help the team when the Caps will need his services most. Now that the Caps have the personnel... will Bruce Boudreau use it to protect his best blueline asset?