Japers' Rink Mailbag: Brooks on the Blueline and Backstrom for Selke

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

A look at a possible position change for a struggling forward and the likelihood of some post-season recognition for the team's top pivot in this week's installment of "you ask, we answer."

Our first question this week ponders a position change:

Brooks Laich is struggling.

Mightily.

With just two goals on the season (and none in his last 11 games), brutal possession numbers and the worst plus/minus on the team (with little to mitigate it other than noting that he's gotten some bad puck luck), not much has gone right for Laich so far in 2013-14. The "good-value performance" we'd hoped for over the summer looks to be well on its way to not materializing.

But if Laich isn't producing as a wing or a center, perhaps the Caps could get some value out of one of his strongest assets - his versatility - by using him to help plug the hole that is the fourth-defenseman slot. After all, Laich has filled in admirably on defense during moments of duress, he's been a quality penalty killer (including this year while his even-strength play lags behind), and he generally seems like a smart and hard-working hockey player. It makes sense to wonder whether he could make the transition to a full-time defenseman... but it's not realistic.

For starters, playing defense on spot duty is completely different from being a full-time NHL defender. With regular duty on the blueline, teams would have more film of Laich playing defensively and would be more prepared to exploit him. The old adage is that it takes a defender about 300 games to really find his place in the NHL, and that's discussing players that have played defense their entire lives. The constant pressure of the speed of NHL forwards is incredibly difficult, and learning to play the angles to prevent talented forwards from getting quality scoring chances takes years of practice to hone the skill to the point of it being second nature. Over the course of an NHL regular season, Laich would probably be exposed because, while he is capable of playing defense, there would be too many opportunities for NHL forwards to take advantage of him.

And that's just discussing a switch to defense. A switch to a top-four defensive role would be even more difficult. That would require playing significant minutes against top-six forwards, and a lot of time on the penalty kill. He plays those minutes on the penalty kill as a forward, and has played in a checking line role as a forward, but both of those situations are very different as a forward than they are as a defender. The reads, responsibilities, and coverages all change drastically when you make that positional switch. Think about how long it took the Caps to adjust to Dale Hunter's system and then Adam Oates's system. These players were (mostly) all playing the same position they'd played their entire lives and still had difficulty adjusting. Trying to switch from forward to defense at the NHL level is prohibitively difficult (how many players can you name that have made that switch?).

Finally, the question presumes that Laich is still struggling later in the season. If he's having difficulty contributing as a forward, where he can be placed on the wing (with fewer defensive responsibilities) or on a lower line (with fewer offensive responsibilities and ice time), then why would the natural inclination be to move him to defense? He'd have much greater defensive responsibilities and more ice time in that case. Essentially, you'd be moving a struggling player to a position in which they have more pressure to perform, and asking them to learn new tasks/reads/responsibilities. Laich's problem so far this season has been that he looks a step behind the play; his reads aren't quick or crisp. He may still be grasping the nuances of Oates' system, but he's had almost a year to be studying that system as a forward. Moving him to defense would cause him to think a lot more on the ice. Thinking slows players down, causes mistakes, and leads to breakdowns. Asking a player that already seems to be struggling with pace to add more thinking to his game is only going to exacerbate those problems.

Laich's body of work has already shown what kind of NHL forward he can be. He's recovering from a groin injury that has taken plenty of players a substantial amount of time to recover (see: Danny Briere, Mike Green). Oates may do well to manage Laich's minutes more carefully, but eventually the rust will be knocked off and Laich will look like the player we've come to know in D.C. Moving him to defense isn't the answer for the player, or for the team.

Our second question goes to J.P. and looks waaaaay ahead to award season:

Nicklas Backstrom is an outstanding two-way forward. In fact, if there's a better sequence to exemplify outstanding two-way play by a forward than this one (turnover notwithstanding), I haven't seen it. And nowadays, the Selke - awarded to "the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game" - is really about two-way play, as it's been nearly a decade since the honor went to a forward who averaged less than three-quarters of a point per game.

The Selke also has become essentially reserved for centers at this point, with pivots taking home the last nine and the overwhelming majority of the distinctions throughout the award's history.

So far, so good for Backstrom.

But dig a little deeper and things get tougher for Backstrom. The voters tend to look at the much-maligned plus-minus stat and faceoff percentage, and Backstrom is currently rocking the red (as in, on the wrong side of even) in both, though it's worth noting that he's won 61% of his draws in the defensive zone. Voters should also look at things like penalty-killing time (Backstrom is only getting a dozen seconds per night there) and deployment (Backstrom is getting the "easiest" minutes of any Caps center).

All of this isn't to say that Backstrom can't play Selke-caliber defense. He can. But by the criteria that the voters tend to look at, the nature of what can often feel like a "lifetime achievement" award, and the way his coach is using him, it's unlikely that he'll get much serious consideration for the award (though he did snag a couple of votes last year). Then again, perhaps the strongest argument in Backstrom's favor is one that would appeal to those mainstream voters - Nicklas Backstrom centers Alex Ovechkin and the line isn't completely underwater, defensively.

***

Agree? Disagree?

If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. There are still a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.

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