Who is Adam Oates's Top Defenseman?

Greg Fiume

A look at how the Capitals are distributing the tough minutes on the blueline

When the Carolina Hurricanes came calling to Verizon Center on Tuesday night, they did so boasting one of the hottest lines in the League in Alexander Semin, Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty. Only Pittsburgh's top trio has combined for more even-strength points on the season, so clearly containing the three highly skilled forwards was going to be a top priority for Washington.

It being a home game, Caps bench boss Adam Oates had one key advantage towards achieving that goal: the last line change, the opportunity to see which of Kirk Muller's lines would be on the ice for an upcoming face-off and choose which of his own trios and defensive pairings to deploy as a counter-measure. On this night, Oates would most-frequently match the 'Canes top line with what was nominally his second line (Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer) and the blueliner duo of John Carlson and Jeff Schultz.

It worked.

The Staal line (err, the Eric Staal line) was beaten in terms of puck possession, which was no small feat considering how handily Carolina out-possessed the Caps overall. Yes, that was the exact match-up that yielded the first 'Canes goal, but goals are less frequent events than shot attempts, so the latter tend to be better indicators of overall play (especially when the goal we're talking about was about as fluky as they come).

That was a long set-up for a simple observation: from a defensive standpoint, Adam Oates apparently sees John Carlson as his top blueliner. At the very least, he sees Carlson's pairing - be it with John Erskine, Tom Poti or Schultz - as his top pair.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to observers who have seen Carlson on the ice for so many goals-against this year, the result of his individual struggles and bad luck, and who might expect to see Karl Alzner in that role. But a look at how Oates has used the two yields a preference that has emerged (and changed) when it comes to matching against the other guys' big guns. Let's take a look at this season's home games (last change and all) and at the top three forwards each faced in those games:

Game#/Opp. Carlson Alzner
2 Winnipeg Jokinen, Wheeler, Kane Jokinen, Wheeler, Kane
3 Montreal Bourque, Plekanec, Gionta Bourque, Gionta, Plekanec
5 Buffalo Ennis, Ott, Stafford Hodgson, Pominville, Gerbe
8 Philadelphia Talbot, Voracek, Read Briere, Giroux, McGinn
9 Pittsburgh Crosby, Kunitz, Dupuis Malkin, Neal, Boychuk
10 Toronto Grabovski, Kulemin, McClement Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Bozak
12 Florida Fleischmann, Weiss, Mueller Kopecky, Skille, Goc
16 New Jersey Henrique, Elias, Clarkson Kovalchuk, Ponikarovsky,Zajac
17 New Jersey Elias, Clarkson, Henrique Kovalchuk, Ponikarovsky, Loktionov
18 Carolina E. Staal, Semin, LaRose Sanguinetti, Dwyer, Jokinen
21 Boston Lucic, Krejci, Horton Bergeron, Seguin, Marchand
22 Florida Fleischmann, Shore, Mueller Shore, Huberdeau, Mueller
24 New York Hagelin, Nash, Richards Gaborik, Callahan, Stepan
25 Carolina E. Staal, Tlusty, Semin J. Staal, Skinner, Jokinen

The big caveat here, of course, is that Alzner has been paired primarily with NHL newcomer Tomas Kundratek recently and Mike Green before that, while Carlson has skated with Erskine, and then a fairly even split of Alzner, Poti and Schultz the rest of the way (to determine pairings for any of the specific games above, click on the link under "Game#/Opp."), though it's worth noting that Oates hasn't sheltered Kundratek and Green as much as one might expect.

Carlson and his partners have justified their coach's confidence of late, as the 23-year-old rearguard has only been on the ice for three even-strength goals against in the last eight games (which covers the last five games listed in the table above). Alzner, for his part, has been on for twice as many during that span. Over the previous eight games, those numbers were flipped - six for Carlson, three for Alzner (evidence, in all likelihood, of the difference between Green and Kundratek).

A lot of the Caps' recent opponents have "1A and 1B" lines, and reasonable minds can differ on which Caps blueliner's assignment was tougher. But on Tuesday night, Oates chose Carlson to play the hardest minutes. Earlier in the year it was Alzner. Who it is going forward bears watching as much as their individual performances do.

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