2013 Capitals Defenseman Pairs: The Good and The Bad

USA TODAY Sports

A look at the Caps' most - and least - dynamic duos on the blueline from the past season

Yesterday we took a look at Caps forward pairs (what worked and what didn't in 2013), and today we turn our attention to the blueline. Check out that post for any background that you might have missed, otherwise, let's just dive right in with a look at every pair of Caps rearguards that skated 50 five-on-five minutes together in 2013 (stats via HockeyAnalysis.com; small sample size caveats, etc.; click to enlarge):

Defenseman_matrix_large

As it was in the forwards post, what you see there is each defensive pair that met the minutes minimum and their Corsi-For percentage (CF%) when on-ice together (or the individual's overall CF% in the gray boxes), with the colors ranging from green to red and corresponding to the ranking among these pairs. Additionally, right-handed defensemen have their names in red, since this distinction has become critically important under Adam Oates, who will rarely skate same-handed blueliners together. So (righty) John Carlson and (lefty) Karl Alzner, for example, were at 51.7%, which was pretty high on the list. And here's a better look at those rankings:

Defenseman_list_large

Now, to the observations:

  • Jeff Schultz and Steven Oleksy, eh? Didn't see that one coming. It was just 51:21 of ice time, but it apparently worked.
  • Speaking of Oleksy, he was incredibly fortunate when he was on the ice, posting a very-high PDO of 1050. But as we noted in his Rink Wrap and as you see here, he was also on the right side (no pun intended) of 50% with three of his four most common partners, and appears in three of the top-five pairings. It'd be a stretch to say that Oleksy "tilts the ice," and he likely benefited from good timing (i.e. not being a part of the club that struggled out of the gate). But his solid play should cushion the landing a bit when regression comes calling, and if these stats are any indication, he should have the inside-track on the third-pairing righty over Tomas Kundratek (and while neither Oleksy nor Kundratek is waiver-exempt, the latter's one-way contract could conceivably play into the decision).
  • The same cannot be said for John Erskine, however, who had a similar astronomic PDO, but poor possession stats. Granted, Erskine is unlikely to be driving the Corsi bus one way or the other by himself, but the chart is pretty stark, especially when you see what his most common partner, Carlson, did without him - with Erskine, Carlson was at 44.9%; without Erskine, Carlson was at 53.1%. Erskine played tough minutes, but they beat him (handily), and it's highly unlikely that he'll be able to pair a 61.1% Goals-For percentage with a 45.5% CF% ever again over a stretch of any significance. Replacing him in the top-four should be priority number one for this team, and if it's not with Dmitry Orlov, it'll likely have to come from outside the organization.
  • Orlov's time in the NHL this season was limited to just 69 even-strength minutes, and in that time he had a 36.4% CF% with Green (boo) and a 66.7% CF% with Oleksy (yay) and just under 30 minutes with each. That doesn't say much of anything, of course, but in 900 career minutes he's at 49.8% (and over 50% with Green and Carlson... and Dennis Wideman!), so if he can get back to his healthy and aggressive play, there's reason to believe he has top-four upside... but he likely will need to work himself back to that point.
  • Alzner and Mike Green were a bit of a disappointment together, but they deserved a better fate than they got, with a GF% of just 36.1% to go along with that mediocre CF%. But get used to the duo - Green didn't play as much as 35 five-on-five minutes all season with anyone other than Alzner. They'll be fine.
  • Jack Hillen made the most of his minutes and would seem to be a fine fit in a depth role, which is probably not too surprising, since he can skate and move the puck.

So what we're left with is more evidence for what we've known for a while - the Caps have three strong defensemen, and some decent options for a third pairing and even one or two injury fill-ins (provided it's not to one of those top-three). But John Erskine isn't the answer in that critical fourth top-four spot, and unless Dmitry Orlov is, this team has a gaping hole there that could very well be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

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