In their second-to-last game before the Olympic break, the Washington Capitals managed to come from behind to beat the Winnipeg Jets and secure two much-needed points. Even in victory, however, the Capitals managed to provide us with one of the soul-crushing defensive breakdowns that have come to define this team and temper some of the optimism about the team going forward.
Normally we'd move on, content with the win - but Adam Oates's comments after the game have had us wondering exactly what should have happened, and how the Capitals' defensive coverage is supposed to look.
First, the goal:
Dustin Byfuglien is probably the best shooter on the Jets, and their leading defensive scorer (though he was playing up front on this night), third in the League in goals for a defenseman... but again he's not always a defenseman. Regardless, that he was so wide open on this play is a glaring mistake for the Capitals. When we first looked at the video, the culprits seemed to be fairly straightforward: Connor Carrick, after initially playing the rush well by sliding from Olli Jokinin to Devin Setoguchi, backs in too far (as is his wont) and Marcus Johansson fails to pick up Byfuglien coming in late:
Seems simple. Four Capitals defenders were covering a man, four Jets were covered. Johansson is in no-man's land, Byfuglien is open, there's the mistake. Not so fast.
Per Oates (video):
"With our rules, that's not really his fault on the goal. He's caught in no-man's land and they picked him apart. It was really our gap with the D. We were a little too far back and they made a little play at the blueline and JoJo gets caught in between, so it's not really his read on the goal."
As stated above, we agree that the defense had poor gap control and backed too far in (specifically Carrick), but fail to see how that exonerates Johansson's positioning and culpability. There isn't any other real alternative to covering Byfuglien. Dmitry Orlov is tight on his man, and if he steps up to take Byfuglien he'd be letting a free forward skate to the net; that is surely not the right play. Even if Carrick steps up on the play, it doesn't resolve the defensive coverage issue. Carrick could have pressured Setoguchi and made it a more difficult pass, but someone has to cover Byfuglien. Two Caps defenders covering two forwards, two Caps forwards covering Jets defenders... how is it not Johansson's job to cover the third forward trailing the play?
Theoretically, Johansson could be responsible for backchecking to the slot and one of the other forwards on the play (Troy Brouwer and Casey Wellman) would be responsible for tracking down Byfuglien. That would mean that the Caps do not employ a man-to-man backcheck, and all players are responsible for beating the opponents back to their defensive zone. That may make sense, though it's hard to reconcile the theory of the system with the reality of what happened above. At some point the backcheckers need to realize where the threat is and adjust; in this case, an open Byfuglien.
If we take Oates at his word that Johansson didn't make a mistake, that means the Caps' backchecking/defensive zone coverage is designed to allow a forward to walk down broadway for an open chance in transition... which is 1,000 times worse than someone blowing an assignment. In the face of reason and visual evidence, we'll choose to believe that Oates is simply protecting his player. It's not uncommon (or undesirable) for coaches to protect their players in the media, even while they are taking them to task and making corrections behind closed doors. If Oates wants to diffuse Johansson's culpability on the play, that's his prerogative - but we're not convinced.
Whatever Oates' system, there must have been a breakdown here. We'll keep an eye on the Caps' defensive coverage, and any public insight Oates supplies, but the bottom line is that this is another killer breakdown that gives opponents a great scoring chance. If the Caps continue to give dangerous shooters open looks in the slot (or closer) it's going to cost them points in the standings, and potentially keep them out of the playoffs.