Defense wins championships.
It's a tired old cliché, but as is usually the case with clichés, there's more than a little truth to it. And while it's not the sole reason the Caps are about to enter their fourth championship-less decade of hockey since entering the League, the most persistently-glaring organizational weakness for some time has been the inability to assemble a championship-caliber blueline and/or implement a system that produced one.
It wasn't always the case, of course. Back in the mid-1980s, arguably the best Caps team ever was anchored by future Hall-of-Fame twenty-somethings Rod Langway, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy on the blue line. And the one team in franchise history to make it to the Finals had a very solid group of rearguards with veterans Calle Johansson, Mark Tinordi, Phil Housley and Joe Reekie bringing along up-and-comers Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt.
But that 1997-98 team was the beginning of the end in many ways insofar as strong defenses go, as it was a team made up almost entirely of players that first-year general manager George McPhee inherited from his predecessor, David Poile. As those inherited players moved on, McPhee was unable to adequately address the position through the draft - the Caps didn't have more than 50 games played by McPhee-drafted defensemen in a season until after the 2004-05 lockout, and it wasn't until 2004 and subsequent drafts started bearing fruits (the unmitigated disaster that was first-rounders Joe Finley and Sasha Pokulok in 2005 notwithstanding) that the Caps were able to rely upon a crop of homegrown blueliners - and never was able to either build from scratch or successfully complement what he had in the organization via trade or free agency to put together a truly competitive group on the back-end.
Here's the make-up of McPhee's D-corps, year-by-year (yes, it's another motion chart like the one we used yesterday - select acquisition method(s) from the box at right, click play in the bottom left or select a season with the slider, etc.):
(Note: 2013 is pro-rated to 82 games.)
Not surprisingly, McPhee's blueline for roughly the first half of his tenure was characterized by a heavy reliance on the players he'd inherited, while the latter half by big minutes for his own draft picks, most notably Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Going forward, a core of drafted defenders remains, with Dmitry Orlov and others likely to add to those totals (kudos to the team's amateur scouts).
But they haven't been - and won't be - enough. Which brings us to today and the organization's continued inability to piece together a top-notch defense - an issue which may or may not persist with the dismissal of McPhee and the promotion to the GM position for Brian MacLellan. For the previous seven years, as you know, MacLellan "oversaw the club’s professional scouting staff" after stints as a pro scout and then director of player personnel for the team dating back to 2000.
As noted above, McPhee's track record of filling holes on defense via free agency and trades - two areas that rely heavily on the team's pro scouting department - was, in a word, woeful. How bad was it? The top five defensemen that McPhee traded for, signed or claimed off waivers (i.e. didn't inherit or draft) in terms of games played were Shaone Morrisonn, John Erskine, Tom Poti, Milan Jurcina and Brian Pothier.
McPhee never traded for, signed or claimed a defenseman who played 400 games for the team (though Erskine conceivably could reach that milestone next year), or scored 14 goals for them (Pothier had 13), or topped 75 points (Poti) - and the result has been a patchwork blueline, no doubt to the detriment of young defensemen who haven't had the veteran guidance they've seemed at times to have needed. (Undrafted free agent Nate Schmidt could provide some lipstick on this pig in time, but he's essentially a technicality here.)
When Dennis Wideman may well be the best professional defenseman acquired over a 17-year span, that's a pretty ugly record, and one that lacks real coherence or vision. (2008-09 was the high-water mark for games-played by non-inherited/drafted Caps defenseman during the McPhee Era, and it was arguably the best team McPhee had. Coincidence? Probably.)
Now, there certainly have been constraints in place that have limited the need for or ability to go out and get blueliners - the number of incumbents at the position, those bad early drafts yielding few trade chips, internal budgets and commitments to players like Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang, The Rebuild™, etc. And this is George McPhee's record, not Brian MacLellan's. But it's fair to approach the latter's likelihood of solving the problem with some skepticism. As Ed Frankovic put it in the wake of MacLellan's promotion:
[R]ecent free agent moves have not addressed the team’s main deficiencies, which start on the blue line. When you see the attention paid to that position and moves like Roman Hamrlik and Tyson Strachan, you have to wonder what is going on in the pro scouting arena? How many times did George McPhee tell the media and the fans "We like our D?" Wasn’t MacLellan a part of the "We?"
That's the big question, isn't it? The extent to which MacLellan and McPhee agreed on the composition of the defense they'd built will presumably go a long way towards helping us predict what it might look like in the years ahead. Unfortunately, we're unlikely to get more than scraps of information and circumstantial evidence.
Seventy-seven defensemen suited up for the Caps during George McPhee's tenure, many of them when Brian MacLellan was a pro scout and many more during his subsequent promotions. During that time the Caps' front office failed to demonstrate an ability to compose a defense that was, well, good enough. To his credit, MacLellan has already talked about beefing up the pro scouting department (which hopefully just lost its best man), so a recognition of the problem is there. And so is a solid core (we think), so we really are talking about plugging holes of varying sizes rather than foundational changes at a position where free agency can often be a relatively safe bet... even if it wasn't under McPhee.
Now, somewhat ironically and almost certainly wisely, the Caps have hired a head coach who's known to have had a hand in developing some outstanding defensemen and defensive schemes (though he's seemingly trying to distance himself from that reputation). But Barry Trotz won't be able to get the Caps' current stable of defensemen to a contending level; he's going to need help from his general manager. So it's time for Brian MacLellan to show that, unlike his predecessor, he can get that job done, and there's a chance he is able to do just that.
Still, you'll forgive Caps fans for starting from a position bordering on a presumption of guilt. After all, this is quite possibly the man who recommended trading for Joe Corvo.