Surveying the Landscape After UFA D-Day

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Capitals went after the Penguins' unrestricted free agent defensemen yesterday; what does that mean going forward?

As you have no doubt read, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are Washington Capitals.

We'd previously identified upgrading the defense as the new GM's biggest challenge, Caps fans have wanted to add a top-four defender to the group for years, and yesterday the team brought in two  of 'em (to add to the three that were already there). The contracts are the contracts, and we can't do anything about them - two or three years from now they may cause some pain, but there are teams out there that routinely sign contracts for today and deal with the mess later. It hasn't seemed to catch up to them (yet), so maybe it's the Caps' turn to get aggressive and make the best roster they can make, if only for this year; do what their division rivals do and ignore the price tag. (It's probably worth noting here that the irresponsible-spending Rangers and Flyers have skated for the Cup during the Alex Ovechkin Era and, well, Ovi hasn't come close.)

This year, with these new additions, the Caps are undoubtedly much better on the blue line. The last time the Caps had a defensive corps that was this talented and this deep, they went to the Stanley Cup final (weird, that). Before that, the Captain wasn't wearing a helmet and Scott Stevens hadn't left DC because ownership thought that no hockey player was worth a million dollars... my how times have changed. The top four defenders are suddenly not so clear-cut, and this time it's a good thing. The names John Erskine, Connor Carrick and so on aren't going to sniff a discussion about the regular lineup unless KCI gets hit by a Cessna as practice is letting out.

The first question on everyone's mind is what is going to happen to Mike Green? Did they just bring in two defenders to force him out? From Alex Prewitt (who has been killing it), the Caps still see Green as part of the team. Of course, anything can happen, but that's a good sign. He's still the most offensively talented defender on the team, and with some help around him he should be able to exploit his talents in ways that he hasn't been able in years. So, assuming the Caps are serious about keeping Green, how does it shake out?

If you've been following us this off-season, you know that we've been looking at how certain players perform against top competition. Below, take a look at how Orpik and Niskanen performed last year for the Penguins:

Niskanen_orpik

Those numbers for Orpik... not very inspiring. I know the guy is a stay at home defender, but is there even any red against those top lines? Do you need more evidence that Orpik may not be the guy to play the shutdown role for the Caps? Because you're getting it:

Orpik_against_you_medium

Ouch (especially given that the Caps are in a division with the Islanders, Flyers and Hurricanes). That's probably not the profile of a guy you want to throw out every shift against top lines (small samples and lack of context notwithstanding).

Fear not, for it's not as bad as that chart looks. Orpik got the toughest assignments of any defender on the Penguins, starting in the defensive zone more often than any of the other defenders on the team. He was fed to the wolves, and it shows. General Manager Brian MacLellan is not unaware of Corsi and the possession stats. He's not unaware of how handily Orpik got beaten last year. Again via Prewitt:

He gets put in defensive situations a lot. He starts in the defensive zone. He doesn't get offensive zone starts. I don't view him as a guy who carries the puck a lot. He's a defensive defenseman... I don't necessarily value the Corsi number on him. I think if you get him with a real good puck-mover I think in a certain environment he's going to score high on the Corsi.

We've questioned how much a defensive defenseman can drive Corsi, and it would seem that the Caps have some of the same skepticism (of course, ours would still steer us clear of this type of player on this type of deal, but that's neither here nor there). But, more importantly, it's nice to see the front office thinking critically about the player and evaluating all available evidence. I wouldn't say that Orpik wasn't with a good puck-mover in Pittsburgh, though -he did play more often with Paul Martin than any other skater. Still, Orpik was used to handling difficult assignments, and his deployment was much less favorable than the other ex-Penguin signed yesterday:

Niskanen_orpik_2_medium

So, yes, Orpik was given notably more difficult assignments than Niskanen. In fact, nobody that changed teams yesterday played tougher minutes than Orpik. He spent more time on the penalty kill, essentially no time on the power play. He'll be used in defensive situations, and the Caps think he can thrive with a capable puck-mover. They've got a couple of those on the roster, so that hypothesis will no doubt be tested.

As for Niskanen, he just got paid a ton of money after his breakout year. He wasn't facing particularly difficult opposition, but he steamrolled it and showed some offensive ability, so that's a good thing. And it's not to say that Niskanen was a passenger or just had the one good season - he was certainly carrying his weight and has been. Via Dellow:

Screen-shot-2014-05-31-at-2.43.07-am

Niskanen has been growing as a player, and even before his big season last year, he was already out-performing his team in terms of possession. Further evidence that Niskanen isn't being carried by his teammates, he makes just about everyone he plays with better. Whether you want to look at last season or the last three seasons, the story is the same: teammates put up better possession numbers with Niskanen than without him. He's not going to need to be heavily sheltered, but he clearly can take advantage of those situations. (In case you're curious, here's Orpik's chart... not so pretty.)

So the Caps picked up one guy who played second-pair and easier minutes, and feasted and one guy who played all the defensive minutes and had his possession numbers punished for his trouble (and let's not forget that both played for a coach who apparently wasn't good enough at his job to keep it and on a team that was decimated by injuries).

That's all in the past, though. The Caps want to play Orpik with a puck-mover, and here's where the difficult decision lies. If they are going to continue to use Orpik to take horrifically difficult assignments, they'd be wise to have his partner be capable of handling those same assignments. That would suggest they reunite the Olympic pairing of Orpik and Carlson. However, Orpik didn't do so well against top competition that he has to be, or even should be, penciled in for the top unit. There's no reason to think that either Orpik or Niskanen is an upgrade on the incumbent top-pair in Washington: Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

But a guy like Orpik is the exact kind of guy that Green could thrive with, a defense-first veteran that can cover for Green's riskier decisions. That would push Orpik and Green to the second pair, leaving Carlson and longtime partner Alzner to battle the top lines, giving Orpik the puck-mover that MacLellan (and, presumably, Barry Trotz) envisions him with. Carlson and Alzner faced top opposition last year, and despite being on a disaster of a possession team, came real close to matching Orpik's raw Corsi numbers against top lines (Orpik at 47.7%, Carlson and Alzner both at 46% and change). With more competent coaching, that pair could continue to play the tough minutes, and let Orpik and Green play less difficult, but not sheltered, minutes. That leaves the highest paid defender on the free agency market, Niskanen, to be paired with Dmitry Orlov, taking all the offensive zone starts and facing weaker competition. They would absolutely feast. If it sounds weird to put the big UFA acquisition on the third pair, just reorder the list, or don't look at the price tag.

Realistically, though, the price tag matters. The team didn't shell out huge bucks to put either of these guys on a third pair. That means two incumbent defenders will end up on the third pair, and the most likely option for that (Adam Oates and his handedness obsession be damned) would be Alzner and Orlov. That would tend to mean they'd be used in a more balanced manner, as Alzner isn't a great option to feed offensive zone starts and Orlov isn't a great option to feed defensive zone starts, but they do complement each other nicely in terms of skill set and would potentially be quite successful. An Alzner/Orlov third pair leaves options for the top four, and iIt could be as simple as playing the two newcomers together, and keeping the Caps pairs the same. Orpik's best partner over the last three years has been Niskanen. We know Alzner/Carlson can get it done and Green/Orlov crushed it last year. It could also mean any combination of Green/Niskanen, Carlson/Orpik, or Carlson/Niskanen, Green/Orpik, or... you get the point. There are lots of options, and nobody in the group needs to be protected from tough opposition.

We know that Trotz has no problem adjusting his usage to the talent available. If he needs to shelter a guy (hi, Michael Del Zotto), he'll do it. If he needs to feed a pair to the wolves, he'll do it. And he definitely likes to lean on his studs in terms of overall ice time. There's nobody who clearly needs to be sheltered, and at least two guys that could be trusted to hang out in the upper left corner of this chart. As Muneeb said:

If I had to guess, I'd peg Carlson and either a future acquisition or Alzner as the players to end up in the top-left corner.

Well, now there are two of the "future acquisition" variety, but Orpik does seem the more likely to end up in the top left, potentially with Alzner or Carlson, leaving Green and either Niskanen or Carlson to take those moderate minutes, and a lot of them. Orlov could be the Del Zotto of the group, but I don't think he'll need as much sheltering as Del Zotto did.

There will almost certainly be an adjustment period, and Trotz will likely try out several different pairings. The nice part about this defensive unit is that there are no clear cut answers, and no clear cut vulnerabilities. The unit is deep and well-rounded, with a couple stay-at-home guys, a couple offense-first guys, and a couple guys who are more of the two-way variety. It also has, in Trotz and assistant Todd Reirdan, probably the most capable coaching for the position that any of these guys has ever had in the NHL.

For the first time in Alex Ovechkin's career, the Caps have a deep and talented D corps, one that you could actually see playing for a team in the Stanley Cup finals. How they choose to utilize group (and what they can get out of the group up front...) remains to be seen, but defense has finally become a strength of the team. Just don't look at the price tag.

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