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Early Returns On The New Look Blueline

Taking a look at the shakeup in the Caps’ defensive corps.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Twelve days ago the Capitals skated onto the Verizon Center ice and suffered a familiar fate: a loss at the end of a strong performance from New York Islanders’ goaltender Jaroslav Halak. But every hockey game’s outcome has at least two components: goals scored, in which Halak played a very real part, and goals against, in which Halak had no say.

Dmitry Orlov, however, made two obvious mistakes that led directly to two Islanders’ goals. And while the Caps lost that game, and Orlov had to stand in front of the bouquet of microphones in a morose home locker room and shoulder the night’s blame, there was a tangible silver lining.

Those two gaffes, which were only the latest in a stretch of games in which Orlov and his partner, John Carlson, had a penchant for bad optics on the blueline, seemed to catalyze a change in the Capitals’ defensive pairings, which had remained largely uninterrupted through the early season.

The Caps entered their next game, an eventual 4-3 OT win over Boston, with new-look pairings on the back end: John Carlson and Karl Alzner reunited, Matt Niskanen paired with the struggling Orlov, and Brooks Orpik holding down the third pair alongside Nate Schmidt. Matt Niskanen suffered an injury in late in the first period of that one, but what a first period it was.

What you see here is that the Caps were the stronger team in the first period, and then once Niskanen was forced to leave and they pushed through with five d-men, the Bruins dominated. There are obviously many factors here, and reducing this information to “the game changed because the Caps’ blueliners were broken up” is a gross simplification. But perhaps that first period was a germination of what’s to come.

Niskanen did miss the next game, but Trotz’s vision for a new blueline was made whole once more on Sunday, when Niskanen returned to the lineup to contribute to a shutout victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

Here’s a look at how these pairings have fared so far on the year, which includes the intermittent overlap they’ve experienced even in games in which the guys weren’t official partners.

stats via

These are relatively small sample sizes, especially at the specific pairing level, and Buffalo and Vancouver don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of men, but aggregate we’re looking at almost 6 full games worth of 5v5 ice time. The early returns show that the Caps’ goal-scoring while Carlzner is on the ice is outpacing the actual quality of play, but the other two pairings are winning both their possession and production battles.

Perhaps most important about mix-up is that it gets John Carlson, the Caps’ nominal top defenseman, away from Dmitry Orlov. Although their possession numbers have been solid together, Orlov and Carlson are number one and two when it comes to 5v5 goals-against rates among Caps defensemen. Certainly not what you want to see from your top pair. But each player, from both a goal-production and goal-prevention standpoint, is much improved when separated from the other.

There’s not a lot of information readily available regarding this set up on the blueline, and for all we know it may be dispatched on the whim of the coaching staff, but for the time being the early returns are promising and at this point in the season anything that improves the play of both John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov should be a considerable net gain.