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A look at next season’s Washington Capitals defense and Jeff Schultz

English: Jeff Schultz plays a homegame against...

Jeff Schultz plays a homegame against New Jersey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Washington Capitals have four defensemen from their current NHL roster under contract for next season (listed here with their ’13-’14 cap hit, according to CapGeek.com):

Mike Green – $6,083,333
John Carlson – $3,966,667
Jeff Schultz – $2,750,000
John Erskine – $1,962,500

Restricted free agent Karl Alzner, currently making $1,285,000 will certainly be re-signed, at a much higher salary than what he makes now, but for less than what the Caps pay the more offensive-minded Carlson. That would bring the total under contract to five.

Dmitry Orlov, who just returned to action with the AHL Hershey Bears last week after being injured in a December game for them during the NHL lockout, should be back with the Caps next season and will earn $900,000.

Newcomer Steven Oleksy is set to make $541,667 in 2013-14 if he remains at the NHL level, while Tomas Kundratek could be re-signed for a reasonable price and brought back as well. This would bring the Washington defense total to eight players.

Prospects Cam Shilling, just recalled to DC from Hershey, and Patrick Wey, a senior at Boston College, could be in the picture for the Caps next year as well, taking the field to 10.

I’ve left Tom Poti off that list, as I don’t expect him to be back, and Jack Hillen, who has played only one game this year and will be an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end. Hillen could be re-signed as an inexpensive seventh or eighth option on defense for well under $1 million, but it’s difficult to tell his status for next season at this point and I’m going to leave him out of this discussion.

Taking all that into account and not knowing if a trade or free agent signing will occur, here are the defensemen that would be in the picture next season, broken down by the side they shoot from:

Left: Alzner, Erskine, Schultz, Kundratek, Orlov, Schilling

Right: Green, Carlson, Oleksy, Wey

If Capitals coach Adam Oates wants to go with three right-shooting and three left-shooting defensemen in the line-up next season, things look a little thin with the righties if Green continues to battle injuries. Provided he’s healthy, Green, Carlson and Oleksy could make up that side for the Caps, with Wey starting off in Hershey.

With the left-handed shooters, things get more interesting. Alzner will, without a doubt, be an everyday player. Erskine has just been re-signed and though he’s been a seventh defensemen for Washington at times in the past, I expect he’ll be in the line-up regularly based on how he was being utilized by Oates before his recent injury.

If Orlov returns to his form of last season, it will be tough to keep him out of the line-up and Kundratek has shown great promise, with the potential to earn a starting job next season too. Schilling could end up back in Hershey if things shake out this way.

That would leave the seven dmen as: Green, Alzner, Carlson, Erskine, Orlov, Kundratek and Oleksy. If there’s an injury and an eighth is needed, Shilling or Wey could be called up, depending on how they’re playing and whether a right or left shot is needed.

There’s one guy I’ve left out of the group: Jeff Schultz.

I’ve never been a Schultz hater. While there are flaws in his game, as there are with many players, he often gets blamed for more than he deserves. He’s been somewhat like Alex Semin was for the Caps on a smaller scale, getting called out for his mistakes more than other players and not given some credit when he deserves it. But I do think Schultz and his $2,750,000 salary next season are something the Caps could do without.

With what will likely be an abundance of left-handed shooting defensemen going into training camp and younger, less expensive options like Kundratek and Orlov, now might be the time for the Caps to take what they can get for Schultz, freeing up nearly $3 million for next season to spend on other pieces, such as Top 6 forwards.

If a team is looking for an experienced dman in the off-season and is willing to take Schultz for a prospect or a pick, the Caps should pull the trigger. Depending on their playoff position and the health of Orlov, the Caps could even look to make a move like that before the April 3 trade deadline.

Another option is for the Caps to include Schultz as part of a package this off-season or during ’13-’14 to fill another of the team’s needs, which could be a Top 6, goal-scoring forward or a right-shooting, offensive defenseman if Green can’t stay healthy. The team will also need a second line center if Mike Ribeiro isn’t back next season.

But whatever the approach, with things looking crowded for left-handed defensemen next season, moving Schultz is certainly one way the Caps could free up some cap space to address some other areas where the team is short on talent. And this has more to do with cost and other assets in the organization than it does with Schultz’s abilities.

Some highlights from Saturday’s Caps win over the Bruins

The Caps did a lot of little things well in yesterday’s 4-3 win over the Bruins in Boston. Here are a few of them that really jumped out at me:

  • The Caps stood up for their goalie beginning early on in the game, shoving away many Bruins that got near Tomas Vokoun
  • John Carlson was especially impressive during one segment of a first period penalty kill, tying up the puck along the boards to waste some of the Bruins’ power play time, then roughing up Lucic a bit in front of the net as he tried to settle in there, and stepping up to block a shot to close out the sequence
  • As Russian Machine pointed out on Twitter, Mike Knuble had some great puck possession time in the game.
  • Alex Semin’s pass to Jay Beagle for Washington’s 3rd goal was excellent, not to mention the work to get that puck before making the pass
  • Brooks Laich’s tip-in for the 4th goal was nice to see — he was set up by Alex Ovechkin for what appeared to be an even easier tip-in the previous game but missed
  • Troy Brouwer’s play with one second left to knock away a puck that was about to become a shot on goal showed the Caps fighting until the very end.

I did get nervous when the Bruins pulled within one, especially after the Caps’ third period collapse at home versus the Jets a few weeks ago. But the Caps held on. We’ll see if playing back to back days affects the team’s ability to stay focused on the important details during today’s game against Toronto, who’s coming off a Saturday afternoon game against the Flyers.

Check out yesterday’s Caps-Bruins highlights on NHL.com.

Other Notes: For some great analysis, check out this post by WNST’s Ed Frankovic and his theory on why the Caps have played better this week. >>> I was really impressed with Dmitry Orlov in overtime during the Caps win against Tampa on Thursday night. Mike Vogel has a nice look at the rookie defenseman on the Dump ‘n’ Chase blog. >>> Finally, what would it take for CSNWashington to give us a Caps pre-game show before every game? As I noted on Twitter yesterday, it seems there’s been enough interest in the Caps to justify it and these five minutes intros we get before the puck drops  for some games, like yesterday’s, feel very rushed.

Caps-Bolts: Ovechkin’s other options with 25 seconds left

With about 25 seconds to go in last night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals down by a goal, I would have liked to have seen Alex Ovechkin pass the puck to a teammate rather than hold it and eventually shoot from a bad angle (see video embedded below).

Troy Brouwer was open and then, after Ovechkin comes out from behind the net, John Carlson appears to have been open as he was cutting in from the point. Carlson might have had the whole top right corner of the net open for a quick shot, with Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon down in a butterfly position and over toward the left post.

Just putting the puck on net like Ovechkin eventually did isn’t a bad idea in that situation, but he had better options and they would have involved some puck movement, which is often a very good thing—in fact, it’s what led to the Caps only goal of the game.

Breakdown of a breakdown: Florida’s fourth goal vs. the Caps on 2/1/12

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson has been taking some heat for his play lately, and understandably so.

As Adam Vingan of Kings of Leonsis points out, “in the month of January, the Caps allowed 32 total goals against. John Carlson was on the ice for 22 of them.” Looking as far back as the coaching change the Caps made in November, Japers’ Rink notes: “By my count, John Carlson has been on the ice for 42 of the 67 goals allowed under Dale Hunter. That’s staggering.” Carlson was nearly on the ice for another goal in Tuesday night’s overtime loss to Tampa, but Tomas Vokoun came up what some (we) are calling the save of the year.

There’s one goal though—an empty netter by Florida on Wednesday night to put the Panthers up 4-2—that Carlson deserves less blame for than he’s been getting from some Caps fans on Twitter. As the video clip below shows, a poor pass by Marcus Johansson played a large role in allowing the Panthers to score their fourth goal and put the game away.

The video begins as a pass from an unidentifiable Washington player Roman Hamrlik hops over Johannsson’s stick near center ice and, as Johannsson reaches it near the boards, he attempts to knock it back to Carlson. Even if Johansson makes a clean pass there, Carlson would have little time to do much with the puck, given how close the Panthers’ Shawn Matthias is.

Johansson would have likely been better off sending the puck left and off the boards toward the offensive zone, rather than trying to send it back to Carlson. The play also could have turned out better if Carlson had stepped up toward the red line and fired the puck into the offensive zone himself before Johansson got there, though he may have been playing somewhat cautiously knowing the net behind him was empty.

Going back to the unidentifiable Washington player Hamrlik, who made the initial pass to Johansson, a better decision could have been made there on what to do with the puck; other Caps were open and skating with the puck rather than passing it really might have been the best idea for that player. But when Johansson eventually does end up getting to that puck, he needs to make a quick decision that better protects it. His attempt to pass back to Carlson was careless and not a crisp one on top of that.

Improved communication and decision-making all around would have helped on this play. This breakdown is also a reminder that, though Johansson and Carlson play big roles on this Capitals team—particularly with Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom injured—they still have a relatively small number of NHL games played between them (Carlson 154; Johansson, 117). Eventually, with enough experience under their belts, they might act better on instinct in these situations.

On the topic of instinct, it sometimes seems it’s a sports fan’s tendency to quickly fault one player when something goes wrong while they’re in the game. Jeff Schultz and Alex Semin are two with which this happens often for the Caps, and for good reason in some cases. But the things that go wrong in some instances are often more complicated than something a single player did. Though Carlson is struggling right now, on this play from Wednesday night there are other players that deserve blame, Johansson especially. The finger should not always get pointed solely at the easy goat of the moment.

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