Is the Capitals’ Defense Cup-Worthy?

September is finally here and, with it, the beginning of training camps for teams across the NHL. The Washington Capitals’ camp starts on Sept. 13 and their first preseason contest is only three days later against the Chicago Blackhawks.

For Capitals fans, the arrival of the new season is welcome news and will help them erase any lingering pain from their stinging loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Winning the Metro Division is an accomplishment, but juxtaposed to lifting the Stanley Cup one season earlier, the 2018-19 season was, understandably, a let down. Can the Capitals avoid another fantastic regular season only to bow out of the playoffs or can they duplicate the magic of 2018? A lot is going to depend on the team’s defensive core that lost some veterans this offseason.

Will Niskanen’s Departure Sting?

Say what you will about the Capitals’ often-maligned defense, but one detail that was overlooked last season was the team’s goal differential, which was better than during their Stanley Cup season. In the 2017-18 campaign, the team boasted a plus-20 rating, while last season it was plus-29.

Of course, the team scored more goals last season. What that glosses over, however, was their improved transition game and renewed commitment to getting into the shooting lanes. Take a look at former Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. In addition to hitting the 25-point mark, he blocked 137 shots, up from 98 the previous season. When the Caps traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas this summer, many Caps fans fretted about the loss.

Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals
Former Capital Matt Niskanen (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

A closer look at Gudas’ numbers, however, tells a different story. Last season, he had 136 blocked shots and 20 points. Not exactly even, but that stat line will surprise many. He also logged considerable minutes on the Flyers’ penalty kill, something the 24th-ranked Capitals penalty kill needed to address during the offseason.

The trade also removes Niskanen’s $5.75 million salary from the Caps’ books. In addition, while Gudas’ cap hit is $3.35 million, the Flyers retained just over $1 million of his salary leading to Washington clearing $3.405 million in salary.

When you couple Gudas’ defensive-end reliability with the salary relief his contract provides, the angst over the Niskanen-Gudas trade may be unfounded.

Orpik-Sized Void

To be blunt, Brooks Orpik was never a points machine. Since his rookie campaign in 2002-03, he never posted more than 25 points and that included stints alongside Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season, Orpik posted 9 points in 53 games with the Caps.

Brooks Orpik
Brooks Orpik wearing the “A” for the Capitals (Tom Turk/THW)

He was, however, a leader on and off the ice and his experience paid off in ways that weren’t always tangible or showed up on a stat sheet. As a two-time Stanley Cup champion, Orpik’s presence in the locker room was invaluable. He relayed what it takes to win at the highest level and guided young players in their development.

A veteran with over 1,000 games played is hard to replace, but the Caps now have a locker room full of Cup champions who can step into that role. While his presence will surely be missed, the Caps are in good shape when it comes to leaders and there are lots of candidates to help mentor the young players as they develop.

Carlson Will Lead the Way

Barring any last-minute deals or signings, the Capitals’ defense is set for the 2019-20 season. They technically sit above the NHL’s salary cap, but they have until the last day of camp to make adjustments to the lineup, which could also alter the projected bottom defensive pairings.

John Carlson #74 of the Washington Capitals
John Carlson #74 of the Washington Capitals celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The undisputed leader of the Capitals’ defensive unit is NHL All-Star John Carlson, who posted 70 points last season. Carlson’s offensive prowess and his work ethic make him an elite defenseman and the center of the Caps’ defensive core. Michael Kempny and Dmitry Orlov can also offer offensive pop, posting 25 and 29 points, respectively, last season. The team will be relying on Gudas’ defensive skills and he will be logging first-unit penalty-killing minutes.

Nick Jensen and Christian Djoos will likely round up the top six. Jensen played 20 games last season with the Capitals after being acquired from the Detroit Red Wings. He can also log penalty-kill minutes and is a skilled defender with a lot of potential upside. He is responsible in his own end and can factor into the scoring.

Djoos was limited to 45 games last season, because of a thigh injury, and a total of 10 points. He is also just coming off an arbitration ruling this summer that awarded him a one-year, $1.25 million contact. He was replaced by Jonas Siegenthaler in the playoffs after his injury impacted his skating.

Can the Current Crop Get it Done?

Overall, the Capitals’ defensive core is comparable to last season’s edition, perhaps even marginally improved with the addition of Gudas.

Radko Gudas, Riley Nash
Newly-Acquired Capital, Radko Gudas (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Squeezed by the salary cap, it will be difficult for the Capitals to make additions without subtractions to the lineup. The defensive core could use another solid, two-way defenseman, but who couldn’t use one of those?

Caps fans will get a sense of how the new defensive pairings are doing early on this season. The first game of the season has the Caps squaring off against the defending Stanley Cup champions Blues, in St. Louis. In addition, before the season is even 10 games old, the Caps will face some tough matchups including the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Nashville Predators and the Hurricanes, who knocked them out of the playoffs.

Overall, the Capitals’ defense has a solid top-two pairings. How they perform as a unit may come down to how Gudas fits in and whether players can step up and fill the void left by the departures of Niskanen and Orpik.

When comparing this season’s defensive roster with 2018, Capitals fans can still feel confident that the group’s talent and leadership remain strong. A lot has to go right to win at the NHL level, but, barring any unforeseen injuries or roster moves, this unit is well-positioned to help the team hoist another Stanley Cup. With the season just around the corner, Caps fans don’t have to wait much longer to find out.