To be fair, a lot of teams do have a defender or two they will throw out against another team's top line, and the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final have some serious defensive talent. The Flyers boast two $6 million dollar men in Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger, plus some good secondary D in Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn. The Blackhawks sport what some call the best shutdown pair in the league in Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith and they are backed up by a few really good players like Brian Campbell and Brent Sopel. The Capitals defense this season didn't have the same name-brand effect. While a player like Mike Green is a fixture atop the scoring leader board, the Caps seem to underwhelm their opponents after him with players like Jeff Schultz, Shaone Morrisonn, Tom Poti, John Erskine, and Tyler Sloan. That said, the Capitals finished the regular season smack in the middle of the league at #16 with 2.77 Goals Against Per Game. The two Eastern Conference Finalists finished at #15 (Philadelphia, 2.71) and (#13 Montreal, 2.66), and seeing as how the Capitals won the President's Trophy and had the best goal differential in the league, it would be tough to say their defense was a problem.
Steve Austin: The Original Six Million Dollar Man
The additions next season of the young defense pairing John Carlson and Karl Alzner, or "Karlznerson", could give the Capitals the kind of 1-2 tandem Chicago has in a couple of years. These two players alone will make the Capitals defense younger and faster (and cheaper), and both players are adept at avoiding penalties. Carlson has already achieved legend status for his World Junior winning goal and has been a monster at every level he has played at, including the NHL playoffs. Alzner is a little slower developing, but that has more to do with Carlson being so exceptional. Most defensive defensemen don't develop until much later, so for Alzner to be almost assured of a spot on the roster of this team at age 22 is pretty darn good.
Karl Alzner: heir to the Niedermayer playoff beard
The most important aspect of a defender's game is his decision-making ability. Judgment and discretion will make or break a defenseman, as mistakes often end up in your own net. As noted author A.A. Milne once said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience, well, that comes from bad judgment." As with most men, an NHL defenseman's decision-making centers in his brain don't fully develop until around age 25, hence why rookie defensemen are rarely all-stars, much like rookie NFL quarterbacks. This is also why car insurance premiums drop at 25, guys are less likely to do something stupid at that age. This is also why healthy defensemen UFAs are in such high demand: experience is everything in a defenseman, and veterans have already made their rookie mistakes and learned from them. This means that reliable defensemen under the age of 25 are rare, but they usually get more reliable as they age.
"American" means "Winner"
The Capitals have four full-time defensemen from last season under contract for 2010-11: Mike Green ($5.25 million cap hit), Tom Poti ($3.5 million), John Erskine ($1.25 million) and Tyler Sloan ($700,000). Also expected to be on the opening night roster are Alzner ($1.675 million) and Carlson ($875,000). Jeff Schultz is a restricted free agent who made $715,000 last season and he should return at a price more like $2.5 million. That right there is seven defensemen, but knowing Caps General Manager George McPhee, he may well keep 8 on the roster.
Capitals #1 Pairing
#52 Mike Green #55 Jeff Schultz
Looking at their ages, one might get the feeling that just letting them develop another year will make the defense better as a whole. Besides Poti, who is an established veteran at 33, if four of the top 5 will be Green (25), Schultz (24), Alzner (22) and Carlson (20), it doesn't make much sense to take ice time away from defensemen who are just starting to get really good. Morrisonn, at 27, falls into this category, too.
#3 Tom Poti
It would make sense to part ways with Joe Corvo, who made $2.625 million in 2009-10 and can expect $4 million or better on the open market. We've likely seen the end of Milan Jurcina ($1.375 million in 2009-10) as well, as he is a disaster in terms of defensive awareness, though he is still young at 26. Shaone Morrisonn ($1.975 million in 2009-10) is an interesting case, though, as he may have a spot on the roster next year as a #5 or 6 defenseman, especially if McPhee does something with John Erskine's contract.
#4 John Erskine
Several good defensive defensemen are pending UFAs this summer, Anton Volchenkov chief among them. Judging by other talent around the league and the contracts they get, the shot-blocking machine should command 5 years at $4.5 million per on the open market, more if the Rangers get involved or a bidding war ensues. He may decide to stay in Ottawa and take a hometown discount of around $3.5 million per year, but he wouldn't take less than that. This is based on comparable talent (Scott Hannan and Mike Komisarek $4.5 million, Robyn Regehr $4 million, Mike Commodore and Brooks Orpik $3.75 million, Rob Scuderi $3.4 million). The Capitals could make a run at him for $4 million dollars and pray that he wants to play with countryman Alex Ovechkin and try to win a Stanley Cup, but more than $4 million is likely going to be too rich for the Caps, based on the other salary they will have to pay, unless they trade away some players. Even if the Caps aren't serious about getting him, you can bet McPhee will at least make a phone call to Volchenkov's agent.
Let's take a minute to compare Shaone Morrisonn to Anton Volchenkov to see if adding a player like Volchenkov, who would make at least $2 million more per yer, would really be worth it. Both left-handed defensemen were high draft picks (Volchenkov 21st overall in 2000, Morrisonn 19th overall in 2001) and both players began their NHL careers in 2002-03. Volchenkov (28) is 10 months older than Mo (27) and three inches shorter (6'1, 226) than Morrisonn (6'4, 217). Volchenkov has played in 428 career games with 16 goals and 94 points along with with 297 PIM and a +61 rating. Morrisonn has played 418 games with 10 goals, 70 points, a +36 rating and 423 PIM. Volchenkov has a big advantage in playoff experience, with 61 games and 15 points to Mo's 26 games and 2 points, not to mention trips to the Conference Final in '03 and the Cup Final in '07. Neither player plays much on the powerplay and both spend a good deal of time killing penalties.
#26 Shaone Morrisonn
For more on Morrisonn, check out his 2009-10 Japer's Rink Wrap. In it, Stephen Pepper points out that, according to Behind the Net, Mo had the 15th worst Goals Against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time among all NHL defenders who played 60 games in 2009-10 (2.96). If you look 11 spots down, you'll see Volchenkov at 2.80. The biggest difference between the two is the quality of competition they face. Volchenkov faced the 3rd highest quality of competition of all NHL defensemen who played at least 50 games (.134) while Morrisonn played against much weaker competition (-.001). For comparison's sake, among the 176 NHL defensemen who played at least 50 games, Morrsionn had the 21st worst rating, while Jeff Schultz had the 6th best GAON/60 and was the only one in the top 8 to face a high quality of competition (.024). John Erskine checked in at #8 (1.66) and Tom Poti was #22 (1.86) while facing a higher quality of competition (.054) than anyone ahead of him.
To see where Morrisonn and Volchenkov are most comparable, let's take a look at their defensive stats. In the 5 seasons after the lockout, when both skaters became regulars on their teams' bluelines, Volchenkov has the clear advantage in ice time per game (20:07 to 19:40), hits (832 to 552), blocked shots (1,023 to 542) and fewer giveaways (189 to 236), plus he has more hits per 60 minutes (7.05 to 4.52), blocks per 60 (8.67 to 4.44), but more giveaways per 60 (1.60 to 1.93). Morrisonn has played more games (374 to 352) and more minutes total (7323 to 7081) and has more takeaways (140 to 130) and takeaways per 60 (1.15 to 1.10). The time on ice, giveaways, and takeaways more or less wash out, and both players have had their share of injuries in the past few years. Where Volchenkov stands out is with his hits and blocked shots, right? Take a look at this past season to see closer.
In 2009-10, Volchenkov laid out 153 hits in 64 games while Morrisonn doled out 163 hits in 68 games. In terms of hits per 60 minutes of ice time, Morrisonn out-hit Volchenkov 8.19 to 6.93. Volchenkov still blocked a lot of shots, more than Mo (172 to 104) and at a higher rate per 60 minutes (7.79 to 5.22), but not as big a gap as one might think. Morrisonn had fewer giveaways (30 to 41) and giveaways per 60 (1.51 to 1.86) but also fewer takeaways (12 to 17) and takeaways per 60 (0.60 to 0.77).
Morrisonn's ice time has steadily been declining the past few years, from over 20 minutes in 2005-06 to 2007-08 to under 18 each of the past two seasons, though this has more to do with Washington's depth than his ability. He has also played fewer games, going from 80 to 78 to 76 to 72 to 68 while maintaining a fairly steady offensive output of 10-14 points per year. Volchenkov has had the same issue of playing fewer games, going from 75 to 78 to 67 to 68 to 64 with somewhat higher offense, but not by much, chipping in between 10-19 points. His ice time went up from 18 minutes in 2005-06 to over 21 in 2006-07 before leveling out to around 20:30 the past three years. Volchenkov has been a minus player twice in his career, Morrisonn has never been a minus player, even when the Capitals were a last-place team.
Morrisonn is certainly not the defender that Volchenkov is. He is comparable in certain areas, but Volchenkov stands out in shotblocking, playing against tougher opposition, taking fewer penalties, and generally being more frustrating to play against. Morrisonn has been generally healthier during his career, and certainly hasn't had the concussion issues of Volchenkov, but Volchenkov has more big game experience.
Volchenkov will likely command a salary over $4 million and will probably play 66 games a year. Morrisonn will likely play 72 games a year and get paid around $2 to $2.3 million. The big key to remember is Volchenkov doesn't miss many playoff games, which is what the Capitals would want him for. Even so, is Volchenkov really worth another twice as much as a player that already knows Boudreau's system?
It really depends on what McPhee thinks he needs and how much he's willing to pay for it. If he thinks a top 5 of Green, Schultz, Poti, Carlson and Alzner is good enough, then he may decide not to pursue a big free agent. If he really thinks the team needs a big shutdown defenseman who plays 20 minutes a night, that's going to take ice time from someone else.
Looking at the playoffs, the top minute munching defensemen for the Capitals were Mike Green (26:01 per game) and Tom Poti (21:22), who more or less played the same minutes they did during the regular season (25:28 and 21:24). The surprising #3 was John Carlson who averaged 20:14 per night after not topping 20 minutes even once in the regular season. His biggest gain in ice time came on the penalty kill where he played 3:10 per game after playing almost none int he regular season. Schultz was #4 at 19:43 per night, also on par with his regular season ice time of 19:51. If the Capitals already have four 20-minute defensemen, who loses ice time if we bring in Volchenkov?
Some simple math comes up with a total of 120 minutes of defenseman ice time per game: 60 minutes per game times 2 defenders on ice. Take away Ovechkin's 5 minutes of powerplay time as 4th forward and the Capitals are left with 115 minutes per game to dole out, maybe 116 if you add in overtime every now and then. Once the top four play their minutes, Green (26), Poti (21), Carlson (20), and Schultz (20), there's only 28 or 29 minutes left to play. That leaves two 14-15 minute defensemen. If Alzner plays 15 minutes, he only needs a partner to play 15 with him. That #6 defenseman doesn't need to be as expensive as Morrisonn, but he ought to be a little better on a regular basis than Erskine or Sloan, though McPhee could go with just the 7.
John Carlson thrived once he started playing 20 minutes a night, and Alzner is certainly ready for more ice time than he's been given. I think we already have our upgrade on defense staring us in the face, and I don't think we need to go to the UFA market to plug a hole that's not there. Morrisonn may not be too expensive, but he will likely top $2 million on the open market, a market he may want to test.
There are certainly other defensemen on the market and the right deal might be out there, but Morrisonn is a decent defenseman who might be worth signing to a one or two year extension, if the price is right, instead of going after an more expensive free agent who might be just as good and who might be taking up valuable minutes from Carlson or Alzner, or worse, one who could turn into another Dmitri Mironov. The Caps signed Mironov to a 4 year, $11.5 million contract and he was injured for 173 of the 328 game term of his contract (and 7 of 11 playoff games) and posted a points per game average of .30 after having a career average of .53 before coming to DC. I think McPhee has learned his lesson about free agent defensemen with injuries.
Some of the other UFAs available that might be worth a look are Dennis Seidenberg, Zbynek Michalek, Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, Paul Martin, Sean O'Donnell, Andy Sutton, Jordan Leopold, and Willie Mitchell. Some of them are going to be expensive, some have had injury issues, and some are just old. Still, they bear watching if McPhee decides to cut ties with Mo.
The bottom line is that McPhee isn't likely to sign Volchenkov this summer unless Volchenkov wants to come to DC specifically. It might be better in the long run to let all the UFAs walk and let the kids eat more minutes; after all, the Caps have some depth in the minors and I could live with Erskine at 12 minutes a game if it meant we had cap space or used the cash on a nice #2 center.