Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Benchmarks, Part IV -- Top Pair

It’s time to turn to the defense in the look at benchmarks, and that means a look at the “top pair.”

BENCHMARK: Ottawa -- Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov

Nope, it’s not Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer out of Anaheim, who finished 2nd and 3rd in the Norris Trophy voting, since Pronger spent a lot of time paired with Sean O’Donnell, and Niedermayer with Francois Beauchemin, especially late in the year. It’s not Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher, who finished 9th/12th in the Norris voting, for the same reason – they weren’t a pair much of the time. One might have made a case for Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr in Calgary, but while they were paired early in the year, they were less so late in the year.

Phillips and Volchenkov, both of whom finished in the top-25 of the Norris voting, were actually a pair. That is a suitable benchmark, as long as we’re clear that we’re not talking about the top defensemen on a club (that would have brought us, once more, to Anaheim).

Phillips and Volchenkov stepped into a void in Ottawa when Wade Redden struggled (compared to his own history) and Andrej Meszaros had something of a sophomore slump (-15 for the year, by far the worst on the team). These two were a combined 9-36-45, which make them pretty much Tom Poti (6-38-44), statistically, on offense. But, they were a combined +73 (Poti was -1, to complete the comparison).

Phillips – a former first-overall draft pick (1996) – finally performed at a level that served to justify such a lofty pick. In eight seasons prior to 2006-2007, he’d never scored as many goals as he did last season (eight), earned more assists (18) or points (26), or finished with a higher plus-minus rating (36, fourth in the league).

Volchenkov also had a coming-out party of sorts. While he did not set a personal high in goals, he did in assists (18) and total points (19), while setting a personal high in plus-minus (+37, third in the league behind teammate Tom Preissing and Scott Niedermayer, each with +40). But what set Volchenkov apart was his prowess at blocking shots, which (given the premium on getting pucks to the net) seems to be the new “in” statistic among defensemen in the new NHL. Volchenkov led the NHL in blocked shots with 273. He repeated the feat in the playoffs with 80 (Phillips was second with 56…seems to have rubbed off).

These two complemented one another nicely. Phillips was, if not an “offensive” defenseman, a defenseman whose shot had to be respected and who played more defense than one might expect an “offensive” defenseman to play. Volchenkov was, if not the big hitter that his reputation suggested, played enough of a physical brand of defense and kept a lot of shots from making their way to goalie Ray Emery. One could almost see in the playoffs his shot-blocking ability start to get into the heads of opponents who would look for other angles and openings when Volchenkov was on the ice.

Neither is surely among the top-five defensemen in the NHL, but this isn’t a Chris Pronger-Scott Niedermayer sort of benchmark. It is two guys who played together and played together well, as well as just about any other pair one might think of from the 2006-2007 season.


Capitals (projected): who knows?

Sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Well, it’s a reflection of the unsettled nature of the blue line and the fact that as yet, no defenseman has truly emerged as a top-pair sort. It isn’t even clear what the pairings might be. If one were to look for “Phillips” types, that might include: Brian Pothier, Steve Eminger, Tom Poti, Mike Green (Karl Alzner is not a part of this conversation unless he can worm his way into it in camp). If you’re looking for the “Volchenkov” types (and yes, the comparisons can be somewhat vague or only distantly related), that might include: Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrisonn, John Erskine, Jeff Schultz.

Now…pair ‘em up (we’ll leave the left-versus-right side for another day).

Not so easy, is it? One (well, me, for the sake of argument) could offer pairs that might include: Jurcina-Poti, Eminger-Morrisonn, Pothier-Green (and note there is no “Volchenkov” type there on that third pair…the Caps do lack depth in physical defensemen). Is there a clear top pair there?

The fact is that the Capitals, either as a product of talent or the state of development, do not have a pair that compares to Phillips/Volchenkov as a top pairing. Of the five returning defensemen in that group for the Caps (excluding Poti), there is a total of 861 games of regular-season experience. Phillips and Volchenkov have 847 games, and they have 138 games of NHL playoff experience. The five returning Caps have 16, all with Brian Pothier.

It’s going to take time sorting things out on the Caps’ blue line. That isn’t a prescription for disaster; in fact, there is another comparison that fits better (and will be taken up later). But despite defense now being the deepest group on the club (in terms of players and prospects), there is no “top pair” here as the notion is traditionally held. Whether one will emerge is something that will be sorted out in time. The Caps’ defense still is truly a work in progress.

1 comment:

Jimmy Jazz said...

Early in the season I desperately wanted to get my hands on Volchenkov. I wasn't surprised when the re-signed him, but it was disappointing. Great shot blocker and defensive Dman.