Theme: "The years teach much which the days never knew."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tom Poti will enter the 2010-2011 season with more than twice as many games of NHL regular season experience as that of any other Caps defenseman. He and John Erskine are the only Caps defensemen who played in the NHL prior to the lockout. When he took the ice for the first time for the Edmonton Oilers on October 10, 1998, John Carlson was eight years old.
In a sense, he is the glue that holds the Caps defense together. He led the group in shifts taken per game last season and was second (to Mike Green) in total ice time per game. He led all Caps defensemen in penalty killing ice time per game and was the only Caps defenseman other than Mike Green (who played the entire season in Washington) who had more than one minute of power play ice time per game. He was second in scoring among Caps defensemen, but he also was second in blocked shots and takeaways.
He had a quite productive road record for the Caps last season, going 2-11-13, plus-19 in 34 games away from Verizon Center. And, he finished well. After going 0-8-8, plus-4 in the first three months of the season, he was 4-12-16, plus-22 in 38 games in the 2010 portion of the 2009-2010 season. And, in keeping with the “defense” notion of his position, he was tied for 21st among defensemen playing in at least 50 games in lowest goals scored against/on ice-per 60 minutes (from behindthenet.ca). Given that he was in the top 25 percent in terms of quality of competition faced, Poti would appear to have shed the reputation he once had of being unfamiliar with his own end of the ice.
Poti did, however, have a somewhat curious record against playoff teams last year. In 23 games against the other seven teams in the East that would make the playoffs, he was 0-11-11, plus-2. Not especially noteworthy statistics on their own. But he was 0-7-7, minus-5 in 19 games against six of those teams. The exception was his record against Boston: 0-4-4, plus-7 in four games. Perhaps it was merely coincidental that Poti is also a native of Worcester, MA.
And that provides a segue into the playoffs. Poti had not been recognized as much of a playoff performer. In his first six playoff seasons he compiled a 0-8-8, minus-9 record in 31 games, the last season of which found him sitting in the penalty box as the series clinching goal was scored by Philadelphia against the Caps in 2008 (Poti had been sent off for tripping R.J. Umberger). But over the last two years, Poti has gone 2-9-11, plus-17 in 20 post season games. He has been the best Caps defenseman in each of the last two post-seasons.
All that makes the injury he sustained in the last minute of Game 6 of last spring’s playoff series against Montreal that much more difficult to take. His absence in Game 7 of that series should not have mattered as much as it did, but given the way the series unfolded, it was huge.
Fearless: The Caps seem to have been as good for him as he has been good for the Caps. He is plus-50 in his career, plus-38 in his three years with the Caps (not to mention plus-16 in three playoff seasons). He is not the scorer he once was – Mike Green does the heavy lifting in that regard – but he is, for the moment, the best Caps two-way defenseman.
Cheerless: OK, cuz, so Poti is the veteran leader on the defense, right? Alright, how many playoff series have his teams won? His teams’ record is 1-8 in playoff series. Every other team leader in games for the top four on defense among the contenders in the East (Colin White for New Jersey, Chris Pronger in Philadelphia, and Brooks Orpik for Pittsburgh) have a Stanley Cup on their resumes.
In the end…
Poti suffered a gruesome injury in Game 6 of last spring’s first round playoff series against Montreal. After suffering that injury, Coach Bruce Boudreau said of him, “Tom Poti has been great. You lose one of your best, [most] experienced players. It's a tough thing…” It was not idle praise. Poti was on the ice for four of the 18 goals scored by Montreal in the first six games, but only one of those was at even strength and that one in the first minute of Game 2. He was the Caps’ best defenseman in the series.
Now, the questions are two. First, has Poti recovered completely from the eye injury he sustained last spring? The answer to this question is important in two contexts. It is important in terms of his role and responsibility on this team. Poti is the best two-way defenseman on this team at the moment, with all apologies to Mike Green’s underrated defense and John Carlson’s lack of NHL experience. If there are any lingering effects of his injury, it will have impacts at both ends of the ice. And that gets to the other context – experience on the defense. The Caps do not have the depth of experience to be able to fill in the blanks if Poti gets off to an unproductive start.
The second question is a bit more long term as far as the season goes. The true measure of Poti’s contribution is likely to be, as it will be for the rest of the Caps, in the post season. Was last year’s impressive play against Montreal the product of talent and accumulated experience? Or, was it a fluke? Given how he has performed in the last two post-seasons, we are not inclined to think it a fluke, and that makes Poti a very important part of the Caps’ march to the post-season and beyond.
73 games, 4-18-22, plus-19