Sunday, September 05, 2010

Four of a Kind -- Part II

We covered the growing importance of top-four defenseman corps in Part I of this exercise, and now it is time to turn to the Caps and their top-four blue-liners in the context of their competition. The Caps will enter the 2010-2011 season as one of the prime contenders for a Stanley Cup. If history – both that of recent Cup winners and the Caps – is a guide, then one of the important questions lingering around the club is whether their top-four defensemen can compete with those of their competition. First, the competition. You are free to quibble with us over which teams the Caps are competing with in the march to the Cup, but for our purposes, the competition boils down to:

(based on a survey of Las Vegas odds)

So, if this is the competition, how do they stack up in terms of their top-four defensemen? Objectively, the Caps will enter this season (absent any further changes) with a top four group that is less experienced than that of their competition.* Washington will enter the season with the least experience – both regular season and playoffs – of any of the top eight challengers for the Stanley Cup:

With 1,373 games of combined regular season experience, the Caps will go into this season with fewer combined games among their top-four defenders than any Stanley Cup champion since the lockout, except the Chicago Blackhawks (1,163). They will have approximately 1,000 fewer games than Anaheim (2,620 heading into the 2006-2007 season), Detroit (2,341 in 2007-2008), and Pittsburgh (2,209 in 2008-2009).

Of the eight teams we have identified for this exercise, only Washington and San Jose will start the year with a top-four squad that includes only one defenseman with more than 400 games of regular season experience. Three of the teams – Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Detroit – have three such players.

The Capitals are the only team among the eight clubs that has one defenseman with more experience than the rest of his foursome combined (Tom Poti – 787 of the 1,373 games of experience). The other three – Green, Schultz and Carlson – have fewer regular season games combined (586) than eight of the other 29 defensemen identified here.

The playoff experience deficit is equally pronounced. With 96 games of combined experience, the Caps will have fewer post-season games under their belts than any of the other seven competitors going into the season, and they will have fewer than any of the five Stanley Cup champions since the lockout ended. None of the other seven challengers heading into this season will have two of their top-four defensemen with ten or fewer games of playoff experience. The Caps, however, will have two such defensemen: Jeff Schultz (10) and John Carlson (seven). 

The Caps are one of two teams with one defenseman having played more playoff games than the combined total of his three teammates (Philadelphia, with Chris Pronger having 170 of the total 333 games of playoff experience, being the other). Tom Poti’s 51 games of post-season experience eclipses the combined total for Green, Schultz, and Carlson (45).  That combined total of 45 games is fewer than 15 of the other 29 defensemen in this group.

And here is the kicker. If you look at the five Stanley Cup champions since the lockout, only one – Detroit in 2008 – added what would be a top-four defender at the trading deadline (Mark Stuart). There is some history for adding that asset early, though. In 2006, Carolina won a Cup after having added Frantisek Kaberle and Mike Commodore before the regular season began (Kaberle having been signed as a free agent in July 2004, Commodore acquired by trade in July 2005). Chris Pronger was traded to the Anahelm Ducks in August 2005 before the Ducks embarked on their championship season. And the Detroit Red Wings signed Brian Raflaski as a free agent in July 2007 before going on to win the Stanley Cup the following spring.

If you look at the last five years of champions, the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winners have tended to be young stars. Cam Ward in 2006, Henrik Zetterberg in 2008, Evgeni Malkin in 2009, and Jonathan Toews in 2010 all were under 30 years of age when winning the most valuable player trophy for the playoffs. In fact, Ward, Malkin, and Toews all were 22 when winning the award. But just as important, the teams on which they played had deep, experienced top-four defensive squads. Going into this season, the Caps do not match up with their likely competitors when it comes to that experience on the blue line. And if post-lockout history is indicative, adding that asset at the trading deadline might not have the intended effect. Caps fans might like to have (ok, they would like to have, if this summer’s commentary can be believed) that asset now, heading into the season.

* We make no accommodations for any players who might begin the season injured, since our focus is on the experience a possible playoff squad will have as they enter the season.  And you, dear reader, might quibble with who we identify as a top-four defender on any of these teams, but we do not think it detracts from the larger point we are making.

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