Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"D" Stands for Experience

Another day, and another day of no decision on the matter of free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell. The Caps? The Sharks? The Red Wings? The Canucks? Choices, choices. And why wouldn’t Mitchell be in demand? He is a ten-year veteran, and in only one of those years was he a “minus” player (2001-2002 with the Minnesota Wild, when he was minus-16). In fact, in five of the last seven years – all of which he was a “plus” player – he did not finish lower than plus-12. Although he is coming off a year in which he suffered a season-ending concussion, he has been given a clean bill of health. And at the age of 32, the veteran of 586 regular season games in the NHL can still be considered in his prime.

And it is that 586 regular season games number that brings us to the subject of defensemen. The Caps are often said to have a young defense. If you look at the seven roster defensemen at the moment, only Tom Poti has more than four full seasons’ worth of regular season game experience. Only Mike Green has more than 250 games worth of experience as a member of the Caps. As we inch toward the beginning of the 2010-2011 regular season, we might ask, “do the Caps have enough experience on their blue line to be a champion without adding a veteran like Willie Mitchell?”

We took a look at the defensemen who dressed during the playoffs for the last ten Stanley Cup champions. In doing so, we looked at their individual experience coming into the season in which the team they dressed for won the Cup, both in terms of the total game experience they brought into that season and the number of games they had played with their championship team before that season. We look at it from that perspective because: a) that is where we are on the calendar, and b) we are looking at this in terms of the value of adding a veteran defenseman to add experience to the blue line.

Let us first look at the ten sets of championship defensemen…

The first thing you notice is that no one gets by with a top-six and a top-six alone. All ten dressed at least seven defensemen, and four of them dressed eight over the course of their respective championship runs. Even a Bryan Muir gets to dress for the odd three games or so (as he did in Colorado’s Stanley Cup run in 2001). But digging deeper, there are other things to note…

-- Only the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning had fewer than two defensemen with less than 500 games of regular season experience heading into their championship season. Darryl Sydor – who was obtained by the Lightning in a January trade that season – had more than 500 regular season games of experience entering the year. Jassen Cullimore would play 79 games that season to pass the 500-game mark before the playoffs. Eight teams had at least three players with more than 500 games of experience, and two had five players above the 500-game threshold. If you’re comparing Capitals, only Tom Poti has more than 500 games of NHL regular season experience heading into this season (787). No current Capital will pass the 500-game mark this season, nor will any of them pass the 400 game mark (Green could hit 399 if he plays in all 82 games).

-- Three teams had two players with more than 1,000 games of NHL experience before the Cup-winning season (and the New Jersey Devils of 2000 had one, with another defenseman – Ken Daneyko – only eight games short).

-- Experience with a team is nice, but it does not constitute a requirement. Look at those 2007 Anaheim Ducks. None of their defensemen had more than 100 games of experience as a Duck prior to their Cup-winning season. Four played no games with the Ducks prior to that season. But three of that group did have more than 500 regular season games of NHL experience. That is an extreme case, but not unique. In 2009, for example, five of the Penguins’ eight defensemen dressing for the playoffs had fewer than 100 games of experience as a Penguin previous to that season. Ditto for last year’s champs, the Chicago Blackhawks. In 2002, the Red Wings – despite their reputation for experience – had six of seven defensemen with fewer than 200 regular season wearing the winged wheel before their Cup-winning year. By way of comparison, five of the seven current roster defensemen for the Caps have fewer than 200 regular season games worth of experience with the Caps.

-- Sprinkled through these defenseman rosters are a fair number of Hall of Famers or near locks for enshrinement. Three of the last ten Stanley Cup winners include at least one defenseman now in the Hall:

2000: Scott Stevens
2001: Ray Bourque
2003: Scott Stevens

Six include players who would seem to be sure bets to win a place in the Hall:

2000: Scott Niedermayer
2001: Rob Blake
2002: Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios
2003: Scott Niedermayer
2007: Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer
2008: Chris Chelios

Yes, Chelios dressed for only 14 playoff games for the Red Wings in 2008, but for the most part these guys were the foundation of their respective blue line corps.

-- None of the ten Stanley Cup champions over the last ten years had combined careers’ worth of experience of fewer than 2,000 games among its defensemen before the Stanley Cup winning season. In fact, only three teams – Tampa Bay in 2004, Anaheim in 2007, and Chicago in 2010 – had fewer than 3,000 games of combined experience among its playoff defensemen when they entered those seasons. Two teams had more than 5,000 games of combined experience – the 2002 Red Wings and the 2003 Devils. The Caps? At the moment, the seven roster defensemen have a total of 1,813 games of NHL regular season experience.

What can we conclude? Well, here are the Caps' seven roster defensemen currently available...

Recent history points to experience being a common element of Stanley Cup winners, at least among their defensemen. It isn’t so much that those teams had defensemen who had a lot of games played with the club, but they brought a lot of experience to the table – they had learned how to play the game, wherever they might have come from. And, from the representation of future Hall of Famers (or Hall of Famers-in –waiting) on these clubs, there is the ingredient of greatness that adds to the element of experience.

If you are looking at the Caps in this context, you might ask first if there is that element of greatness on this roster. It is far too early to render a judgment on someone like John Carlson. He has many games to play before he can even be entertained in the conversation. The only player on the Caps you can look at in this context at this point in his career is Mike Green. And the parallel – experience-wise, at least – is the Scott Niedermayer of 2000. Going into the 2000 season, Niedermayer had played 526 regular season games, all with the Devils. Green has 317 games going into the 2010-2011 season, all with the Caps. But what Niedermayer had, and what Green does not, is Scott Stevens. There is no veteran ahead of Green that is nearly of Stevens’ stature in 2000.

And this leads us to the second question we might ask, do the Caps have sufficient experience up and down their blue line to be considered a Cup favorite this coming season? The Caps are loaded at the forward position, which might take some heat off of this group. But the fact remains that the Caps have less NHL game experience as a group than any of the past ten Stanley Cup champions, including last year’s champion, the Chicago Blackhawks, which is thought to be a comparatively young team. This argues strongly for the acquisition of a veteran defenseman, either now or at the trading deadline.

The defense might not be the Caps’ most pressing problem. There is the matter of who will slide into the second line center slot. But absent adding a veteran, the last decade of experience among Stanley Cup winners suggests that if the Caps are to win a Cup, the defense will be carried by their forwards and goaltending (and that’s hard to say, given that the Caps have two goalies with a combined 54 games of NHL regular season experience). While building from within is nice – arguably the best way of building a lasting contender – it does not address the matter of experience or a lack thereof among this defenseman corps. Gaining experience from within is not something that can be rushed. It develops with the calendar. And if the Caps are to add that element to their defense to bolster their chances for a Stanley Cup in 2010-2011, it will have to come from the outside.