Saturday, September 04, 2010

Four of a Kind -- Part I

If there has been one subject about which there has been more than a little navel-gazing going on this summer with respect to the Capitals, it has been the state and the promise of the defense for the 2010-2011 season. We’ve done it ourselves, and our fellow wizards have engaged in the exercise as well.

Well, we return to ponder our midsection once more in terms of the Caps’ top-four defenders. If there is an emerging concept with respect to the most important ingredient in a Stanley Cup winner in the past few years, it is that a winner needs a solid top-four blue-line crew, even more than they need an elite goaltender. If you look at the goalies that have won since the lockout, they might have played well (in most circumstances), but none would necessarily be called elite. It might have been a case in which their defensemen in front of them were better. For example:

2006: Carolina Hurricanes (Goalie: Cam Ward)

In terms of ice time, the top four defenders for the Hurricanes were Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward, Mike Commodore, and Frantisek Kaberle. You might not think of this quartet as being elite, but what they were was balanced. Only four minutes of ice time separated them in the post season in 2006; all of them had at least two goals in the Hurricanes’ playoff run. All but Kaberle were at least “even” on the plus-minus scale (although Kaberle did chip in the only three goals scored by defensemen for the Hurricanes in the playoffs). Although Cam Ward played admirably in relief of Martin Gerber in the playoffs that year (15-8, 2.14, .920), he didn’t do it without help, especially when you consider that he faced only 26.5 shots per 60 minutes of playing time and that they led all playoff teams in blocked shots and takeaways. Three of these four Hurricane defensemen were among the top nine defensemen in blocked shots; three of them were among the top six defensemen in takeaways. It’s true that such a finish is (in part) a function of the greater number of games played by Carolina, but it would be hard to argue that their top-four defensemen, unheralded as they might be, didn’t do their share to keep their net clear of pucks.

2007: Anaheim Ducks (Goalie: Jean-Sebastien Giguere)

The top four defenders for the Ducks in terms of playoff ice time in 2007 was truly “top four,” not just in terms of the names fans might recognize (Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, in addition to Francois Beauchemin and Sean O’Donnell), but also in terms of ice time. O’Donnell’s fourth highest total of 20:20 a game was almost nine minutes a game more than fifth in line Kent Huskins (11:44). All four finished on the plus side of the ledger, all but O’Donnell finishing at least plus-8. All but O’Donnell finished with at least three goals in the playoffs, Beauchemin contributing four power play goals. For all the reputation the Ducks had that season of being a physical bunch, it didn’t really show up in the individual statistics for defensemen. Only one Duck (Niedermayer) was in the top ten defensemen in hits, only two (Niedermayer and Pronger) in blocked shots. And all four could be lackadaisical with the puck (all four finished among the top ten in giveaways). But consider that goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere faced only 25.3 shots per 60 minutes played in posting a 13-4, 1.97, .922 record. Having a stalwart foursome in front of him had to play a role in his relatively light load (he faced almost 28 shots a game in the regular season).

2008: Detroit Red Wings (Goalie: Chris Osgood)

The 2008 Detroit Red Wings resembled the previous year’s Anaheim Ducks in this respect – they had four defensemen carrying the skating load. Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, and Brad Stuart all logged over 21 minutes a game (Andreas Kilja was fifth at 14:05). All but Stuart finished the post-season with more than ten points; all of them finished with at least a plus-6 (Stuart and Kronwall finishing at least plus-15). Perhaps inconsistent with the team’s reputation for getting the job done without being ostentatiously physical, you would find Stuart and Kronwall among the top six in hits. But consistent with the reputation, you would not find any of these four highly ranked in blocked shots (Stuart finished 16th among defensemen in the playoffs). This foursome was a unit well-integrated into the overall Red Wing scheme of things, allowing goalie Chris Osgood to face the microscopic total of 22.2 shots per 60 minutes played. Think of it this way – Osgood and Marc Andre-Fleury had almost identical save percentages for the playoffs that year (.933 for Fleury, .930 for Osgood). But Fleury faced almost seven-and-a-half more shots per 60 minutes, the reason why he (even with a 1.97 GAA) allowed almost half-a-goal more than Osgood per 60 minutes. That foursome on the blue line played a big role in keeping Osgood on his feet instead of dropping to block shots.

2009: Pittsburgh Penguins (Goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury)

The Penguins took, if not a chapter, at least a theme from the Carolina season for their top four defensemen in this respect. There wasn’t a lot of separation between their top four defensemen in terms of ice time and the next four that dressed. Of the top four (Sergei Gonchar, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, and Hall Gill), none played more than 23:02 (Gonchar, and that owing to his heavy power play responsibilities), and the fourth leading defenseman in ice time per game (Gill) average only seven seconds more than fifth place Kris Letang (although almost a quarter of Letang’s ice time came on the power play). What this group was, was disciplined. Only Brooks Orpik recorded more than a dozen penalty minutes in 24 games; Scuderi and Gill split a dozen minutes. Perhaps the flip side of this coin was that they were not an impressively physical group – only Orpik ranked higher than 22nd in hits (he led all defensemen in the 2009 postseason). But they were quite physical in another important respect. All four in this group ranked in the top seven in blocked shots. Even Sergei Gonchar, not generally known as a shot-blocking force and who missed two games to an injured knee (which would be an issue even upon his return), ended up seventh.

2010: Chicago Blackhawks (Goalie: Antti Niemi)

Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brian Campbell made up the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawk top-four blueliners in ice time. All except Campbell logged in excess of 21 minutes of ice time (Campbell alone among the four in getting almost no penalty killing time, while the others recorded at least 2:38 a game in shorthanded ice time). It was not an especially prolific group offensively (only Keith recorded more than seven points), nor was it especially physical in terms of hits recorded (Seabrook led all playoff defensemen, but none of the others in this group finished in the top 20). But it was a group that paid a price. Three of the four (Hjalmarsson, Keith, and Seabrook) finished in the top nine in blocked shots. It also was a clever group in this respect – All four were in the top nine in takeaways among defensemen, Keith leading all defenders.

The common thread…

Experience. We touched on this a little while back but if you look at these five winning foursomes, what they share in common is experience. Here is how their total regular/playoff game experience breaks down going into their Cup-winning seasons…

Carolina (2006): 1,663 regular season/156 playoff
Anaheim (2007): 2,620/347
Detroit (2008): 2,341/374
Pittsburgh (2009): 2,209/189
Chicago (2010): 1,163/115

Looking at the five foursomes, you do have instances of green defensemen. Carolina’s Mike Commodore had only 75 games of regular season experience. Frantisek Kaberle had no playoff experience heading into Carolina’s championship season. Francois Beauchemin had only 75 games of regular season experience for Anaheim, and Niklas Hjalmarsson had only 34 games for Chicago heading into last year. But while there was that hint of inexperience on the blue line among a few of these foursomes, these five teams also employed defensemen with considerable experience. Four of the five teams had at least one defenseman with more than 750 games of regular season experience, one had two such defensemen (perhaps surprisingly, Pittsburgh in 2009), and one – Anaheim in 2007 – had three defensemen with at least 750 games of regular season experience.

These five teams also had at least one defensemen among the top four with significant playoff experience. Every team had at least one top-four defenseman with more than 60 playoff games under his belt. Two teams (Anaheim in 2007 and Detroit in 2008) had two defensemen with at least 100 games of playoff experience.

As you might expect, this is all prelude to a discussion of the Caps and what appears to be their “top-four” defensive corps going into the season. Having set the stage by looking back at championship foursomes since the lockout, we will turn later to the Caps and their likely competition this coming season in the race for the Stanley Cup.