Saturday, May 31, 2008

Season in Review: Defensemen

Ah, the Caps defense - a ragtag bunch of guys who ranged from the magnificent to the mediocre (said with love, of course). How did they fare this year?

Steve Eminger - Poor Emmy. He was so frustrated this year as he found himself inexplicably exiled to the press box night after night, even after a coaching and systems change that seemed perfectly suited to his style of play. When he did manage to squeak out a few games because of injury he looked rusty - and understandably so. He'd be in for a handful of games and then get bounced right back out again, stalling any forward momentum he might have gained and dressing for only a quarter of the season. "Free Eminger!" was a regular battle cry in our household.

Injuries to Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz towards the end of the regular season allowed Steve to get into the lineup for a more extended period of time and he definitely stepped it up. You could almost see how hungry he was to be a part of what was happening, to taste his first playoff action, to play. He ended up scoring his first goal of the year in the playoffs, albeit a fluky one, and finished a respectable +2 in the five postseason games for which he was dressed - including a +3 in pivotal game 6 alone.

For his performance through 20 games and 5 playoff appearances, he would probably earn a solid B. But considering his limited action...
Grade: Incomplete

John Erskine - In a year full of twists and turns and ups and downs and mysteries and enigmas, the biggest mystery of all was the one surrounding John Erskine. Did he have naughty pictures of Hanlon, Boudreau, GMGM, or all three? It seems to be the only rational explanation for why he routinely made it into the regular lineup while Eminger rode the press box express every night, because the way he played certainly didn't always merit a roster spot.

That's not to say that Erskine doesn't have his place or isn't a talented player. Sometimes. He was the hockey equivalent of the little girl in the nursery rhyme: when he was good, he was very, very good...and when he was bad, he was horrid. A solid penalty killer and a big body patrolling the blue line, he knew how to play with a physical edge while also getting the puck to the net; in fact at one point, he had more points than Sidney Crosby.

...okay, so it was three games into the season. So?

But the upside of Erskine always seemed to be balanced out and then erased from memory completely by the tremendous mistakes he was capable of making, and always at the worst possible time. He took ill-advised penalties. He turned over the puck in front of the net or worse, blocked the goalie's view of the puck completely. Plus if you really want to nitpick, it was the fact that he wasn't called for tripping a Flyer just moments before that led to Poti's overtime penalty in Game 7. And I do love to nitpick.
Grade: C-

Mike Green - There were a lot of breakout performances this season, but perhaps none more notable (with the exception of Ovechkin) than that of Mike Green. The Calgary kid dug out at the tail end of the 2004 draft's first round, he was a young prospect who had great success in Hershey but had yet to really develop into a full-fledged NHL defenseman.

Four years and an 18 goal, 56 point season later and he's considered among the league's elite - and all at the tender age of 22. He came into camp bigger and stronger than before and proceeded to blow everyone away. But it was under Boudreau's guiding hand that he really came into the spotlight, showing us his explosive skating ability and booming shot that likened comparisons to Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey...and earned him a rabid fan base all his own, from Gang Green to those rockin' the 'hawk through the playoffs.

He has some work to do; for all his offensive talent and calm demeanor there were still many nights where he looked downright confused in his own end. Green's tendency to join the rush too soon or handle the puck too calmly led to some bad turnovers that often ended up in the back of the net. But he still remained one of the many bright spots on the team and should only improve with time.
Grade: B+

Milan Jurcina - Although slightly past his sophomore season in the NHL, this year could probably be best described as a sophomore slump of sorts for Jurcina. He burst into the Caps lineup mid-season last year and instantly was pronounced a hidden gem, a player cast off far too quickly and cheaply by the silly Bruins who clearly didn't know what they had. This year, though, he just looked off.

It's hard to say what exactly it was about Milan that prevented him from repeating his solid performance from last year. He never quite found his flow for some reason, whether it was being separated from Morrisonn once Boudreau took over or just simply the result of an off year. Some nights he looked almost Erskine-esque in his ability to follow up a brilliant defensive play with a stupid one - a fact that more often than not landed him in the penalty box or the press box.
Grade: C+

Shaone Morrisonn - When Morrisonn finally finishes his development, it's not that much of a stretch to think he could be one of the elite defensemen in the league. As it is he's made tremendous strides and quickly established himself as one of the steadiest of the Caps' blueliners this year - a trait which was emphasized when he found himself paired with high-flying Mike Green.

His reliable nature and excellent positioning allowed Green to be what he became, a tremendous offensive defenseman. He was so key to Green's success that you could actually see the decline in Green's game when Morrisonn was out with an injury; the confidence wasn't there, the comfort level was off. Nothing seemed quite right without big #26 patrolling the ice behind him.

But aside from his role in Green's success, the simple fact is that Morrisonn did so many of the little things right so much of the time. Like every young defenseman - every player, really - he had his off nights, his mistakes and gaffes that cost the team. But his sound play and good recovery more than made up for that and he was a huge reason for the team's strong defensive play down the stretch.
Grade: A-

Brian Pothier - Of all the long-term injuries on the team this year, Pothier's was probably the most tragic. For one thing, when it happened he seemed to finally be coming into his own as a Cap, much more comfortable with second defensive pair responsibilities and minutes and it showed. His play during the first half of the year was steady if not flashy, consistent and confident, and he only improved as the team improved around him.

But more tragic is the fact that his career could be in jeopardy at this point, as the concussion he sustained was one of many he's suffered in recent years and progress has been slow. We wish him all the best in his recovery.
Grade: Incomplete

Tom Poti - Like Viktor Kozlov, at the beginning of the year Poti often took too much abuse for not performing at whatever level people thought he should. And like Kozlov, the bad rap was unfair and largely inaccurate. The fact is, Poti was one of the stalwarts on a team of young, wide-eyed talent - something that became even more obvious once Boudreau took over, as he really thrived in that offensive system and yet still managed to remain highly responsible in his own end. His goal-scoring didn't kick in until very late in the season but he did pick up 27 assists; 23 of those came after the coaching switch.

Poti was billed as a puck-moving defenseman when the Caps signed him in July, a power play quarterback with a good (if not entirely hard) slapshot - and he was all those things, particularly in the second half of the season. But he had other skills that you don't usually associate with the so-called offensive defenseman he was labeled as. He used his long reach well and turned out to be a deceptively fast skater for someone his size, two things he often used in combination when making his signature diving poke check.

If there is a knock on him it's that he didn't use that size enough, often stopping just short of finishing a big check. And unfortunately it will probably be awhile before he's no longer linked with the overtime tripping penalty and eventual loss in Game 7. But looking at his season on a larger scale and forgiving that one indiscretion, it was a great first year in DC for Poti.
Grade: A-

Jeff Schultz - Chalk up another enigma on the blue line, although not in an entirely negative way.

When the season started, Schultz was admittedly an odd choice for a top six defensemen. The best way to tell that Schultz was having a strong game was that you didn't even know he was playing in the first place, and all too often you not only knew but were cursing that fact (or maybe that was just me). He just didn't seem entirely comfortable as an NHL player to start the year.

Luckily as the season progressed, Schultz went from being a shaky, mistake-prone youngster to a steady if at times uncertain looking defenseman. Of course even at his best he had an air of confusion about him, like he wasn't always aware of where he was or what he was doing; but with experience and more experience that wide-eyed look should fade. Hopefully.

And who knows, someday the kid might learn how to throw a body check.
Grade: B-

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awww, I still love Schultzy and his inherent lostness. You just kind of want to pat him on the head and remind him where the puck is.... at the top of your lungs.