Food For Thought: Exploring the Caps’ Chocolate-Covered Blueline

Posted March 20, 2013

Dmitry Orlov squints in an effort to read his fortune off one of the Giant Center’s LED screen. “Is this the week I return to Washington?” (Photo Credit: M. Richter)

Here’s a little trade secret: If you want to play on the Washington Capitals’ blueline, you’d better plan to spend some time in Hershey.  It’s not just a question of paying one’s dues in the AHL, either.  While defensemen traditionally need more seasoning, Washington seems to have a particular affinity for bringing skaters up through their own system (and retaining them).  With a whopping eleven defensemen on the roster, and ten of them technically alumni of the Hershey Bears, the Capitals are old pros at taking full advantage of the skills to be found just up the road.

Strength in Numbers?

The number of former-Bears on the Caps’ roster is an impressive demonstration of the healthy relationship between the Capitals and their AHL affiliate, and it isn’t just conditioning stints colouring those statistics, either.  Nine of the d-men with Hershey ties were truly brought up through the ranks, playing for the Bears before being promoted to Washington.  Karl AlznerJohn CarlsonJohn ErskineMike GreenTomas Kundratek, Steve OleksyDmitry OrlovCameron Schilling, and Jeff Schultz all wore the chocolate and white before rocking the red.  Some had longer stays than others, and a couple on that list are bound to bounce back down to Hershey in the coming weeks (Schilling was sent back to the Bears on Saturday, but is still listed on the Caps’ website), but each of them followed the traditional AHL->NHL progression.

Tom Poti is the only one to have visited solely for a conditioning stint (and a recent one, at that).  He joined the Bears briefly this winter before transferring to the 2013 Capitals roster after two years on the long-term injured reserve.  Jack Hillen is the odd man out, the new veteran acquisition having spent most of the season haunting the Caps’ press box due to injury.  He rejoined the team without first logging a conditioning stint, though the jury’s still out on the scope of his expected contributions.

Good, Bad, Do We Care?

Given how the season has been going, it becomes easy to look for convenient stones to throw.  New coach – it’s always going to be his fault.  Star player got engaged – hey, now we can blame the fiancee!  Star centre’s on a scoring drought – blame the hockey gods.

That being said, I’m going to use an agricultural term for Washington’s defensive recruitment in recent years – Monoculture (the practice of cultivating a single species of plant).  It’s a dangerous business, because it leaves a farmer (or, in extreme cases, entire populations) vulnerable to, say, a breed-specific disease sweeping through and destroying a season’s crop.  The Irish Potato Famine is probably the most familiar example of the kind of disaster monoculture can precipitate, but it’s hardly the only one.

Carolina – Weedwhacker of the Southeast?

Are the Caps likely to see their entire defense corps keel over due to the Blueline Blues?  Is the sky going to fall, because all of their defensemen graduated from the same school of thought?  Of course not, unless that’s code for some kind of contagious groin injury.  But the Caps certainly haven’t been seeing the kind of consistent performance from their d-men that the team badly needs, either, and there’s a point at which loyalty grows concerning (yes, Hershey defenseman Kevin Marshall was traded out earlier this month, but he’d never seen a call-up in his year with the organization, so for the purposes of this article he doesn’t count).

Having a strong common base to build from is important, and Hershey’s Assistant Coach Troy Mann has maintained a firm command of the Bears’ d-corps since he started working with them in fall of 2009.  The main purpose of an affiliate is to mold rising players to fit the needs of their partners, and the Bears have snagged more than a few wins along the way while doing that.  From a practical point of view, an affiliate is the traditional source of short-term replacements when an injury sidelines a regularly rostered player, so a certain amount of bleed-over is expected.

But there comes a point where too much of a good thing can become a problem, and it’s possible that the Caps are reaching that threshold.  Should inconsistent performance continue to trouble the Caps’ blueline, they’re going to need to reassess the balance between old blood and new.  Whether that’s through trade, free-agent signings, or prospects remains to be seen.