When the Capitals look back on why they missed the playoffs this season, many critics will point to their captain being one of the NHL’s worst defensive forwards.
With three games remaining in the regular season, Alex Ovechkin is well on his way to a fourth Rocket Richard trophy with an NHL-leading 50 goals, but he is also tied for second-worst in the NHL with a minus-34 rating.
Some of that falls on Ovechkin, but much of it also falls on a defense that ranks 24th in the league in goals allowed per game [2.87].
“I think every team’s identity comes from the back end,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “We work every single day on regroups, neutral zone forecheck, coming out of our own end.
“It’s a huge, huge part of the game. The forwards have their requirements as well, but the D have a lot of responsibility and it’s tough because there’s only six of them. So when we watch video they take the brunt of it the most because the clips highlight them a lot.”
Actually, the Capitals used 14 defensemen this season, tied with Edmonton for the most in the NHL and twice the number used by the San Jose Sharks. Of those 14, four of them – Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey and Julien Brouillette – had never played an NHL game before this season. Two others – Alex Urbom  and Cameron Schilling  – had combined for 15 games of NHL experience. And two others – Tyson Strachan and Steve Oleksy – had spent the majority of their professional careers in the minor leagues.
“It’s not like we’ve had 14 guys with a thousand games,” said Caps second-year assistant coach Calle Johansson. “So it makes it harder. But I mean, first of all, they’ve got to know what they’re doing, and if they don’t it’s probably my fault and Oatesy’s fault, the coaches’ fault."
“Then, if the execution is not there, then I can blame it on the players. If they don’t know what they’re doing, then it’s our fault.”
So where, in Johansson’s opinion, does the fault lie?
“I think it’s a mix sometimes,” he said. “Maybe we give them too many options or rules or whatever. I don’t want to blame everything on the boys. I take a lot of responsibility, I want to do that. It’s our job to get them to play better. A big part of it is obviously inexperience.”
Of the 14 defensemen that played for the Capitals this season, only Mike Green and John Erskine came into the season with more than 300 games of NHL experience and only Karl Alzner and John Carlson arrived with more than 200 games.
“It takes a long time to become a good defenseman in this league,” said Johansson, who holds the franchise record with 983 games in a Capitals uniform. “Even Alzner and Carlson are only 24, 25 years old. To me, that’s pretty young and we count on those guys every night to play against the top line on the other team."
“It may be unfair sometimes. I love the job they're doing and I’m grateful they’re doing it every night. But sometimes it’s not fair because I put a big burden on their shoulders but they do a hell of a job.”
Carlson, 24, leads the Capitals’ blue liners in ice time [24:36], goals , shots  and blocks . He and Alzner, 25, are the only two defensemen to play in all 79 games this season.
They have also been the only Capitals defensive pair that has played together most of the season.
Dmitry Orlov, 22, and Mike Green, 28, spent most of the final three months of the season as a pair, but often struggled in their own end. Green, who is sidelined by an upper body injury, leads the Caps’ blue liners with 29 assists and 38 points, but he is also a career-worst minus-16.
Green’s defensive play has come under scrutiny this season, but Johansson said some of that has to do with the inexperience of his defense partner.
“I think it’s unfair,” Johansson said. “It’s never one guy’s fault. If I had a great partner, it made my job real easy. You’ve got to work in pairs.”
The Capitals’ third defense pairing has been a mish-mash of players all season, with Erskine, Schmidt and Urbom taking turns on the left side and Strachan, Carrick and Oleksy seeing time on the right.
Alzner said the unfamiliarity of those pairings contributed to the inconsistency and lack of cohesiveness in the Capitals’ play this season.
“The best teams in the league are able to move the puck and are great at getting out of their zone,” Alzner said. “When you have a bunch of guys bouncing around with different partners, it’s really, really hard to read each other."
“For me and Carly it’s way easier than for other guys. It’s like coming in for your first season; you’re just worried about making simple plays. Off the glass and out is not always the right play. It’s never the wrong play, but it’s not puck possession and it’s not controlling the pace. It’s been tough for all of us.”