Washington Capitals: Examining The First Pairing

Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals roster is mostly set for the 2015-2016 season. Give yourselves a pat on the back hockey fans, it’s been a long and hot summer but hockey is just around the corner! To get Washington Capitals fans ready for what should be an extremely exciting season, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the Washington Capitals roster. We’ve already examined the forwards, so now let’s examine the defensemen. 

MORE FROM STARS AND STICKS: Examining The Third Line

We’ll start with the pairing that will be relied on to play against a very high quality of competition: the first pairing of John Carlson and Brooks OrpikLast season, Carlson and Orpik served as the go-to pairing for the Washington Capitals. The duo averaged the most time on ice per game among Caps blue liners and consistently faced the highest quality of opponents. They also faced the lowest offensive zone start percentage of all the Caps blue liners. The results were better than most people expected.

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Carlson and Orpik are on the top left. Blue is good, red is bad. CREDIT: Hockey Abstract

The Washington Capitals Blue Line Juggernaut: John Carlson

John Carlson had a breakout season for the Washington Capitals in 2014, just as this writer predicted. Carlson thrived under Barry Trotz, who encouraged the young defenseman to be aggressive and jump up in the offensive zone. The Washington Capitals defenseman will be asked to do even more in 2015, as thanks to Mike Green‘s departure, he will now be the primary conductor of the Caps power play orchestra. While he has huge shoes to fill on the power play, it’s worth noting that Carlson is fourth among all NHL blue liners in points/60 on the power play since 2012 (of those who have played at least 500 minutes with the extra man). In case you’re curious, Green is sixth. 

RELATED: Carlson 2014-2015 Season Review

Carlson was one of the best defenseman in the NHL last year, especially once you compare him to players with similar even strength ice time. Here’s how Carlson matched up against the other 59 most used defensemen.

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Carlson’s high assist rate was driven by his 54.2% individual point percentage, third highest among defensemen with at least 1000 minutes at even strength. Will Carlson sustain that rate? Considering the median last season was 32.7%, probably not. However, since the Washington Capitals will most likely score more goals and Carlson is active in the offensive zone, he’ll still likely be more productive this season than last season. Another reason he will likely be more productive: I’d be willing to bet that we see less of Carlson on the penalty kill thanks to his increase of ice time on the power play. That should lead to an increase in production.

The Washington Capitals Veteran: Brooks Orpik

The second member of the Washington Capitals first pairing will likely be veteran Brooks Orpik. I was a critic of the Caps signing him at first, but I’ve warmed up to him. He faced the highest quality of competition among all Washington Capitals blue liners and still managed to maintain respectable possession numbers (though obviously you’d like to see them above 50%). He doesn’t move the puck well and he certainly isn’t a point scorer, but he provides consistency and gives the Caps much needed experience. Here’s how he matched up against the 59 other most used defensemen.

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Color me surprised that Orpik had the same even strength assist rate as Aaron Ekblad. His five primary assists tells me that Orpik isn’t that active in the offensive zone. Orpik is perhaps at his best when he’s killing penalties. That’s why it’s especially important that Orpik stays out of the penalty box, which is something Orpik struggled with at times last season.

SEE ALSO: Orpik 2014-2015 Season Review

My primary concern with Orpik? His age. I’m not sure how much longer he can continue to do what he does at the level that he has played at. He’s already declining, which is obviously a concern. At what point does he become a hinderance? However, the Caps have depth on their blue line, so that should allow the Caps to adjust if Orpik’s play declines. For what it’s worth, Nate Schmidt played quite well with Carlson last season. I’d expect to see that duo on the ice together when the Washington Capitals are trailing. If the Caps are trailing, Orpik should not be seeing first pairing minutes since offense isn’t his thing. Last year, the Caps iced Carlson with Green when they were trailing and it worked quite well for them.

Carlson and Orpik will both play a huge role in the Washington Capitals success (or lack thereof) in 2015. How confident do you feel in the duo?