Thursday, October 1, 2009

It was subtle but telling Tuesday when Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee complimented the Philadelphia Flyers for acquiring defenseman Chris Pronger, a player the Capitals mildly pursued before the March trade deadline.

“It’s a nice piece they acquired,” McPhee said. “For the next couple years, it should help a lot.”

Translation: The Capitals were unwilling to give up at least two top prospects, two first picks and a proven player for Pronger, who turns 35 later this month.

In the interim, he’s a boon for the Flyers, a shut-down defenseman with a mean streak who makes Philadelphia an Eastern Conference contender.

In the long term, he’s a physical and financial gamble the Capitals thought they could do without.

The end result is that the six defensemen from last year’s team, which allowed 35 or more shots five times during last year’s playoffs, will be the top six defensemen Thursday night in Boston.

And keeping the pairings of Mike Green-Shaone Morrisonn, Tom Poti-Milan Jurcina and Brian Pothier-John Erskine may not be such a bad thing.

The Capitals, 19th out of 30 teams in goals-against average (2.93) and 13th in shots allowed (29.5), believe they’ll be sounder defensively and able to win a mud-wrestling match against New Jersey and Boston just as proficiently as they can win a high-scoring thriller against Pittsburgh.

“[The defense is] more experienced, we have size, we have mobility, we have puck movers,” McPhee said. “And if we get banged-up, we have good kids with [Karl] Alzner and [John] Carlson.”

Said left wing Brooks Laich: “Our team defense is going to be better - not specifically saying our defense, our forwards. As a team, for us to take the next step, we have to play better defensively.”

The Capitals took a step forward last year, earning their first postseason series victory in 11 years.

But even as the Capitals and Penguins were engaged in a scintillating series (five one-goal games, including three in overtime), the need for better work in their zone was evident. Clunky breakout passes created scoring chances. The failure of forwards to backcheck produced odd-man rushes.

As the Capitals squandered a 2-0 series lead, the absence of a physical defenseman such as Pronger was amplified.

The Capitals and Ducks talked at the trade deadline about Pronger, but when talks reignited around the draft in June, McPhee said the Capitals weren’t involved.

Any kind of deal would have produced a ripple effect.

If the Capitals had acquired Pronger and given him anything close to the Flyers’ seven-year, $35 million deal, it would have cost them Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth, Carlson or Alzner, two future picks and most likely Alexander Semin. And there would have been no money to sign Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison.

That McPhee didn’t pursue Pronger or free agent defensemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin was an endorsement to the holdover group and especially the up-and-coming players.

And really, the Capitals should be better defensively because they expect to get Poti and Pothier for the entire season. Poti was limited to 52 games because of groin problems.

“I feel I can skate 100 times better than I did last year,” Poti said. Pothier returned late in the year from missing more than a year with post-concussion symptoms.

The young defensemen have another year of experience and so do the forwards, who know they have to do their part.

“It was something we tried to address all season long, but it’s tough,” Laich said. “Players instinctively want to play offense. It’s much more fun to score goals than prevent goals. But that’s part of our maturity. It’s hard when you have so much ability and are so young and all you do is want to score goals. The top teams, their players are always backchecking.”

Where the Capitals’ blueliners don’t have a problem is producing offense. Green led the way with 31 goals despite missing 14 games. He should benefit from Pothier and Poti playing every night. They should be given more time on the power play because they make good decisions and don’t just lug the puck up ice.

Pothier and Poti, given the opportunity on the power play - which they should - would take some pressure off Green.

“Mike’s obviously a dynamic player and he’ll get his point and goals, but on the last 30 seconds of a power play or on back-to-back power plays, Tom and I can go in and relieve Mike and give him a bit of a rest,” Pothier said.

Green will score goals, and the Capitals expect to lower their GAA. So no Pronger, no problem?

“Guys are healthy, and we can definitely be a lot better in our zone,” Morrisonn said. “Our job is to get it to [the offensive stars], and that’s the key to our team.”

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