Ask any NHL player about injuries, and there’s a good chance he’ll find the nearest wooden object and give it a tap. The Capitals had been going pretty well on that front through a half-dozen games, but now Washington has hit a rough patch in one of the worst areas —- on defense.
On Friday, Mike Green returned from an ankle injury only to suffer a “different soreness,” in coach Bruce Boudreau’s words. With John Erskine sporting an ice pack on his surgically repaired left shoulder and out Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, the Capitals became even more black and blue on the blue line when Roman Hamrlik took a cross-check in the second period and did not return.
Three defensemen, all officially listed as day-to-day, and Washington up against the salary cap.
“Hang on to your hats. We are short-handed. We are improvising,” owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog. “We need to heal up and bring in some fresh recruits from Hershey to help.”
It’s November, which means it’s too early to say the Caps are in dire straits. But they are hurting on defense, and with a road trip to Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto starting Tuesday, something’s got to give.
The Capitals used forward Brooks Laich on defense in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss, something the 28-year-old learned of the morning of the game.
He welcomes these challenges,” Boudreau said. “When we’ve done things like this with Brooks before, he just embraces it.”
Laich not only embraced it but did a good job in his first full game moonlighting as a defenseman, but he said there was no indication from the coaching staff how long he would have to continue in that role.
It doesn’t appear a legitimate long-term solution if the injuries to Green, Hamrlik and Erskine are enough to make any or all of them miss a game or more. Leonsis alluded to call-ups from Hershey, which could include NHL/AHL tweener Sean Collins, blue-chip prospect Dmitry Orlov and/or Patrick McNeill.
Playing for the Hershey Bears, Collins blocked a shot Friday and had to leave the game, though agent Justin Duberman confirmed the 28-year-old was going to be fine. Orlov, 20, is extremely talented offensively but is raw; he was one of the final cuts from camp and is seen as a future staple of Washington’s defense corps. McNeill lasted a while in camp, as well, and could be a good choice if the Capitals want a steady left-handed shooting defenseman.
As of Sunday afternoon, no roster moves had been made. But it might not be that easy.
Washington doesn’t have any real salary cap space, though, according to Capgeek, it has a long-term injury exception of $1,167,437 left —- an amount it can go over the cap because of Tom Poti’s lingering groin problem. But that doesn’t take into account any cap overage from bonuses earned last year, a number the team has not reported. It’s impossible for those outside the organization to know how much space the Capitals have, though they did have enough to recall a defenseman Saturday. They chose, however, to play Laich on defense.
What they do know and were talking about over the weekend was how unfortunate it was that Green - just back into game action - is again on the shelf.
“I just feel bad for Mike —- he just came back, and he’s a great player who can help us a lot,” goaltender Tomas Vokoun said.
Hamrlik’s absence for much of Saturday’s game, for the second straight night, forced the Caps to rotate just five defensemen - Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz and Laich. But Laich said eventually the quintet got into a “groove.”
“Carly and Karl are used to logging a lot of minutes. Dennis logs a lot of minutes and then Schultzy and I kind of rotated,” Laich said. “It wasn’t anything to panic about.”
That groove included Wideman playing 33:52, one night after being on the ice for 27:11. He’s capable of shouldering that load if necessary, but it’s not a trend that portends future success for the Caps.
Instead, they’re in need of a long-term solution that ideally won’t include too many games like this past weekend.
“We want to have six D. But we gave up two [goals Saturday]; I thought we played pretty well,” Wideman said. “Obviously it’s a lot harder playing with four to five D than it was with six.”
And it might prove even harder to replace defensemen who can’t be in the lineup at all.