Capitals' Defensive Depth Presents Tough Decisions

Only six shifts into his Capitals debut Jan. 19, defenseman Jack Hillen absorbed a check from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier and crashed into the end boards shoulder-first, forcing him to leave the game and ultimately the lineup for nearly two months.

No one knew at the time, but Hillen's injury was a harbinger of things to come for Washington's defensive corps, which has been decimated by injuries throughout the season.

The Capitals have used 12 different defensemen this season in just 33 games, tied with the Florida Panthers for the most league-wide. Mike Green has been in and out of the lineup all season, which has unfortunately become routine for the oft-injured blueliner. Same goes for Tom Poti, who returned from a two-year injury-induced hiatus this season. Dmitry Orlov just returned from a concussion that cost him three months.

John Erskine earned a two-year contract extension for his strong play, but hasn't played since March 9 with an upper-body injury. Tomas Kundratek, who was recalled to replace Hillen at the beginning of the season, performed admirably before spraining his right MCL March 14. Only John Carlson and Karl Alzner have appeared in every game for the Capitals this season.

But if there is a silver lining, it is the fact that there has been little to no turmoil on the back end, which is a testament to the organizational depth at the defense position. Before getting hurt, Kundratek, acquired in a minor-league trade last season, became a fixture on the Capitals' blue line. Steven Oleksy has definitely impressed since making his NHL debut March 5.

"I think it's probably better than most people thought," Coach Adam Oates said of his team's defensive depth. "We've had some guys come up from Hershey that have done a great job. John Erskine really stepped forward for our coaching staff this year and did a great job for us. Going into the season, I can't say that we had him penciled in in that position, but he's done a great job. The regular guys -- Karl [Alzner], Carly [Carlson] and Greenie [Green] -- are your go-to guys and everybody else has really stepped up and done okay."

Ten defensemen -- including Poti, Erskine and Kundratek, who are all currently on injured reserve -- participated in Friday's practice, prompting Alzner to joke that they could have created a fifth forward line. But while having such depth is certainly a good problem to have, it does present some tough decisions for Oates and General Manager George McPhee.

With the NHL trade deadline looming Wednesday afternoon, clubs in search of young, mobile defensemen could look to Washington to fill that need. Once the 3 p.m. ET deadline passes, teams can expand their rosters and carry as many players as they want, but that potentially leaves 10 capable defensemen for six spots every night.

"It's pretty strange, so I can only imagine what's going to go on," Alzner said. "A lot of good guys that other teams might want depending on what our stance is or what George's stance is here: buying or selling. He's got a lot of ammunition.

"When you have that many good players, it's hard to figure out who doesn't get to play. I feel bad for whichever way it shakes down, but you can only control what you can control, right?"

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