Former Washington Capitals defenseman and Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Langway knows the importance of a stout defense to any club’s success.
He won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1979. He spent a decade patrolling the back end for the Caps, where he won two Norris Trophies as the league’s best defensemen. His acumen was so revered that he earned the nickname “the Secretary of Defense” during his time in D.C.
The Capitals have lacked a strong defensive corps in recent years, but Langway thinks that is starting to change with this summer’s key offseason acquisitions.
The team made some interesting pickups in free agency after a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs, superstar Alex Ovechkin was repeatedly skewered, and both general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates were fired.
The Caps landed the most coveted free agent in the class of 2014, inking defenseman Matt Niskanen to a seven-year, $40.25 million deal. The 27-year-old Minnesota native had a breakout year for the Pittsburgh Penguins this past season and could not have timed it better, setting himself up for a massive pay raise when the market opened on July 1.
The 57-year-old Langway, reached via phone at his residence outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, said he thinks an improved defense will be a huge asset for the Capitals moving forward. The Capitals also added another former Penguin, veteran Brooks Orpik, for good measure to round out a back end that was a weakness for the team last season.
"They have more balanced defensemen now,” Langway told ESPN.com “They have their 1-2 defenseman, their 3-4 that can play against top players but might rather not, and their 5-6 can play on the penalty kill, fill in, or be tough guys that play against tough guys. That can change the momentum. I don’t think the Capitals have had that for years."
Whereas Mike Green was once considered among the elite defensemen in the league, particularly for his offensive abilities, he has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency in recent years. John Carlson has been regarded as one of the top young blueliners in the league, but the defense struggled as a whole this past season. Now, with more depth, certain players like Carlson and Green may have a little less responsibility and a little more freedom to produce offensively.
That won’t be the only positive spillover effect, either. Langway thinks an improved defense could also pay dividends for the likes of Ovechkin, who was routinely criticized for his defensive shortcomings last season despite leading the league with 51 goals and nabbing his fourth Maurice Richard Trophy.
Langway said the better the defense, the more time spent in the offensive zone, which should free up the Russian dynamo.
“He’s a highlight film. When he’s on, he’s a highlight film,” said Langway, who still attends 30-35 Caps games per year and serves as an alumni ambassador for the team at charity functions. “I know he can be a team player because he’s not afraid of the physical stuff. When you have other players on the back end that have the same mentality of the physical presence, not just fighting but taking players out of play when [the] puck is loose, it makes it a lot easier and makes more room for the skill players.”
Knowing that the window to win a Cup these days is becoming increasingly narrow, Langway feels like the Caps are building toward a more well-rounded team that gives them a chance to contend.
“I think they understand that they’ve made a commitment to goaltending. They’ve got the offense. They’ve secured the defensive side of it," Langway said. "They have four or five years to make a difference to make a run at a Cup. How many more years is Ovechkin going to be an elite player in the league?”
Langway has also spotted a star in the making in highly touted forward prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who he calls a “diamond in the rough.” Langway was impressed by the 22-year-old forward in the games he played with Washington and thinks he has a bright future.
All of that is up to new coach Barry Trotz to put together now. Langway doesn’t know Trotz well personally, but he knows enough to know the club is in good hands with a guy whose reputation among hockey types is rock-solid.
“He’s a typical hockey guy, no diamond rings or Rolls-Royces. He’s one of the guys,” Langway said. “He’s been coaching for 15 years. When you last that long -- I've got a lot of respect for him.”