Perhaps this is not what Scott Hannan had in mind for his first couple games in as a Capital.
Get traded to a first place powerhouse, an offensive juggernaut that could deeply use another top-four defenseman and … lose. That has been the case so far in the Hannan-era. The Capitals have scored two goals in his two games and have lost to Dallas and Atlanta, showing little spark in the process.
On Saturday Washington was dropped 3-1 by Atlanta, the second straight time (after a 5-0 embarrassment in Atlanta Nov. 19) they have lost to their division rival and third time of the season. Hannan was not around for the first four meetings against the Atlanta yet the Capitals’ shiny new defenseman (at least to them) had little to say about the outcome. Hannan played 17 shifts for 14:33 of ice time registering one hit and one blocked shot while posting a plus/minus ratio of -1.
“We had some energy there in the first but it just didn’t seem like we could bury our chances and they buried theirs when they got they got the chance,” Hannan said.
The first period was probably the Capitals best. They rained 15 shots on Atlanta goaltender Ondrej Pavelec (en route to a season-high 46) and had some pep in their skates. Hannan skated seven shifts for 6:08 of ice time and recorded his only hit of the night. Neither Washington nor the Thrashers got on the board in the period and it seemed like one of those early-December NHL games — a lot of spinning wheels, a couple extra chips against a familiar foe and not much really happening.
Atlanta took it over in the second period. The Thrashers scored two goals 1:32 apart, the first a redirect by Rich Peverly (at 7:57) off a shot from the point by star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. The second came when 19-year-old Alexander Burmistrov — the eighth overall selection in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft — skated the baseline and put flipped the puck over Semyon Varlamov to make it 2-0 at 9:29.
Hannan was on the ice for the Burmistrov goal (hence his -1 on the night) and was caught out of position when Burmistrov won a puck battle in the corner from Capitals defensive partner Tyler Sloan, nudging it up the wing to Nik Antropov. The Thrasher center nudged it back down to Burmistrov while Hannan charged the puck and Hannan was unable to recover as the speedy young Russian broke down the back door.
Hannan, the 23rd pick of the 1997 draft (San Jose) has been a top-four defenseman for the better portion of the last decade. He only spent 55 games, including playoffs, in the American Hockey League in the Sharks system before the team brought him up and through 777 NHL games he has a plus/minus ratio of +21. That could be almost twice what it is, except that Hannan posted a horrendous -21 for the Avalanche in 2008-09, a team that finished with 69 points and was forgettably terrible. Hannan is the type of NHL defender that a team likes to have because he has enough size (6-foot 1-225-pounds) and rink-IQ to be a steadying influence with the other blueliners and has the ability to play against opposing team’s top lines and hold his own.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau needs this type of guy. He has his solid top pair in offensive-minded Mike Green and his defensive stalwart buddy Jeff Schultz and then his second pair is a couple of young-bloods — John Carlson and Karl Alzner — who are still growing into their full NHL capabilities in their first full seasons. On the bottom pair have been John Erskine and Tyler Sloan, career grinders who, for the most part, have just been happy to receive a big-league paycheck.
“The one thing that I liked was that he is like a quarterback back there and he talks a lot,” Boudreau said of Hannan before the game. “When you are playing with young defensemen it is really advantageous if you have never played with a guy who is a good guiding light back there. As you know with Schultzie and Tom Poti and Karl Alzner, they are not really talkative guys so it is good to have a guy back there that has got the experience, played in a lot of big games and can guide you.”
Ideally, a second pair of tried and true NHL defensemen would be exactly what the Capitals need and if Poti can stay healthy he would make a natural pair to Hannan. You would think that a guy like Hannan would get some good minutes in Boudreau’s scheme, especially against a team like Atlanta that has been very hot of late and has played Washington tough.
So, answer me this: why is he an afterthought on the bottom pair with Sloan and skating less than 15 minutes?
“However the coaches put you in there, that is how it goes. Got some power plays there and other things. We will see how the coaches play it out, it has been different for the first two games playing here,” Hannan said.
Through his career he has been durable (played a least 75 games in each of the last eight seasons) and has played top-four defenseman minutes, averaging a solid 22:02 a game through his career. This year he is a below that figure but still averaging a solid 18:39 between Colorado and Washington.
And he played four shifts in the second period on Saturday for 3:58 of ice time.
Often Boudreau does not make a lot of sense. It is just his nature. The Capitals play just like he coaches — erratic. Boudreau leans on Green and Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Semin sometimes to the detriment of remembering that there are some other good players on the team. Tomas Fleischmann, the man George McPhee gave up to get Hannan, was streaky but talented and the return — Hannan — is worth Boudreau’s attention. Perhaps Boudreau is just trying to ease Hannan into the system, but really, there is not a lot of different ways to play defense in the NHL and Hannan has almost 10 full seasons worth of games under his belt.
“Trying to keep lots of guys to talking and sorting things out. The system, I don’t think is that hard to get into, the defensive zone is kind of the same that everybody plays and the neutral zone is a little bit different but we talked it out and we did alright tonight,” Hannan said of being acclimated to the Capitals schemes.
But, as the saying goes, it was just one game. Hannan did not seem all that concerned about it his role after the game, at least in the short term. Saturday at Verizon Center was another exercise in redundancy for the Capitals. They had a season-high in shots but not many great scoring opportunities as a lot of shots came from the perimeter without second-chance opportunities. They skated around, used their talent but it did not seem like they were really all that into the game as a unit. In that regard, Hannan was no different. If you were not actively looking for No. 23 in red, you may have missed him. Perhaps that is the new-guy syndrome, perhaps it is just December. Or perhaps it is the coach and yet another example of under (or over) utilizing some of his key weapons.
The good part is that the Capitals got the type of defenseman they need early in the season. Boudreau now has 53 games left to figure out how to use him.