Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Look At (And My Thoughts On) Restricted Free Agency

Well, it's been a while. The Caps flamed out, again. To the same team that the Pens lost to, again. So it was harder for the Pittsburgh fans to talk smack this year, but any would we well-deserved. Washington finished tops in the Eastern Conference, had a winning record against the Lightning, and had just come off a solid series win against arguably their toughest opponent from the regular season. To be swept was absolutely embarrassing and pathetic, and the team absolutely has to make changes.

While I think that should include changes behind the bench, that is an argument that appears to have fallen on the deaf, cold ears of George McPhee. So instead we look to the roster. Even with the strong possibility of raising the cap level, there will not be enough to go around to pay everyone on the team the same money as they made this year. Some guys will have to go, some will have to take cuts, and some absolutely earned raises. With the free agency deadline coming on on July 1, it is time to make some of those hard decisions. It is on this date that players known as Restricted Free Agents become Unrestricted Free Agents, and that all teams are able to sign UFAs. Until this date, only a player's current team can make negotiations with RFAs. Occasionally, the "rights" to a player are traded away, as was the case yesterday with Bryzgalov. The Caps only have two and a half such players, so without further ado...

Caps RFAs:
Semyon Varalamov: 2009-2010 contract: Entry-level, $821,667 including bonuses
Karl Alzner: 2009-2010 contract: Entry-level, $1,675,000 including bonuses
Mathieu Perreault: 2009-2010 contract: Entry-level, $716,667 including bonuses

We'll start with these two. First, the easy one: Alzner. This kid is an absolute no-brainer must-sign. The defensive pair of Alzner and Carlson was one of the best in the league, despite also being one of the youngest. With Mike Green on the team, the Caps would have the enviable position of possessing no fewer than three top-pairing defensemen. Alzner has more than established himself as a top-notch defensive defenseman who is responsible in his end and will not be a liability in terms of taking penalties. He had the occasional hiccup this year, and it was evident in the playoffs that he is still barely out of his rookie status, but with this year's experiences, he will only be better. Expect him to ask for, and get, $3 - 3.5 million. That would put his contract above Schultz and Poti, although Poti received $3.5 mil for this latest season. If Schultz, another defensive defenseman, earns just under $3 mil, then Alzner and his superior skills will demand at least that. McPhee, and Alzner, will have to mind the salary cap issues, so I would be surprised to even see $3.5 mil, and even a $3 mil contract puts the team in a tough situation with everyone else. Like it or not, though, this is the must-sign contract for the team. Expect four or five years on this one. They may backload the contract so that Alzner earns more later, but I don't see how you go about it any other way.

It's great because he doubles as the mascot.

Now to the tricky case of Varlamov. The Caps, as you may have heard, have three young goaltenders: Valry, Michal Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby. Varlamov has the unfortunate stigma of being injury prone, but that is coupled with outstanding skill in the net when he is healthy. Case in point: Varlamov finished fourth in the league this season in both GAA and SV%, when you look at goalies with a significant amount of games. Holtby, for example, had even better numbers, but only played in 14 games. Back to the unfortunate side of things, Varlamov's stellar numbers actually translated into a losing record, as the guys in front of him were offensively impotent for much of the season. Neuvirth, on the other hand, was the team's starter while Varlamov continuously hurt himself, and barely finished in the top-30 in all categories aside from wins, where he greatly benefited from stronger offensive outings. Neuvy has a contract extension worth $1.15 mil for each of the next two seasons. While this was signed before the season was over, this is the number that Varly, his agent, and the Caps have to look at. In the wake of last year's Niemi vs. Blackhawks dealings, and the success of young, unknown goalies as of late, goalie contracts just will not command what they once did. So ignore Varly's skills and playoff strengths. I say the Caps should resign him for one year at $1.25 million. This gives him one last chance to get and stay healthy, and the contract is not enough to accurately reflect his skills, but it is more than Neuvirth's.

Another option floating around the interwebs is to trade the rights to Varlamov to a team in more dire need of top-notch goaltending. Let another team haggle a contract and keep him away from the KHL, and get something in return. Maybe throw in a pick or a player and pick up a solid center. You will not hear me saying that nonsense. I am quite possibly the biggest naysayer in regards to Neuvirth. If you would trade away Varly, I say trade Neuvirth instead. Neuvirth posted the worst numbers of the three goaltenders. He absolutely choked in the Tampa Bay series. I do not know what goaltender people were watching this season when they talk about ice-cold blood and consistency, but that describes Varly far better than Neuvirth. Michal was streaky all year. He would be unstoppable for a while, then have several games with three or more goals against, then back to good, then unbearable to watch, etc. But Boudreau made the decision that this was the team's starter.

Yeah, that happened.
Living in Pittsburgh, I do watch a good bit of Pens hockey and follow their trials and tribulations. I may get crap for this, but Bylsma makes Boudreau look like the minor league coach that he truly is. For that matter, Therrien did, too. The Pens may not have won much against the Caps during the regular season, but they sure know how to handle injured players and roster moves better (save for not playing Tangredi in Game 7 against the Lightning... I would much rather have faced the Pens than the Bolts. Curse you Bylsma!). When Marc-Andre Fleury was injured during the 2007-2008 season, Ty Conklin came in and posted a record of 17-6-5 and led the league in save percentage. He was a monster. When Fleury again was injured or just simply lost confidence this past season, former Caps backup goalie Brent Johnson stepped in and posted stellar numbers. Only the foolish called for Fleury to be demoted to backup. A team has to go with their best player. Varlamov, without (serious) question, is the more skilled goalie. He has better numbers, and has them more consistently. It is a rare game where he allows more than three goals, and really a relatively uncommon when he allows more than two. Neuvirth should have been relegated to backup once Varly got healthy, because that is where he should fall on the depth chart, same as Conklin, same as Johnson.

"For godsakes, not in the face!"
Evidence of those ice-cold veins, I guess.
So. I say trade Neuvirth. He is riding high on this past season, people think he is amazing (except for me and Bylsma, just watch the HBO special if you don't know what I mean), and he is cheap. The Caps, in my opinion, should group Neuvirth with Chimera (more on him in one my next two posts) and a draft pick or prospect in a trade with another team. I don't even know or care what for. But it would get a big return, move some cap space and a redundant winger, and force the team into naming their starter. Granted, nobody else out there is saying this, at least not that I have seen. But that just means they are wrong. Remember those are the same people who thought the Caps would beat the Lightning, would beat the Canadiens last year, would beat the Pens after being up 2-0 in the series. They were all wrong. You can trust me and my cynicism more than you can trust those idiots. That being said.... Varly will be gone to the KHL or Winnipeg when all is said and done, because this is a team and organization that cannot understand handling goaltenders not named Olaf Kolzig. And really, Boudreau didn't even know how to handle Olie.

Finally, Perreault. What can I say, I have always been high on this kid. I still think he is a better player than Johansson is, nothing can convince me otherwise. Not reciting the stats (which nearly all favor Perreault, actually: better points per game, better faceoffs, better percentage of starts finished in the offensive zone, better plus-minus per game...), not simply saying over and over and over again that MoJo is "better defensively" without a single shred of evidence to back up the statement other than his scouting report and your wishes that he is in fact better defensively, or even offensively. Honestly, not much more makes me more upset than seeing Johansson wearing a Caps sweater and Perreault wearing a Hershey one. I just do not see why. The knocks on MP85 are that he is streaky and takes too many penalties. Personally, I'd rather have a streaky, speedy kid who takes the occasional penalty than one who is more consistent in his non-scoring and is on ice for more goals against than for in a typical game. But I'm just crazy. That being said, Perreault will have to earn the league minimum in order to stay with the Caps. I would of course like to see him get that, and for two or three years, but I expect either a one-year deal at the league minimum or no deal at all. For his sake, I hope it's the latter. Another team would grab him in a heartbeat, give him a real shot with a consistent line, and he'd make McPhee and Boudreau look foolish, much like Fleischmann did before he nearly died.

That is all for now. Next up: UFAs.