Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thoughts on Caps Free Agency Week 1

Well, I tried to get a post up about the (then) upcoming UFA's for the Capitals a week before July 1st, but an error with Blogger/Firefox/CapGeek/my keyboard/my twitchy fingers deleted an entire post that took several hours to research and write, when I had one measly sentence left. Le sigh. So now we are at the end of the first week of free agency, and for Washington it has been pretty busy. For those who have paid any attention to me on Twitter or Facebook, you know the gist of how I felt on Day 1. But there is more to it, so here you go:

Brooks Laich (C, LW): 6 years, $27 million, avg. 4.5 per year

I dare you to stare deep into his eyes and sign him for less
Occurring prior to July 1, this is, in my opinion, a great signing. Laich is hitting his prime, and was a pending UFA. Widely regarded as the second best UFA forward behind Brad Richards, Laich was going to command a hefty salary on the open market. If he took a hometown discount, which does not seem likely, it was slight. For the demand out there, that is just how it had to play out. But now the Caps have one of the best, most consistent, and hardest-working two way forwards locked up on a team he loves and that loves him. He may not honestly be worth $4.5 a year, but given the scenario and market, this is about as good as it could have been.

Jeff Halpern (C): 1 year, $825k
Hopefully Bondra comes back, too. Just not that jersey.
The first signing on July 1, this was a great move. While Boyd Gordon had a solid year and was the longest tenured player on Washington, he was able to command a raise from other teams lacking depth. A raise that the Caps (rightfully) were not comfortable giving him. Halpern's contract is a mere 25,000 more than Gordon's last year, while Halpern put up far far superior numbers offensively. Not to mention his history with the team, being from Potomac and all. Oh yeah, and he used to be the Caps' captain. Excellent signing.

Semyon Varlamov (G): Traded to Colorado for Avs 2012 1st round and either Boston's 2012 2nd round or Avs 2013 2nd round picks

The Capitals made huge news with their two goalie-related maneuvers. This was the first, coming shortly after the Halpern signing. Colorado finished as one of the worst teams in the league, largely due to abysmal goaltending. Varlamov was an RFA who cared little about term or money, but demanded a guarantee that he would be the Capitals' starting goalie for 2011-2012. Despite a GAA and SV% that, combined, statistically put him behind only the three Vezina finalists out of all goalies who played more than 25 games, McPhee and Boudreau refused to give in to this demand, saying that he could contend for the starting gig with Neuvirth and Holtby. Same as he had in 2010-2011, same as he had in 2009-2010 with Theodore and Neuvirth. Same as he had in 2008-2009 with Theodore.
Good times... good times. Best of luck in Colorado.

Feeling defeated and furious, Varlamov seriously entertained the idea of leaving for the KHL, a move that would guarantee a good paycheck and a starting gig, but one that would ruin his reputation in the NHL, where he truly wanted to play. Despite earlier assurances to the contrary, McPhee announced the trade with Colorado. Many viewed it as an absolute fleecing, as the Avs likely could have come at Varlamov with an offer sheet for the amount they would end up signing him for (3 years, $8.5 million, avg. 2,833,333) and would only have had to part with their 2nd round pick when the Capitals inevitably opted not to match. My opinion of all this? Varlamov is one of the best goalies in the league. He is young, highly skilled, still approaching his prime,is fiercely competitive and extremely confident. I believe this trade will be one that haunts the team for some time, and that Varlamov will be a Vezina contender this season. Fears about his health are somewhat founded, as he has been injured for portions of each of the past three seasons. Unlike forwards or defenseman, however, even the best starting goalies are by no means expected to approach anywhere near 82 starts in a season. Varlamov was available to start 50+ games in 2010-2011, easily enough to establish himself as the starter. So even if Varly is injured for 30 games a season (which he won't be), he is still healthy for enough games to be his team's starter and more than capable of earning 30 wins a season. The Avalanche get this for unknown, unproven players that may or may not ever play in an NHL game for Washington. 90% of people think the Caps made out like bandits, but I am firmly on Team Varly, and think Colorado made the right move.

Tomas Vokoun (G): 1 year, $1.5 million

Sliiiiiide to the left. Two hops this time!
Vokoun is widely considered to be one of the best goalies in the game, consistently putting up top-10 numbers on bottom-5 teams. Three straight years with a SV% of .920 or better on the Panthers? Pretty damn good, I have to admit. I like him a lot more than Neuvirth... but not nearly as much as I would have liked Varly. Add to that the fact that Vokoun has minimal playoff experience and mediocre-at-best numbers in March and beyond over the course of his career, and you can color me hesitant to hop on the "Holy crap that's awesome!" bandwagon that the hockey media has started. Given the Varly move, though, this was easily the best move the team could have made, and at a great price. It likely
will also give Holtby (or Neuvirth?) more time in the AHL to develop his skills even better, and groom him for the starting job next season.

Joel Ward (RW): 4 years, $12 million, avg. 3 per year

While Ward is thinking "I Believe I Can Fly"
his teammates are thinking "Thriller"
Ward just came off a Nashville team that made it past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in team history, and he was a major part of that, scoring at just over a point-per-game pace (13 points in 12 games), including seven goals. That nearly matched his season total of 10 goals. With that in mind, I am thoroughly unimpressed by this move. The Capitals already have a glut of wingers, and ones who can score more than 10 a year. Ward's regular season numbers have steadily decreased over the last three years. McPhee supposedly signed Ward because he is serious about playoff success. I am by no means impressed by a winger who had what appears to be one fluky/opportunistic year in the playoffs after coming off a weak regular season. I am also not interested in wingers who haven't made it past the second round. The Caps have more than enough of those kinds of players. Ward, to me, is the epitome of redundancy. And at $3 million a year, he is getting paid more than Knuble, Fehr, Chimera, and Hendricks, with the same or less experience in the playoffs and worse offensive numbers during the year. Supposedly he is gritty, but with 67 hits and 57 blocked shots in 80 games to accompany his 6.8% shooting percentage, I don't see the grittiness. Ward may be half-decent, but he is largely getting this contract on the hopes that he can replicate one year's playoff success. Keep in mind, he was 2-2-4 in six playoff games the year before. Much like Max Talbot on the Penguins (now Flyers), there is a lot of focus and value likely misplaced on what was probably only being in the right place at the right time. I don't like this at all.

Troy Brouwer (LW/RW): Acquired RFA rights from Chicago on Draft Day for Caps' 1st round pick, signed 2 years, $4.7 million, avg. 2.35 per year

This is a bit misleading: Brouwer actually went to shake his hand, but
Bieksa thought he could draw a penalty anyway, as is of course tradition
Faced with what seemed to be a weak draft year and a dire need to address team issues, McPhee traded the Capitals' first round pick to Chicago for the rights to Troy Brouwer. Brouwer was set to become an RFA with arbitration rights on July 1, and Chicago needed to clear yet more cap space. As of today, Brouwer has signed with the team for a two-year deal. The winger was fifth in the league in hits last year and played on the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup team the year prior. He appears to be what the team needs: a gritty, hard-hitting player with Cup-winning experience and a slight scoring touch. He is capable of scoring 20 goals and about 40 points a year, even when cycling between lines and linemates and knocking around the other team. This could turn out to be a great deal for the Caps, but it will very largely depend on how Boudreau (or whoever is coach by season's end) handles the team. Brouwer has expressed resentment toward the Blackhawks coaching staff and management for the way they handled lineups and player contracts, respectively. The Capitals are currently in a position to have very serious issues with the salary cap, and Boudreau is (in)famous for constantly changing lines during the play game/season. Brouwer wants to win a Cup again with a team that gives him a consistent spot with consistent teammates. He has also stated that he feels more comfortable playing left wing rather than right, although he is capable of playing both. Contrast that with the talk of the town that pictures him regularly cycling between the second and third lines, typically on the right side, and I start to see a picture being painted. That picture is of a player who feels disrespected and loses his competitive edge when he leaves a bad scenario and ends up in the exact same position. Only time will tell, though.

Roman Hamrlik (D): 2 years, $7 million, avg. 3.5 per year

Hopefully he doesn't kill the
Caps' hopes of a Cup again this year
Hamrlik is a solid, veteran defenseman. Heavy on the veteran: he will be 40 by the time his two year contract ends. Despite his age, he was a great combination of shutdown and puck-moving styles for Montreal over the last four years. He will be a great mentor for the Caps young-ish blue line. Green, Carlson, Schultz, and Alzner (hopefully?) all have a lot to learn, still, and the team would be hard pressed to find a better teacher than Hamrlik in this year's free agent pool. His contract reflects these intangibles at least as much as his skill, and his addition to the team makes the Capitals an even more formidable defensive opponent. He is probably still being paid a bit much for his age, but McPhee is taking what even I think is a justified gamble on the long-term benefits that will be reflected in the younger guys' play for years to come.

Next up: my thoughts on the roster/lines for the 2011-2012 season.

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