Sunday, February 26, 2012

Last-Minute Trade Deadline Thoughts

The trade deadline, as of the time I am writing this, is roughly 30 hours away. Our boys in red are currently one point out of the playoffs with 20 games to go, and there is no timetable for number one center Nicklas Backstrom's return. With Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette traded out of Columbus already, the pickings are slim for a top-notch second line center that could also fill in on the first line while Nicky gets healthy. Someone that has both size and offensive prowess, not to mention the ability to win faceoffs and get off some good passes. The big problem is that the Capitals have what amounts to no cap space. They cannot even afford the league minimum salary for a call-up at this point. Good centers that fit the mold above are going to cost somewhere in the range of $3.5-6 million per year.

Many people have floated the names of potential suitors with the implications that they could possibly play well along Alexander Semin, possibly being a "Sasha-whisperer" in the vein of Jason Arnott (who really should have just been kept on the team instead of...well, we'll get into that briefly). The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes two things: 1) That Alex Semin will be with the team after this season, and 2) That Alex Semin will be with the team after Monday afternoon. Semin is the second-highest paid player on the team behind Ovechkin and tied with Backstrom, and is also the highest paid pending-UFA in the entire National Hockey League. In fact, the only soon-to-be free agent with a higher salary is pending-RFA Shea Weber out of Nashville. What this means is that in any trade involving a non-Weber RFA or UFA player, moving Alex Semin automatically frees up the necessary cap space.

Semin has been roughly a point-per-game player since Dale Hunter took over, and quite possibly the team's best player during that stretch as a result. With Semin, though, this is not unexpected. Neither was his lack of production in the waning days of the Boudreau Era. Like it or not, his future with the team is and always has been hazy at best. Signing a center to play alongside him for years to come could be a big mistake if Semin ends up not being in the teams plans after all. The first thing McPhee needs to do is decide how long he intends to keep the "other Alex," and then that should give him an idea of what his options at center are.

If he does decide to keep Semin, salary cap space has to be freed up via salary dumps, a.k.a trading for picks and prospects. To match Semin's salary, several players would have to move. Three players with a salary cap total of $7 million, just $300k more than Semin's hit, were scratched for both of the last two games: RW Mike Knuble and defensemen John Erskine and Roman Hamrlik. The writing on the wall suggests that these are the three that are most likely to move. Erskine being traded is not that surprising, as he has been knocked down to 8th on the depth chart on a good day. Knuble is approaching 40 and has been, for reasons that are unknown and would boggle the mind if they were, relegated primarily to 4th line duty this season and has seen a corresponding dip in offense. Boston and San Jose would love to have him, the former because of his history on the team and the latter to reunite him with Joe Thornton, but really, any team in the league would love to steal him from McPhee, as he immediately makes any team a better team, as long as they give him the top minutes he so clearly deserves and needs. Hamrlik was acquired just this past summer on a two-year deal, and has not lived up to expectations. Recently, he has shown frustration with Hunter, and appears ready to pack his bags at a moment's notice with a smile on his face. One thing all these guys have in common is that they want to play hockey, and they are not playing as much as expected in Washington.

If these players are all moved for picks/prospects, the Semin decision can once again be held off until the offseason, and just about any player can be picked up by 3:00 p.m. Monday, regardless of what GMGM gives back in return. But the Capitals best bet would be to pick up a player who can succeed without Semin as well as with him. What it really comes down to is this: for the next 30 hours or so, Alex Semin is the most important player on the Washington Capitals, and George McPhee needs a damn good crystal ball to figure out why.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Captaining the Caps

Let me preface this by saying I have never played hockey. I've never played on a varsity team, but I have played on JV squads in other sports (wrestling and rugby). So while I can't say that I know exactly what the most desirable traits are in the captain of a hockey squad, I have at lease some exposure to team sports and captaincy.

It is my opinion that Ovechkin should relinquish the "C" to Brooks Laich this offseason. Doing so right now would merely add more turmoil and misplaced focus to an already fragile Caps squad, but I do think it would be for the best once the season is over.

I am not saying, by any means, that Ovechkin is not a leader on the Capitals, nor that he is an ineffective leader. I simply believe that he is not the best leader on the team. What I do believe is that Ovechkin is usually one of the best leaders on the ice in terms of passion for the game and skill. His numbers may be slumping as of late, and people have questioned his effort accordingly. But watch his reaction when anybody on the team scores. Watch his face when the team is down. Watch him absolutely blow someone up because they dared lay a heavy hit on him. This is a guy who cares about winning and about his team, regardless of how many coaches rotate in and how many talking heads say otherwise. You will never convince me otherwise.

What I am convinced of is that these alone are not the only qualifications for leading as team captain. Brooks Laich embodies those qualities a little better. There is a reason that his name comes up every single time someone questions who should be captain, just as talks of who should be captain come up every time he gives a presser. It is no secret that his voice is one of the loudest and most respected in the locker room, along with that of Mike Knuble. Unlike Laich, though, Knuble does not have a fresh six-year deal that clearly pays him as much for his leadership skills as his hockey skills.

On the ice, Laich is a leader as well. For all of Ovechkin's skills, you probably won't see him suiting up as a center one day, left wing the next, and then filling in on defense next week. Laich is an all-around player. As much as I love Ovi, he just doesn't fit that description. I think the Great 8 is the best player on the team, but that the best player on the team does not necessarily have to be the captain.

The L.A. Kings chose Dustin Brown, a 20-goal two-way forward as their captain. The Penguins chose Sidney Crosby, who (good lord I hate saying this) established himself as the best player in the league when he is healthy. The Kings have plenty of talent, plenty of players who have more offensive talent than Brown, especially now that they have Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on the team to join Anze Kopitar, but Brown is the guy who better exemplifies what they need in a captain. Part of me thinks that the Caps looked at the Penguins a little too much when they chose their best player as their captain. But who else would they have chosen? Nobody else remotely worthy of the role, aside from Evgeni Malkin, was really guaranteed to be there for a substantial period of time, and the Penguins were going through as much of a rebuild as the Caps.

When Chris Clark was injured for the better part of three seasons before ultimately being traded while still holding the captaincy, it made a lot of sense to make Ovi his replacement. He was on top of the world, a whirlwind force on the ice, and the face of the franchise. Laich wasn't guaranteed to be around, because the Caps were still forming their new identity. Whether Ovechkin was truly ready for the role is a whole different story, and one that none of us who are not close to him personally can ever truly attest to. What can be attested to now is that Laich is the guy that many fans and much of the media look to as the true leader and heart of the team off the ice, and as a more than capable player and leader on the ice. He is the guy who runs warm-ups, and has for five years.

Aside from Laich being the guy I think would be the best captain for the team right now, especially through turmoil and regime change, I think it could possibly be better for Ovechkin right now, too. Much has been made of Olie Kolzig's comments that Ovi needs to get back to his younger years and back off from his "rock star" image. I don't think those comments are meant to be nearly as negative as many have made them out to be. I think it is more a call for him to remove distractions and focus on his game, to not get quite so caught up in all the pressures of his life and being pulled in 100 different directions from the team, the league, the coaches, the media, the sponsors, the fans, and everyone else. Whether or not it is a phantom correlation (X and Y appear correlated, but only because Z is happening at the same time), Ovechkin's offensive production has plummeted since taking on the captain's role. Removing one more pressure from his life could arguably help him regain his focus, helping his production and by proxy, the team. Admittedly, that may be a bit of a stretch, but it is still a factor that should be considered.

If the Capitals could have co-captains, I would be 100% behind Ovechkin and Laich sharing the role. But since the NHL does not allow teams to have co-captains, I think that Laich should have a shot starting next season. Again, this is really nothing against Ovechkin, but is instead praise for Laich and recognition that the team is going through changes one way or another. A different captain may help facilitate that change.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Different Look at the Trade Deadline

Much has been written, if not too much, about the looming trade deadline and what it could mean for the Washington Capitals. We are all playing armchair GM, watching twitter and our websites of choice for rumors, reading way too much into healthy scratches, forecasting what could be the next big move, etc. I am just as guilty as the next, if not more so, of all this. I have been very hesitant to write much recently, because I am not the type who likes to say the same things over and over again, and I found that was the road I was heading down.

For what it's worth, and to get it out of the way, I think the main, if not only, move the Caps should make is to acquire Jeff Carter at nearly whatever price is necessary. If the only knock against him is his attitude while playing on the worst team in the league, that's fine with me. I'll take a 40 goal scoring center who can win faceoffs and play both sides of special teams and has a history of playing on a more physical team if his worst trait is that he is bitter about being moved from a Cup-contender to a loser team without so much as a heads up. I don't see him as the team cancer that Jagr was, and I do see his contract as a good thing, because it is increasingly difficult to get someone with his skill level for under $6 million, let alone locked in at a little over five.

With that out of the way, we move on to the point of this post. In law school, you're taught to try to take a slightly different look at things in order to find the best outcome for you and your client. So how about this: rather than figure out who McPhee should acquire, and who/what he should give up in order to do so, why not start even more basic and look at who needs to stay?

I will break it down into two groups. "Absolutely must stay" means that shy of being offered a combination Malkin, Datsyuk, a Sedin, and/or Weber, there is no way these guys should be moved now or in the next three years. "Too valuable" means these are the players who compliment the stars, have versatile roles, or otherwise have some serious value to the team that while it would not destroy the team to lose one of them, Slapshot would be walking around with a limp for a while - although some of them could walk in the summer and be replaced. If you don't see a player's name, then he can be considered for whatever fantastical trade you wish. Some of this will seem obvious, some you may vehemently disagree with, but I urge you to think about it.

Absolutely Must Stay
  • Alex Ovechkin (53GP, 23G, 21A, 138 hits) - Obviously. The Captain, the face of the franchise, one of the league's premier stars. Whatever the reason behind his nearly two year long slump, he is not going anywhere.
  • Nick Backstrom (38GP, 13G, 29A) - The other obvious choice. One of the top centers in the league, regardless of how low he is ranked on some analysts' top players lists, he is almost as important to the Capitals as Ovechkin.
  • John Carlson (55GP, 7G, 20A, RFA) - His sophomore season is looking a little rough at times, but that is partially because we have set the bar so high for our Real American Hero. His potential upside is so high for a player of his youth, and he could easily grow into one of the organization's greatest defensemen. Along with the next two guys on the list, you're looking at the foundation of what can and should be one of the best defensive squads in the league.
  • Karl Alzner (55GP, 1G, 12A, +15) - Ever-so-slightly more seasoned than his pal Carlson, Alzner is developing into one of the top shutdown defensemen in the league. The contract he signed should have gotten his agent fired, but it showed some loyalty to the team, and without him right now, our defense is probably done for.
  • Mike Green (10GP, 3G, 3A, RFA) - This is where people start arguing with me. I stand by the fact that he was nominated for the Norris Trophy in back-to-back years, and that was before he rounded out the defensive aspect of his game. Getting him back healthy is incredibly important, and you just do not let go of one of the league's top defensemen solely because he had a string of bad luck with pucks and elbows to the noggin and an awkward fall or two. The Islanders would never let go of Mark Streit for those reasons, and neither should the Caps ever let go of Green. A pay cut for the next season or two is almost certainly in order, but he needs to get that paycheck from Washington and not somewhere else.
  • Brooks Laich (55GP, 10G, 18A) - McPhee essentially put him in this category with his most recent contract, and it was a move I totally agreed with. Laich might not always put up the most dazzling numbers, and he will never reach superstar status, but if you are looking for the heart of the Caps, you're looking for Brooks Laich. Currently the most versatile guy on the team, he has played all skating positions at some point this season, including a brief stint on the blueline. There aren't many guys in the league who can do what he does and maintain a high level of play throughout. He's a keeper.
  • Dmitry Orlov (37GP, 1G, 7A, 57 hits) - A somewhat unexpected permanent addition to the roster, Orlov has shown himself to be more than capable of handling the NHL in his rookie season. He's still prone to the occasional gaffe, but his stick-handling and physicality are top-notch, and he is only going to get better. With Carlzner and Green, you're looking at a very solid and dangerous group for years to come.
  • The Prospects: Braden Holtby (G), Evgeny Kuznetsov (F), Stanislav Galiev (F) - Holtby, I believe, is the goalie of the future for the Caps squad, at least if you're looking only within the organization. He has struggled a bit in Hershey, but showed last season that he is capable of greatness. Kuznetsov has been making us drool here in the States while he embarrasses so many over in the KHL. I'm also going with the unconventional choice of Galiev over fan-favorite Cody Eakin. He has been very public not only with his desire to play for Washington, but for the desire to earn the spot, too. He can score and hit, and that's just my kind of player. In an organization that is low on top-six centers but fairly heavy on guys that can play on the bottom-six, I don't see Eakin being as valuable as a guy like Galiev in the long haul.
Too Valuable
  •  Dennis Wideman (55GP, 10G, 28A, UFA) - The team's only All-Star representative to attend the festivities, third on the team in points, and third in the NHL in points for defensemen, he has endeared himself to the Caps organization and the fans. What keeps him from the must-stay list is partially due to how crowded I have already made that group of blueliners. Wideman's value is as an offensive defenseman, value the team already has with pending-RFAs Carlson and Green. Orlov, too, has shown some offensive upside. In the long haul, Wideman is not essential. His season has probably earned him a raise from almost $4 million he got this year, and while it would suck to have him walk in the offseason for no return when the Caps are likely unable to give him what he wants, losing him at the trade deadline could prove even more disastrous.
  • Matt Hendricks (51GP, 3G, 4A, 72PIM, 128 hits) - Locked in for another year at $825k, Hendricks is a great player at a great value. While he isn't having quite the offensive season he had last year, that was never his reason for making the team in the first place. He is a surprisingly versatile bottom-six forward who is more than capable in the dot, winning 54.5% of his draws this season, and he is not at all afraid to hit and fight. While nobody seems to have informed Dale Hunter, he is also the team's resident shootout specialist, scoring on half of his attempts during his time in DC. He brings a lot of grit to the team while still being a lingering scoring threat, and realistically would not fetch much in return in a trade. With no reason at all to move him, there is every reason to keep him rocking the red.
  • Thomas Vokoun (40GP, 22-13-2, 4 SO, 2.45GAA, .920 SV%, UFA) - Worth far more than the paltry $1.5 million that he got from McPhee this summer, Vokoun really was the best signing of the year for the team. Without him, there is no way the team would even be sniffing the playoffs right now. Unfortunately for us, there is also no way he will stick around for backup-goalie pay. He's getting a little old, but given his consistency over the years he deserves a much bigger paycheck. Parting with him now would be ludicrous, but the Blackhawks, Blues, and even the Flyers have shown that there are a lot of diamonds in the rough out there when it comes to goalies, and you don't have to pay an arm and a leg to get them. Hell, McPhee showed that, himself.
  • Mathieu Perreault (37GP, 9G, 7A, RFA) - Easily the most controversial call I'm making here, Perreault is the last name you will see with a bullet point. Yes, that means that I think Brouwer, Johansson, and Neuvirth could all be replaced or upgraded or traded without significant downside for the team, but I do not think the same could be said for Perreault. I have not exactly hidden my fanboy-dom for our resident small guy, but even I recognize this may be pushing it. Here's the thing, though: he leads the team in even strength goals- and points-per-sixty minutes, and by a significant margin. He has been in the top five for these two metrics nearly the entire season. When he was on a line with Hendricks and Halpern, they scored. When he is on a line with Semin, they score. Perreault is the kind of player that, if you use him properly, will produce and will bring out the best in those around him. He can create plays behind and in front of the net in part because his size allows him to be more nimble than the average player. When not used properly, though, he disappears. Claims of inconsistency focus on the fact that he is not scoring every single game, or that he may go a couple weeks without a goal. I would much rather have that inconsistency than a guy like Beagle who consistently brings virtually nothing to the table. Like Hendricks, though, Perreault would not fetch much in return for any trade. He has shown bursts of remarkable skill, and really has not been a defensiveness weakness on the ice very often, either. Eakin, Aucoin, and Beagle are all less effective in the lineup than Perreault, and MP85 has shown success and chemistry with the top scorers, a feat that even Johansson has had trouble with. Losing Perreault to likely gain a late round draft pick or a permanent AHLer would mean putting someone with less skill and team chemistry in the lineup, and that is something the Caps cannot afford right now.
So there you have it: Five forwards, five defensemen, a goalie, and a handful of prospects. If McPhee goes into fire sale mode over the next two weeks, these are the players I do not think can be moved without compromising the immediate and/or future success of the team. Everyone else is too expensive, too superfluous, too underused, or too ill-fitting to be considered essential in my book. Tell me what you think in the comments below!