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.

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