Tuesday, May 28, 2013

McPhee's Big Challenge

I think enough time has passed that I can write something without resorting to ad hominem attacks and vulgarity, so here I am with my first off-season post. Before I look back on the 2013 lockout season, I want to look forward to the subject for this post's title: setting the roster for next year.

I have been no silent critic of GMGM. Admittedly, I have at times gone overboard with vitriol, but if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, what is watching someone do it for 15 years straight and coming back for more? I call it the Boush-naughten Defense. Lawyered.

However, I stand by my unwavering belief that many of the Caps' imminent/current salary cap woes were easily avoidable and that a competent general manager that actually had some fear for his job would not be facing. McPhee, possibly because of the role he filled in his own playing days, has too much of a soft spot for low-end role players, which leads him to be too loose too fast with Papa Ted's wallet. No one of these signings, extensions, or trades broke the bank or could prohibit re-signing Ribeiro or Alzner or any other player, but when compounded on top of one another, they lead us to the current situation where the team has no fewer than five free agents that they would surely like to sign, and enough salary cap space to retain only one or two of their services:

The Blueline
  • John Erskine: First played in the NHL in 2001-2002 for the Dallas Stars. Started with the Caps in 06-07. In 08-09, he played in 52 regular season games, posting 4 assists and 63 PIMs. His salary cap hit at that time was a mere $537,500 on a salary of $550,000. Since that time, McPhee has given him two-year extensions, each with a raise. He has only eclipsed his GP from 08-09 only once, and continues to have more PIMs than games played each season. His 2013-2014 cap hit will be $1,962,500, having been unexpectedly extended mid-season in 2013. Typically looked upon as a solid 6/7 defenseman at best, he was thrust into a top-4 role this year thanks to injuries and lackluster play on the blueline.
    Cap hit comparables: Hal Gill, Jamie McBain, Shane O'Brien
  • Jeff Schultz: Led the league in the currently much-maligned +/- stat in 2009-2010 with +50. His cap hit that year, his third full season with Washington, was $715,000. His solid season playing on the top pairing with Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green earned him a massive raise and a four-year deal that goes through next season. His cap hit is $2,750,000. His games played have sharply decreased each season to the point that he was a healthy scratch most of the second half of the season and saw no ice time in the 2013 playoffs. He was completely overshadowed by AHL call-ups and the aforementioned Erskine.
    Cap hit comparables: Andrej Sekera, P.K. Subban, Derek Morris
The Forwards
  • Joel Ward: Let me preface this by saying that I like Ward. He proved this season that he is a very capable third line right winger that thrives in Adam Oates' system. But the Oates system is a double-edged sword. Moving Ovechkin to the right wing bumped everyone else down a slot on the depth chart. Eric Fehr regaining his health and being re-signed also adds to the RW jumble. With, in order of depth, Ovechkin, Brouwer, Fehr, Ward, and one of Beagle, Volpatti, Hendricks, or even Wilson all lining up on the right side, things there are crowded. Ovechkin and Brouwer are the clear 1RW and 2RW. Beagle/Volpatti/Hendricks clearly line up as the 4RW. Tom Wilson is the Charlie Kelly of this particular gang, and could see time on the third or fourth line of the Caps, or just as likely be sent back to the ECHL. That leaves Ward and Fehr battling it out for the 3RW, with both bringing very similar skill sets. Fehr, though, is younger and comes at half the cost of Ward. At the time Wardo was signed, McPhee admitted to overpaying by 15%, and Fehr was simultaneously traded away. Given his current team competition, that is proving true.
    Cap hit comparables: Valeri Filppula, Michael Grabner, Steve Ott
  • Aaron Volpatti: Volpatti's extension was as non-controversial as it was befuddling. And for me, this is the most telling of McPhee's problem prioritizing. Volpatti will be making the league minimum, actually being paid less than he was in 2012-2013. He also played extremely limited minutes as an injury fill-in, bringing essentially none of the physicality expected when he was first claimed off waivers. Volpatti's role can be filled by literally any player in the NHL and many in the AHL. More importantly, he was re-signed before the much more valuable Matt Hendricks, who remains unsigned. The $575,000 going to Volpatti is money that is not going to Hendricks, Johansson, Alzner, Ribeiro, or Kundratek. This was a signing that should, and could, have been done at the last minute, if at all.
  • With Holtby being re-signed to a very reasonable, sub-$2mil dollar per year extension after essentially locking up the number one spot, you know I'm talking about Neuvirth. Neuvy was given a two year extension at $2,500,000 per year in salary cap, having shown that he is a very capable backup, but likely little more. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that he has completely failed to take the starter's job despite almost endless opportunities to do so.  However, he is now being paid more than the presumed starter and as much as many other starters. Take a look at this list and tell me if he belongs.
    Cap hit comparables: Corey Crawford, Ben Bishop, Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Vokoun, Viktor Fasth

So now what?

How to solve the problem? McPhee has to make hard decisions, and he has to break his habit of locking up bottom six forwards for too much money and/or too early while letting top-six slots remained unfilled. He could let a team heart player like Hendricks walk, let the 2C spot remain open for competition as Ribeiro signs elsewhere, give up on a promising defensive prospect like Kundratek, unnecessarily drag out negotiations with Alzner, and/or complicate negotiations with Johansson.

On the other hand, he could swallow some degree of pride and take less than what he believes to be fair value for certain players and part way with some of his favorites that are priced out of the current team or that are on the demonstrable downhill slope of their careers.  This could bring the team valuable draft picks while dumping salary.  I refuse to believe that no team would offer even future considerations for Schultz - an option that is better than the pay-for-nothing option of a compliance buyout.  Ward and Chimera are players that every team wants, but that the Caps have in spades.  Ward would fit on a team with more cap space like the Jets, Devils, or Stars. Chimera would fit on a team with less cap space but lacking in experienced grinders and speed.  None of these would be terribly controversial with Washington faithful, and moving these three players alone (assuming no NHL players come back) would free up $7,500,000 alone - more than enough to sign Ribeiro and Hendricks while leaving room for at least Alzner and Kundratek.

Here's where I introduce controversy and really challenge McPhee.  I would also trade Erskine.  This would admittedly look bad for McPhee, but I think it's better to deal with a mistake and move on rather than continue to overpay Erskine to occupy a roster spot that Steve Oleksy has shown he can fill with more youth, speed, and offense at a third of the cost.  With Hillen, Kundratek, Oleksy, Orlov, Schmidt, and Schilling all viable options for spots 4 through 7 in DC, there is little sense in spending almost $2,000,000 on one of those spots. Big John would also be my first choice for the compliance buyout.  Erskine has the least future value and arguably the least current value behind only Schultz of any blueliner on the team.  There is a shockingly large segment of the Caps fanbase that loves him, and it would be bad optics to trade a player that was just re-upped.  That's what makes it a hard decision, though one I feel is necessary.

The other challenge is to trade the rights for Marcus Johansson.  The Martin Erat trade, as gut-wrenchingly horrible as I believe it to be, has provided the team with a player that has shown he can play on the top line, and who has the veteran presence and experience playing in a consistent role that MaJo (When did he stop being MoJo, by the way?) just does not have.  Johansson, about to enter his fourth year in the NHL, is still prone to looking lost on the ice and being wildly inconsistent.  He was slotted as the 1LW practically by necessity, and with Laich and Erat being healthy next year, it is far less necessary to put him there.  If Troy Brouwer's rights could be bought for a first-round pick, so could Johansson's.  He's still a valuable player with lots of upside, but I don't believe that either he or the Caps are benefited by continuing to pay him.  A team like Winnipeg or New Jersey, which each finished outside the playoffs and are in need of young scorers, would be a perfect trade partner in that they could provide Washington with valuable consideration while also giving Johansson a fresh start and hopefully a consistent role on the team.

Will McPhee do any of this?  Likely not.  Schultz will probably bought out, Ribeiro and Hendricks will probably walk, Kundratek and Alzner's negotiations will drag on too long and hurt morale, and Johansson will probably be overpaid.  But he has options, and hopefully he'll at least take a look at some of them.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

NHL Awards Predictions and Thoughts

Last day of the regular season for our Caps, with the final game of the NHL regular season coming tomorrow. This is the time of year where players, coaches, writers, and generally everyone in hockey decide who is awarded the various NHL Awards. Well here are my two cents on some of the big ones (sorry, Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy):
  • Hart (Player judged most valuable to his team, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association)
    • Top five candidates: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechin, Sergei Bobrovsky, John Tavares, Patrick Kane
    • My three finalists: Crosby, Ovechkin, Bobrovsky/Tavares (If the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, Bob. If not, Tavares)
    • Hahahhaa Ovi Number 1 best! )))))
    • Winner: Ovechkin. Two weeks ago I would not have said this. Bobrovsky may be even more deserving, and Crosby played like he was the living embodiment of the Hockey Gods for the first 75% of the season (more on that later). But Ovi has been a man on fire of late, locking up the Rocket Richard and competing for the Art Ross, all while setting league records for the month of April. His goal total will be at least that of last year. Without him, it's unlikely the Caps make the playoffs, let alone win the final Southeast Division banner. The playoff bias goes against Bob, and the Pens' cavalcade of captains and wins, coupled with the missed games, goes against Sid. Hockey writers love Crosby more than I love bacon, but the tide of pixels lately have been tipping in Ovi's favor.
  • Ted Lindsay (Most outstanding player, voted on by the NHLPA)
    • Top five candidates: Same as the Hart
    • My three finalists: Crosby, Ovechkin, Patrick Kane
    • Cros-bot sprung a leak... wait, that's blood! He's human!
    • Winner: Crosby. No question. He missed the last quarter of the season, a period over which Ovechkin scored at a goal-per-game pace, and he will still finish top-5 in overall scoring, if not top-3. He put Chris Kunitz on a scoring pace that would have seen him break 50 goals. In an 82 game season, if healthy, Crosby was on pace for over 127 points. The injury time doesn't hurt him here, as he still played the majority of the season and made almost everyone else look like they were playing pond hockey during that time. It's those players who will give him the award.
  • Vezina (Best goalie, voted on by the general managers)
    • Top five candidates: Bobrovsky, Niemi, Lundqvist, Anderson, Rask
    • My three finalists: Bobrovsky, Rask, Anderson
    • The puck stops here.
    • Winner: Bobrovsy. Really, this is a two horse race between Bobrovsky and Anderson. There are a lot of guys with numbers similar to Rask, Lundqvist, and Niemi. Crawford and Schneider, for example. They all look up to Bob and Anderson. One of the effects of this shortened season has been a smaller sample size for goalies to really have as many bad (or good) games. Anderson had this locked up before he was injured - like Crosby in net, essentially. Bobrovsky seems to get better every game, and Flyers fans have just got to be furious. If the Blue Jackets can make the playoffs, this will just be the icing on the cake to cap off a great year for the underdogs. Looking forward to having them in the division next year.
  • Jack Adams (Coach who contributed the most to his team's success, selected by the NHL Broadcasters Association)
    • Top five candidates: Boudreau (Anaheim), Oates (Really?), Quenneville (Chicago), Therrien (Montreal), MacLean (Ottawa)
    • My three finalists: Therrien, Boudreau, Quenneville
    • Therrien. Michelle Therrien. Wait...
    • Winner: Therrien. Everybody has been talking about MacLean lately, because the Senators barely made the playoffs after losing their top forward, top defenseman, and starting netminder for most of the season. Color me not impressed. Winnipeg and Philadelphia finished with more ROW, so the Senators just tended to lose later more often. Bettman has more to do with their finish than MacLean. Keeping a playoff team in the playoffs after injuries isn't enough for me. Nor is taking a winning team with a recent Cup to the President's trophy enough. Oates? Sorry, but the Caps are a perennial playoff team. Boudreau and Therrien accomplished far more by taking teams that finished 25th and 28th, respectively, in the NHL last year to securing home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Therrien gets the nod given that the Northeast was more competitive than the rest of the Eastern Conference (in a good way) as well as the Pacific. Plus Therrien didn't have Getzlaf, Perry, and random stud Victor Fasth.
  • Norris (Top all-around defenseman, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association)
    • Top five candidates: P.K. Subban, Ryan Suter, Girardi, Letang, Beauchemin
    • My three finalists: Subban, Suter, Letang
    • Eat it, Weber.
    • Winner: Suter. Subban leads all defensemen in points and with a +10, but Suter played almost four minutes a night more than PK while being one of the most productive blueliners in the league, making people in Nashville ask who really names their son Shea. Honestly, it's close. Subban or Suter really could take it. There's a chance it comes down to where Montreal and Minnesota finish. If Montreal can manage to win the Northeast Division, Subban will get a bump for being such a huge part of that team's rebound. If Minnesota misses the playoffs, Suter's even plus-minus could face some scrutiny. Subban's lack of physicality (hits and blocked shots are lower than the other candidates') and Suter's plus-minus (fair or not) could lead to an upset, but I think it comes down to these two guys.
  • General Manager of the Year (The name is pretty self-explanatory, voted on by pretty much everyone who doesn't actually play hockey)
    • My three finalists: Jarmo Kekäläinen (Columbus), Chuck Fletcher (Minnesota), Ray Shero (Pittsburgh)
    • Winner: Shero.
      The face of Evil
    • I want to give it to Jarmo, but he has had the job for two months now. Fletcher's Wild could still miss the playoffs, and it isn't clear how good or bad the Parise and Suter signings will be. Shero, I am now forever convinced, has evidence in a storage locker somewhere in Sewickley that would put every other General Manager in jail for life and cause their wives/girlfriends/parents to leave them. There's no other explanation than how he took away two of the Western Conference's most respected captains from their franchise teams and convinced Jim Rutherford (Carolina, and winner of the Holy Crap Is That A Real Contract Award) to give the Pens Jussi Jokinen, presumably as penance for signing Jordan Staal. Carolina is literally paying Jokinen to play for Pittsburgh. Shero wins.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Caps Trade Bait

Here fishy fishy... here fishy Feaster.... wait, sorry. We're less than two weeks out from the NHL trade deadline of April 3, and the Caps have made nary a (noteworthy) move. My last post (again, graciously matched by @MikeHolden of BrooksLaichYear.com) focused on why I thought Mike Ribeiro should stay in DC, and touched on the notion of better options to trade. Let's flesh that part out now while there's still time.

I like to think of the trade deadline as trimming the fat off a team. Free agency requires you to make some hard decisions about the future of your team, long and short term. The trade deadline, at least in theory, creates a bit of a frenzy and allows teams to trade off players that are expendable one way or another, but that another team wants. Unless you're completely out of competition and need to rebuild or are so hard up against the cap that salary dumps are imperative for the health and future of your organization, big money moves probably are not what you're looking at as a GM. That's why someone like Ribeiro (pending UFA = no commitment necessary) is way more desired than someone like Bobby Ryan (committing salary and term). More permanent trades tend to be made in the off-season.

The trade deadline is the time to shine for "rental" players. These are the guys who can give a playoff bound, or playoff hopeful, team a boost either by addressing a weakness or doubling down on a strength. These aren't junk players, they're guys with valuable skills. Low-skill players are typically traded around for conditional picks and 7th rounders between teams with injuries or just too much money and free time. Here are four Caps players that I think would be better options to trade than Mike Ribeiro. Not in the sense of the return they'd bring, because probably no Cap would bring back more than Ribeiro, but in the sense that the value that they would bring back would immediately outweigh the sting of their loss.
His "Come at me, bro" plan didn't quite work out
  • Michal Neuvirth - Braden Holtby had a rough start, but has all but locked down the number one spot in DC. Neuvirth has been unable to establish any kind of consistency, having traded ice time with Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Vokoun, and Holtby during his career. He has shown flashes of high-level play, and has established himself as a top-tier backup at worst. His pride has taken a hit, and I would honestly be shocked to see him re-sign in DC as a backup to someone younger than him. Other teams desperately need a goaltender with the youth and passion to compete for a number one spot and be relied on for the future. As a pending RFA, Neuvirth's trade value plummets in free agency, but his current $1.5mil contract is more than palatable to a team like Calgary (which is in desperate need of a top-to-bottom rebuild) or New Jersey (which has an average NHL goalie age of 39.5 and no prospects to speak of). The Caps, meanwhile, have one of the best goalie prospect pools in the league, with Grubauer, Anderson, and even Kostenko down the pipeline. What they lack is a veteran, someone to mentor Holtby. Projected Return: 2nd round pick, or low pick and backup goalie
  • Winner of the team's "Pedobear" award for facial hair
  •  Marcus Johansson - MoJo, as he is so often referred to, is too often lacking his nickname. He has seen long stints on each of the top three lines and at each of the forward positions. He tends to get time on both the PK and the PP. For someone like Brooks Laich, this is viewed as versatility. For Johansson, though, it is the result of trying to find his place. We all know he has the skills. What he has yet to find in Washington is the proper role to break out. Plagued by inconsistency in both his level of play and linemates, he has never really seemed to quite fit. He's easily the team's worst center despite insisting that is his natural spot, but he struggles to control the puck along the boards. Yet he has wheels that can lead to breakouts, can execute a wrap-around with the best of 'em, and man is he just frustrating to watch because you know there's just something missing, something not clicking that is keeping him from breaking out. With Forsberg and Wilson likely on the Caps next season, and Kuznetsov possibly joining after the (presumed) Olympic break, MoJo's value to the McPhee as an RFA is worthy of serious scrutiny. A change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered to help young Marcus finally develop his game and discover his role in the NHL, while allowing the Caps to make room for the other first-round picks. Projected Return: low 2nd or high 3rd round pick, maybe with a mid-level prospect to boot
  • I make the same gesture when I see him in
    the lineup over Wolski these days.
  •  Jason Chimera - Chimera had a career year under Dale Hunter, thanks in no small part to the chemistry he found with Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Troy Brouwer under a system that spoke to Chimmer's strengths. Hunter hockey isn't Oates hockey, though. Nor is Hunter hockey Boudreau hockey. Speedy #25's stats under Oates are pretty awful, despite seeing time on all three of the top lines and somehow managing to be possibly the only Caps player not to see a demotion (he's always been a 3rd liner, going back to that role from the 1st doesn't count) or the press box. They're not that different from his boxcar stats in the Boudreau years, either. Both now and in the year prior to Hunter's arrival, Chimera was the worst Cap (along with MoJo) in terms of the admittedly-sketchy plus-minus statistic. With Wojtek Wolski on the bench this season, and Tom Wilson itching to make the Caps roster, Chimera is a redundant player on the team both now and in the future in addition to seemingly being a poor fit with the current system and roster. But he does have upside. Again, he had career numbers last year. He has more to him than meets the eye, and the eye shows one of the fastest skaters in the league and grit to go along with it. He has one year remaining at $1.75mil, easily absorbed by any team in the league. He's precisely the kind of player a contender likes, so long as that contender believes the best offense is a good defense (i.e. Ducks need not apply. Blues, though...). Unlike MoJo and Neuvy, moving Chimera has the potential to immediately free up cap space for next year and has far fewer question marks about what he brings to the table. Projected Return: 3rd round pick, combo of lower picks, player-for-player trade
  • It's not always easy playing hockey, what with
    the Crabbs trying to nip at your ankles.
  • Joel Ward - Of these four, Joel would likely be the hardest player to move, and is the one I have come to like the most. At the time he was signed as a free agent, McPhee said he overpaid Ward by about 15%. That was after an incredible display in helping Nashville get to the second round of the playoffs for the first time and before the salary cap was going to plummet by almost $6mil. With two years remaining at $3mil apiece, Ward's contract would be hard to eat for most teams. That's not to say he isn't a valuable asset. Oates showcased what Ward could do early on this season. He reversed his trend of seeing his offensive numbers decline in every season he has been in the league. He can play on both sides of special teams and has shown that all-important clutch factor in the post-season. He puts in an honest effort and is rarely seen making mistakes. He is the ideal NHL third liner, and can fill in on the top two lines when needed. Even more than Chimera and MoJo, though, Ward has fallen to redundancy in Washington. Of the team's current right wingers, he is fourth on the depth chart behind Ovi, Brouwer, and Fehr. Recently Ward has been playing on the fourth line as a result. Ward is not going to pass Ovechkin and Brouwer on the depth chart, so his Caps ceiling is the third line. There are cheaper options already in the system that can fill his role without losing much, if anything, in terms of on-ice value. He is still a valuable player, and one that a team in the top-5 for salary space could use without worry. Projected Return: 3rd round pick, combo of lower picks and/or mid-level prospects

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To Trade or Not to Trade...

... Ribeiro is the question. The trade deadline is fast approaching, and unless the Caps string together a streak to match the Blackhawks, Penguins, or even the Blue Jackets, there is little doubt that they would fall squarely in the "seller" category come April 1.

All eyes are on Mike Ribeiro, the leading points-getter for the team, top-10 in the league overall and top o' the league in power play points, all at a career-best pace to start a season. He is also a 33 year-old UFA come this offseason, unless he is signed by Washington, likely at a raise on his current $5mil deal. So what comes next? Does McPhee re-sign the best fit at second line (first line?) center the team has seen since Fedorov? Or does he trade Ribeiro to address other holes in the lineup, high pick(s), high-level prospect(s), or some combination of the three?

I fall very firmly in the "re-sign" camp. Mike Holden (along with many others) falls into the "trade" camp. Mike has graciously agreed to a joint post laying out the pros and cons of trading the other Mike out of DC. We take our appropriate positions.

Show Me the Money!

I noted these stats above, but I feel they bear repeating. Mike Ribeiro currently leads the Washington Capitals in points. Mike Ribeiro is tied for 10th in the league in points.  Mike Ribeiro leads the league in power play points. Mike Ribeiro, 33 year old, is scoring at the best rate of his career 28 games into a shortened season, on a new team, with a new coach, with a new system. The same excuses being used by many (myself included) to help take away the sting from this Caps' season apply to Ribeiro as well, and he is thriving like never before. It has been a decade since he scored less than 50 points in a season.  His career worst season was a 16 goal, 51 point effort in 05-06, his last season in Montreal.

Basically, Ribeiro is playing the best hockey of his not-unsuccessful career. It has been pointed out that most NHLers see significant dropoffs in production at Ribeiro's age. Now, I'm not saying that Ribeiro is going to pump out better than a point-per-game for the next five years, but I absolutely expect him to continue at his career pace (~63 points per game) for the next three or so. Some may say I'm naive. But what seems more likely, perhaps the most consistent scorer in the league continuing his career pace until his mid-30s, or his scoring falling from a career-best to a career-worst within three years? I vote the former.

More importantly than prognosticating his scoring ability, what effect would trading Ribeiro have on Washington? The Capitals have been searching for a second line center for years, and now they have one. I repeatedly hear that Washington has a dearth of top-6 forwards. My response is how many top-notch players does a team need? Are Penguins top-liners (yeah, I went there) Pascal Dupuis (twice broke 40 points since 2001) or Chris Kunitz (four full seasons since 2005) top-6 forwards in the minds of Capitals fans? Is (currently injured) a rejuvenated Brooks Laich not? How many have argued for Eric Fehr to be given top-line duties, let alone top-six? Backstrom, Ovechkin, Ribeiro, Fehr, Laich, and Brouwer would be very formidable in this league. That's six players capable of putting up more than 20 goals and 40 points apiece in a full season. I'm not buying the lack of top-6 talent argument.

I'm not saying the Caps forwards are without issue, I just think chemistry and system changes are more responsible. I'd rather move players like Chimera and Johansson, who are skilled but seem to struggle in finding any kind of consistency in either production or team role. As high-end bottom-six players, they can be more easily replaced than Ribeiro. A top-4 defenseman is a more convincing need, but not one that I would want to lose Ribeiro for one with so many promising defenders coming into their own right now (a la Oleksy, Kundratek, and Orlov). In fact, I think the Caps could spare a Chimera or a Johansson, along with a young defender (not Orlov!) to fill a hole elsewhere on the line.

And what would the Caps gain? A first round pick would presumably be in the mix. But that doesn't really help Washington next year, or necessarily even the year after that. Not many teams are likely to have a higher pick than McPhee and his scouts will have to work with come July, and with the new lottery system it's even more of a gamble. How about a high-level prospect? You mean like Grubauer, or Kuznetsov, Wilson, or Forsberg? Or maybe a less-risky version of Galiev or Barber? While a healthy level of depth is near mandatory, Washington really is not in much need of near-future prospects as they literally have some of the best in the world on deck as it is.

The only trade that really makes sense would be to bring back another top-6 forward, maybe someone that could finally lock down the other wing on the top line. I could handle that kind of trade, but you're talking about trading apples for apples. Maybe you don't like our Granny Smith as much as Colorado's Red Delicious, but they're both apples. I prefer the devil you know. Insert similar cliche here.

In short, I think Ribeiro is the answer to a long-standing problem, and trading him would only re-open that gaping wound. I think the complaints of a lack of forward talent are vastly over-stated, and I think there are better moves that could be made without negatively affecting the team to the degree that moving Ribeiro would. All of this assumes that 1) Ribeiro wants to stay in DC and 2) Ribeiro does not want a long term (i.e. > 3 years) for more than $6mil per year. Those are the numbers I would be comfortable with. If he indicates a strong desire to sign anything beyond these terms, by all means, move him for as much as you can get.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013 Game #12: Caps @ Pens

As the resident Caps fan in Pittsburgh, I feel obligated to do a recap. Because who would really want to recap that mess? Not me, that's who.

Star: Ovechkin. Possibly his best game yet. He had some great chances on Fleury and MAF and his buddy Posty came up huge  on all but one of those chances. Throw in an assist and several huge hits and there wasn't much more that you could ask for from the Great 8. Honorable Mentions to Green and Fehr for driving play into the offensive zone and doing their best to keep Crosby at bay, and to Ribeiro for another multi-point game.

Goat: Everyone else. I think that's self-explanatory.

  • I think Neuvirth can certainly be blamed for the second goal he allowed, and Holtby for his first. Malkin's shot was nigh unstoppable, it was just perfect and those go in the net. The fourth and fifth goals (and to an extent even the third goal) are on some combination of Kundratek, Carlson, Hamrlik, and Schultz. Between poor coverage (Kundratek, Carlson), screening Holtby (Hamrlik, Schultz), and deflecting what would have been easy saves (Schultz), the game should have been much closer than it was, and it lead to far too much criticism of both goalies.
  • This was a special teams battle, and one in which the Caps (again) got slaughtered. The Pens scored three powerplay goals and allowed one. The PK and the defense need serious work. At this point, I think the best fix might be to get rid of Johansson. Not Marcus (at least not for these reasons). Calle. Most of these guys have been around for at least two years, if not longer, and the only one who seems to have improved with the new defensive coach is Erskine, and he didn't have much further to fall as it was. Something is amiss on the blue line, and I am of the opinion that is the core issue this squad has.
  • The other issue is, and has been for years, roster management. Kundratek has been doing fine on the third pair as a rookie, but there is no reason he should be on the penalty kill against three of the league's top scorers in Crosby, Malkin, and Neal. With Erskine suspended and Poti injured (this is my shocked face), he had to be in there tonight, but as soon as the Caps have seven other healthy and available defensemen, it's time for him to go back to Hershey.
  • Back to Marcus, though, he led forwards in shifts, along with Backstrom, at 22 apiece. So how did he follow up his first goal of the season last game? By taking yet another 0 shots in 15:37 of ice time. Only he, Chimera, Schultz, and Hamrlik failed to register a shot on net tonight. That means that only Hamrlik and Jack "I have played some of one game" Hillen have less shots on the season. MoJo has absolutely none of his nickname, and more and more people are starting to shake the old trade-tree and see if something falls out with his name on it. He is a pending RFA, is young, speedy, and theoretically has some offensive ability, so he should get something decent in return. As long as it isn't another bottom-six winger, the Caps might actually be able to use that something, too.
  • Roman Hamrlik was healthy scratched for quite a while, and when the other options to start were a rookie and a guy who hadn't played hockey in two years. Seemed ridiculous. Then he played tonight, and it seemed a little less so. At the same time, he didn't really do any worse than Poti or Kundratek, but that's not such a good thing. 
  • Bonus!
Onward and upward, mehopes. Also, if you have not read this, you must. The definitive summary of  the Caps' past two years.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Caps are Losing. So What?

And not just because he is the team's king of bling

Tonight the Capitals lost to the fairly dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs, blowing a 2-1 lead by getting pretty much owned in the third. They were outshot roughly 2-1, but there were a few bright spots. Namely Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro, but still.

I was going to say Michal Neuvirth, but then I looked at his actual stats this season. They're pretty dreadful, down among the league's worst, same as they were last season. The Caps defense has been nothing short of abysmal through these first seven games (the last five of which Neuvy has started), but that only gets you so far. Devin Dubnyk (4-2-0, 2.74, .922; Islanders), Sergei Bobrovsky (2-1-1, 2.40, .922; Blue Jackets), and tonight's foe James Reimer (3-1-0, 2.80, .914; Maple Leafs) all have far better numbers on (theoretically) far worse teams than the Caps and Neuvirth (1-3-1, 2.97, .899). I don't think Washington fans really want to swap team defenses with any of those three.

Anyway, I digress. What I meant to say is that I am not worried. I really do not care what the win-loss record is this season. Many would chastise me for saying this, but I do not want the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this year. Silly as even I know it to be, I would not want the first time Lord Stanley is lifted by a Capital to be in a lockout-marred and shortened season. What I think is far more important is that the Caps find an identity.

Over the past year, Washington has seen three coaches, roughly four systems, no starting goalie, and lines that appear to be put together using Colin Campbells old Wheel of Justice. We've seen players effectively chirping each other in the media, coaches questioned, and hints of general locker room disarray. I've heard it suggested, almost in hushed whispers, that maybe this season is like an extended training camp or preseason for this team. I'm hear to shout it from the rooftops: that's a great way of looking at things.  It's probably easier to swallow (and more accurate) than the "R"-word: rebuild.

Now do not read this as me saying we should tank the season. I really believe that where this team finishes in the standings this year should not and does not matter. It's not the team's structure that is being rebuilt nearly as much as it is the team's identity. They had one, and it led them to dominate the league. The hottest of hot goalies cooled the Caps (and pulled the exact same crap on Pittsburgh, though nobody outside of the Steel City seemed to notice), and Washington went into panic mode. The team didn't just lose its identity, it was actively dismantled, destroyed, and dismissed. Here we are, three seasons later, with two more 2nd round playoff exits, and nothing has filled the void. It's time for that to change.

What, me worry?
This is the perfect time to experiment with Ovechkin. Put him on the third line. Put him on the opposite wing. Put him on the penalty kill. Use the shortened season to round out his game and build a repertoire with some other players, or at least learn for certain that it is never going to happen. Try to find out hidden talents of other guys. Joel Ward has been spectacular so far, making me and so many others eat our words about buying him out. Make a decision between Johansson and Perreault, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is only room for one of them on this team.

And the goalies. This 1A/1B crap has to end now. Neuvirth and Holtby are both RFAs after this season. Neuvirth will almost certainly lay down  the same lines that Varlamov did, and he should (although his numbers are worse than Varly's every season). With Philipp Grubauer in the wings, there is no need to keep all three young goalies. Trade one for a pick or a veteran tender to back up and mentor whoever is chosen to stick in Washington - my pick is Holtby. I think we've seen Neuvirth's ceiling, and I believe Holtby has more to offer long-term. But that's not the issue, making the hard choice is.

That's what this has to be about. Making hard choices and rolling with them. When Laich, Orlov, and Hillen are healthy, there will be too many players. Some would have to be sent down. Better to trade them, even if it's just for picks or prospects. But choices must be made. Some about specific players, some about linemates, but the biggest question to be answered is "Who?" - Who are these Capitals, and where are they going? It can't be answered in seven games. It won't be answered in twenty. But in forty-eight? We should know by then.

Friday, January 25, 2013

2013 Game 4: Caps at Devils

Well at least this one wasn't a straight up loss. Let's jump right into it:
Star: Kind of a tough one, but I'm going to go with Neuvirth. Which, if you know me and my thoughts on Michal, should tell you just how good he was tonight. Got beat on a 5-on-3 and ultimately lost the game by allowing two other goals, but he made some absolutely spectacular saves and covered for the defense in the third period to keep the offense in it. Mike Green is a very close second, scoring his first of the year and generally looking solid (aside from a turnover that led to a breakaway) all night/season.

Goat: My hopes were misplaced. John Carlson, again. On for all three goals tonight, he has looked downright lousy. I may have to jump on the reverse-Samson bandwagon: the hair has got to go.

  • After starting the game last night, Mathieu Perreault was a healthy scratch tonight. Not really sure why, but that's what happened. The powerplay missed him, as Marcus Johansson was the Turnover Monster, just getting owned on the boards and passing it to the Devils every chance he got. MP85 was able to corral the puck and dish it to his teammates, leading to some very strong (though unproductive) possession and scoring chances last night.
  • Speaking of MoJo, I have to think a healthy scratch is in store for him. He sports team worsts in +/- (-5) and FO% (30%), and has two shots through four games. Eric Fehr, who had one shot in his first appearance tonight, is the only forward with less SOG. Among forwards, he has been on ice for the most goals scored against along with Brouwer and Backstrom, all tied at six. If you're following the math, that's five even strength goals he has been on ice for, good for worst on the team along with Carlson. He, Perreault, and Fehr are the only forwards without points, and the other two guys have seen the press box. Just a dreadful start to the year for the third-year Swede.
  • Not having a dreadful start? Mike Ribeiro, who is fitting in quite nicely with his first goal of the year (on a five-on-three powerplay) securing the team lead in points with four. Joel Ward assisted on that goal, giving him third point to go along with his pair of goals that opened the Caps' season. At least it isn't all bad out there...
  • Unlike the defense. With the exception of Mike Green, it's all bad news bears. One of the best pairings in the league last year, John Carlson and Karl Alzner are 1 and 2 for being on ice for the most goals against, combining for 19. Oofa.
  • Lots of line shuffling and blending tonight. This is nothing new for the Caps, and I'll excuse it for now with a new coach, some new players, and key injuries to Laich and Orlov. But this crap needs to stop. Figure out who goes where, and stick 'em there. I honestly do not mind a losing season if it means that by year's end, we have a coach with a set system, players who know it, and at least three set lines of guys who know how their linemates play. The Caps have lacked that since Boudreau started losing his mind against Halak. It hasn't worked for two years, three systems, and two coaches, I have no reason to expect it will work as a long-term strategy now.
Enjoy the day off, folks. Sunday is your next Caps hockey day, when Washington will host the Buffalo Sabres. It's cold out there, so why not get something warm?

The Ballad of Mathieu Perreault

Disclaimer for anyone who has never read a post on this blog: I am about as close to a Perreault fanboy as you can get and still be a straight man who loves America (France sucks, Jennifer Lawrence does not).

Much was made of Mathieu Perreault's Google translated desire to be traded if he did not factor in the plans of Adam Oates or George McPhee. Predictably, there were a lot of fans who started coming down on Matty P as a "whiner" who needed to take what he was given. In a lot of cases, I'd probably agree with them. But I didn't read Perreault's words as whining. I read them as the words of someone who wants to play, feels he has earned it, and was promised it in the offseason with a new contract and the GM's assurances.

He has been up and down between Hershey and Washington. He was plagued by complaints of "inconsistency" (while the same people would praise Neuvirth as being more consistent than Varlamov without irony), and then broke out last year with 16 goals and 14 assists, spending time on all four lines, including a two-goal appearance on the top line. He was the most successful of the Caps' 2C-by-committee in the 2011-2012 season, and finished the season winning the majority of his faceoffs. In short, he stepped up to criticism, improved his game, and knocked 1st round pick Marcus Johansson out of the spot he was drafted to fill. Then he doesn't score a goal in the first four games of the playoffs, and Dale Hunter benches him for the duration of the postseason. Jay "I Routinely Go Entire Games Without A Shot On Goal" Beagle gets top minutes.

Fast forward through the lockout. Yet another new coach. Yet one more guy who doesn't know much about him and doesn't know what he can offer. Oates only knows that he doesn't know Mathieu Perreault, so boom, fourth line. That's not a knock on Oates, but put yourself in Perreault's shoes. You finished last year tied for fifth on the team in goals, and as a team leader in points per-, goals per-, and assists per-60 minutes, and you're stuck behind the guy who set a career high in points with five in 42 games.

Are you going to grit your teeth and just go with it, especially after seeing how Tomas Fleischmann (who was also jockeyed around the lineup and charged with inconsitency) was traded and became a nearly point-per-game player when he fit into the Avs' and Panthers' plans? Of course not. You're going to be upset. You're going to wonder why Johansson gets chance after chance without actually improving his game one bit (and actually getting worse at winning faceoffs), why Jay Beagle is getting twice the minutes you are, why the guy making half your salary because nobody else in the league wanted to sign him is in the spot the GM said would be yours.

He's looking up because that's where everyone else is.
And you know what? You'd be right. Not just for yourself, but for the team, too. The Caps have serious identity issues, and too many redundant players. MoJo, Wolski, and MP85. Brower and Laich. Fehr, Ward, and Chimera. Poti and Hamrlik. Hockey players aren't dumb, they can count. When Laich gets healthy, there will be two healthy scratches at forward. When Orlov and Hillen are healthy, there will be FOUR healthy scratches at defense. That's too many guys. The coach will constantly be trying to find the right combos without having the opportunity for guys to build chemistry. Somebody has to move.

But if you're in the team's plans, they aren't going to move you. If you're in the team's plans, then you have a spot, because that's the plan. You aren't trying to earn it, to prove that you belong, to try and one-up yourself just to earn the opportunity to one-up yourself. Obviously players should constantly try to better themselves, and a little competition can be healthy. Eventually, though, enough has to be enough. And like Perreault, I think 16 goals in limited minutes is enough. It wasn't for Fehr, it wasn't for Fleischmann, and last year it wasn't enough for Knuble, but it should be enough when 14 is enough for MoJo.

Perreault has been around the Caps organization to see the writing on the wall. He knows that if he isn't getting more than 10 minutes right away, he probably is not going to get them later. He's not in the plans. But maybe another team, you would be. Maybe on another team... maybe if you aren't in Washington's plans, they should trade you. Because why keep someone that isn't in your plans?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2013 Game 2: Jets at Caps

Two games, two losses. Look, the Caps have been here before, it happens, bad bounces, bad refs, bad luck, etc. Not in Panic Mode yet. But I will start something new for the blog: Star and Goat. The Star will be the Caps player most deserving of my personal MVP, and the Goat will be the guy who may earn a kick in the gut from a goat. Following that, my five thoughts.

Star: An easy call here. I was tempted to title the post "Jets at Hendricks and some other guys wearing jerseys." Matt Hendricks is your star of the game. He was a force on the ice with the opening tally (fluky though it may be) and two(!) fights. Maybe that will be the Matt Hendricks Hat Trick from here on out. Solid all around, hitting, blocking, scoring, and bashing. Earn that paycheck and a bump up in the lines, Hendy.

Goat: The Real American Hero himself, John Carlson. The Jets' first goal deflected off his skate and through Holtby. He failed to stop his guy from making an obvious pass (which also should have been stopped by Karl Alzner) that led to a powerplay goal against. All around ineffective after a solid outing on Saturday. Hopefully it'll be the last time he or Alzner are mentioned in this section.
  1. Troy Brouwer, who was my personal preseason pick for the most disappointing player on the Caps, had a pretty good night, too. He scored the late powerplay goal for Washington just as I was questioning why he continues to get powerplay time. It ended a 17 game scoring drought (thus my questioning of putting him on the PP), and reminded us that sometimes these guys are good at the hockey.  The cross-checking penalty that was called on him earlier, which negated a Caps PP, was a weak call by the refs, a theme that sadly persisted throughout the game. All in all, this game's positive notes pretty much started and ended with last year's leaders in PIMs and hits.
  2. Holtby... again, not panicking yet. The guys in front of him are rusty, it's a new coach, etc. etc. I'll be straight up - I don't care how well or how poorly he does this year. I want him to be the #1 guy and to get 30 starts. If he bombs, he bombs. We know what we have in Neuvirth (~.900-.915 sv% and ~2.45-2.85 GAA), we don't know what we have in Holtby yet. That being said, I think he'll come back strong in February.
  3. The defense. It needs work. Holtby had to face 39 shots tonight. Against Winnipeg. That is unacceptable. Including injured players (Orlov and Hillen), there are nine NHL defensemen in Washington. Alzner, Carlson, Green, Hamrlik, Schultz, Poti, and Erskine. Kundratek appears to be the callup of choice, and he has performed admirably in his limited appearances, tonight included. I would certainly rather have him in a couple of the others right now. McPhee has made it known he would like Cam Schilling to make an appearance at some point, as well. Guys better shape up, or odds are they'll be shipped out.
  4. Ribeiro and Wolski look like they're really developing some chemistry. Ribeiro likely would have had a goal on a real slick pass from WW17 if the puck hadn't taken an extra bounce over his stick. Wolski had some really nice looks, but wasn't able to close the deal. Ribeiro got beat up and took some high sticks that ended up requiring stitches, but the refs cared not. Unless until Ribeiro called them on it, and he got an unsportsmanlike to close the game. Can't blame him.
  5. Jay Beagle played pretty solid, but just like Joel Ward seems to be in the right spot these days, Beagle looks to be in the wrong one. He is one of the best defensive forwards on the team, and is able to get a surprise shot off, even if he is not likely to get it past a goalie. But it is because of the fact that he is highly unlikely to score that he does not belong anything higher than the fourth line. Hendricks and/or Perreault should be move up in his place. But it's a young season and things can change. Beagle certainly had the opportunities, and Pavelec absolutely robbed him at one point. This is a story to watch, even if nobody else talks about it.
The Caps host the bottom of last year's Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens, and their new old coach Michel Therrien on Thursday. If the Caps leave that game without a point, then we may need to start worrying. Until then, we just have to hope the boys brush the rust off sooner rather than later.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2013 Game 1 Recap: Caps at Bolts

First off, let's just be thankful that hockey is finally back after that ridiculous lockout. Today was the first day of the new season, kicked off by the Penguins topping the Flyers in revenge for their first round eviction from the playoffs, while the Blackhawks were busy beating the defending champ Kings on the other side of the country.

Then came our Washington Capitals and their new coach swaggering into the Tampa Bay Lightning's home against their new goalie. It started off well enough, with a 7-0 shot advantage and a couple powerplays. That was about the end of the good times, as Eric Brewer scored on the Bolts' first shot of the game, and the Caps never led from there on out to a 6-3 loss. Here are my five thoughts:

  • Tom Poti returned, and many Capitals fans are happy about this fact. Too many. Don't get me wrong, I am happy for Poti and his success in overcoming a multi-year long injury that had him this close to forced retirement. That's a huge accomplishment, and nothing else I say should take away from that. However, he just is not a very good defenseman, and it was a mistake on Oates' part to play him tonight. He has been gone for two years, and all the hockey he has played was two games in Hershey, where he had a goal and was a -1. That's not enough, given a one week training camp and a glut of available NHL-caliber blue liners, and it wouldn't be enough even if Poti was a high-level player, which he is not. It showed tonight, where he was the only defenseman to finish with a -2 in a game where the Caps let up three powerplay goals, at least one of which Poti was also on ice for. On Brewer's game-opening goal, Poti was parked right in front of Holtby while not trying to keep the Lightning's player out of the crease. It was ugly, and a big part of why that goal was let up. Lots of people are excited that he got an assist, but like it or not, he isn't paid to get points, he's paid to prevent them. Tonight he did not and looked like the worst player in white.
  • Holtby was not on his A game tonight. Probably not even his D game. He was slower to react than usual, and seemed to have a hard time seeing and controlling the puck all night. Goalies have bad games, especially when their defense is playing as horrifically has the Caps' was tonight, but six goals is a lot. That being said, he's still my pick for #1 on this team. I'm a long-time critic of Neuvirth, who I see as nothing more than a capable backup. This team needs a defined starting goalie, and that goalie should (and will) be Braden Holtby. Having a set guy in net gives the team consistency and allows for the skaters, especially the defensemen, to figure out their roles beyond what the coach is calling for. So it was a bad game for the young netminder, but I'm not worried and I'm looking for Holtby to start 30 games in this shortened season.
  • If you had Joel Ward on the powerplay as your pick for the Caps' first goal of the season, you're either a damned fool or a liar. Either way, you were right. Ditto if you had him scoring the second goal and leading the team in shots. Helluva game for him, and I really hope that this play is indicative of his skill level and being a good fit under Oates. He was my pick for the accelerated buyout, but if he can be productive on special teams, he'll earn that $3mil this year and the next two. One of the few bright spots for Washington in their season opener.
  • Speaking of bright spots, newcomers Wojtek Wolski and Mike Ribeiro had strong games. Wolski was the only other Cap with two points aside from Ward, with a goal and an assist. Ribeiro had the primary assist on that goal and looked like he was fitting in well as a setup guy all night. Smallest of small sample sizes, but here's hoping his 29% on the dot is not a sign of things to come, though.
  • The defense on the whole looked pretty awful, but thankfully we saw some good peeking through. Mike Green and his powerful shot were back and leading the game in ice time. John Carlson was a +2 with four blocked shots, and his partner in crime Karl Alzner was even on the night. Roman Hamrlik, the Tampa Bay Lightning's first overall pick 20 years ago in their first season, had an assist and was even on the night. The system still needs some work, but the talent is there and we saw flashes of it. Only flashes, though.
This was sloppy hockey folks, and so were the earlier games, and from what I hear so were the rest of them. It's what we all expected, even if we hoped for something better. Some new faces, yet another new coach with yet another new system... it'll be a minute before it is all sorted out. So get well Jack Hillen (welcome to the team?), and let's go Caps!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Back, Baby!

A few of you may notice that the last post of mine was June 30. A lot has happened since then, but I honestly felt like I had nothing new to contribute to any discussions about adding Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb, Jack Hillen, minor-league player moves, or, above all, the lockout (RIP). A good bit has happened in my own life, including finally securing a full-time, permanent job. But now that the lockout is over, and everything is settled down, it's time to get back to what matters: My opinions on the current and future state of the Washington Capitals.

Current Caps Outlook - Trust Me

If you look back at my early summer postings, you will see a lot of optimism about the 2012-2013 Caps. That was before the signing of Wolski, who I think will be a breakout player this year, earning a spot on the top six. Crabb and Hillen will make excellent backups for the 4th line and 3rd pairing, respectively. I still love this roster, especially under new coach Adam Oates. I just don't think there are any glaring weaknesses in terms of skill.

That being said, I think Washington will be something of a mess this shortened season. They won't look in sync, they won't execute a system well, and only a few players will live up to their potential as a result. Why, you may ask? Well there's this, and this, and that. Locker room strife, like it or not, is going to be an issue. When Neuvirth, statistically the worst Caps goalie on the roster every season since he has been on the roster, is talking down about his teammate and criticizing his captain, that doesn't make for a lot of trust on the ice - the kind of thing goalies rely on. When Troy Brouwer openly says he does not trust veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik and Neuvirth, you're looking at mistrust between a valued forward, the defense, and again the netminder.

These guys are pros, all of them, and you would expect them to put aside their feelings and play hard and play well. And don't get me wrong, they'll try their best (except maybe Neuvirth, that kid irks me with his sense of entitlement earned not from skill but from horrendous coaching choices). But trust and respect are huge in all relationships, sports included. Feelings get hurt, people hold grudges, and things gnaw at the back of your mind. This doesn't even include any possible feelings about half the team jetting for Europe and Ovi threatening to stay there. Those feelings I think can be dismissed far more easily than those related the specific name-dropping in press interviews. No other team had as many attacks between teammates during this admittedly contentious lockout, if any.

Throw in a new coach, and likely yet another adjustment to strategy, and I think you'll see Ovi trying to do it all by himself, defensive players getting frustrated, and a rotating cast of second line wingers never really finding a way to synchronize with Ribeiro. Speaking of rotating second liners, think back pre-lockout and the supposed promises McPhee made to Mathieu Perreault. He seemed to really believe that he would be in the top six. With Ribeiro, MoJo, Wolski, Backstrom, Ovi, Laich, Chimera, and Brouwer, you have nine guys going for six spots. Three of them will be on the third line, just by math, but then you have Hendricks and Ward, who have probably each earned a third line spot, stuck getting minimal ice time after all. McPhee has certainly done his part to hurt trust in the Caps organization with his handling of trades and free agency signings over the past 15 years.

It's the emotional side of things that are going to hurt the Capitals this year, not the roster and not the coaching. Thankfully, we have a shortened season, two buyouts, a slew of incredible prospects, and a smaller salary cap next year that will make 2013-2014 a different story. We just have to last til then. But more on that later.

Welcome back folks, I'm glad to be back and blogging again and I'd love input throughout the season!