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.

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