The Capitals’ Case for Koivu, Modano, or Cullen

Yesterday we opined that available top free agent center Olli Jokinen would be a viable second line center for the Washington Capitals. However good a fit he may be, he seems unlikely to sign with the Washington Capitals this offseason knowing Capitals General Manager George McPhee's track record of not making a big splash in the open market, and also knowing the likely demand around the league for a #1 center from teams willing to pay more for Jokinen's services.  If the Capitals opt not to go with a youth movement for next year, they could look to a few other available free agents at #2 center for a short contract to fill the gap.

Make the jump to find out which of these bubble hockey guys would make a good fit.

The next best available center available on the market after Jokinen is Saku Koivu.  While likely to return to Anaheim next season if his buddy Teemu Selanne opts not to retire, Koivu is still as yet unsigned for next season and any signing would have to wait for Selanne's decision.  I wrote about Koivu last season before the Caps signed Brendan Morrison, and much of that information is still valid.

Saku Koivu

Koivu, who will turn 36 in December, is a 5'11, 180 pound left-shooting center from Turku, Finland. He spent last season with the Anaheim Ducks who missed the playoffs. The quick facts:

– His salary was $3.25 million.

– 2009-10 Stats:  71 GP, 19 Goals, 52 Points, 36 PIM

– Other Interesting Stats:  18:34 TOI per game (2:05 SH), won 51.4% of 1,110 faceoffs, +14 rating led Ducks.

In his 14 season NHL career, Koivu has played 863 games and has scored 210 goals and 693 points along with 659 PIM. Koivu has been excellent in 8 playoff appearances, scoring 16 goals and 48 points in 54 games.

Pedigree: Koivu was drafted 21st overall by Montreal in 1993.  After being Finnish player of the Year in 1995, Koivu had a 20 goal, 45 point rookie campaign in 1995-96.  He improved his play to earn a spot at the 1998 NHL All-Star Game.

Qualifications: Koivu is a slick playmaker and a passable goal-scorer and served as the #1 center and team captain in Montreal for a decade.  He has always been respected for his toughness and leadership (2002 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, 2007 King Clancy Memorial Trophy).  Over the past seven seasons, Koivu has averaged a solid 18 goals and 60 points.  He also has a sparkling international resume, with a score of international appearances for Team Finland and four Olympic Medals.

Weaknesses: Besides not being very big, Koivu has missed an average of 10 games a year over the past 6 seasons, including 11 last year.  Particularly injury prone earlier in his career, he missed 58 games in 1999-00 with a shoulder injury and 79 games in 2001-02 when he won the Masterton for returning after a bout with stomach cancer.  He has played 81+ games in a season just three times in his 14 year career.

Koivu is the kind of player who could bring a veteran presence to the team along with a nice skill set at the #2 spot.  He is no stranger to the #1 center spot, and he certainly is defensively minded enough to hold it down for a short while if necessary. Koivu is still worth the $3.25 million he made last year, actually improving on his goal and point totals from 2008-09.  He is still likely to re-sign in Anaheim, but he could be a nice addition to the Capitals should he be willing to move cross-country to sign another 1-year contract.

Another intriguing possibility in the unrestricted free agent center market is future Hall-of-Famer Mike Modano, who has not been offered a contract by the Dallas Stars.  McPhee may have been inquiring about him at the 2010 trade deadline and Modano is leaning toward playing another season, and he's just the kind of player McPhee would pursue.  The issue with Modano is age- at 40 he is well past his prime- and he is likely to wear the sweater of another Pacific Division team if he wears another at all.

Mike Modano

Modano (40) is a 6'3, 210 pound left-shooting center from Livonia, Michigan.  He has spent the past 19 seasons with the Dallas Stars/Minnesota North Stars franchise that drafted him 1st overall in 1988.  His salary was $2.25 million as the Stars missed the playoffs.

– 2009-10 Stats:  59 GP, 14 Goals, 30 Points, 22 PIM

– Other Interesting Stats:  41/38 Giveaway/Takeaway Ratio, Won 50.4% of 840 Faceoffs.

In his 19-year career, Modano has 1,459 games and has scored 557 goals and 1,359 points along with 918 PIM.  He is the highest scoring American player of all time.  In the playoffs, Modano has put up 58 goals and 145 points in 174 games.

Pedigree: Modano was the #1 overall draft pick for a reason and he showed it right away.  With a 29-goal, 75 point rookie season in 1989-90, the 19-year old Modano lost Rookie of the Year to 31-year old Sergei Makarov, which is the reason the Calder Trophy is not awarded to players over 26 any more.  Modano was named to the NHL All-Star Game for the first time in 1993.

Qualifications: Modano has been the top man for the Stars for most of 2 decades, scoring 30 goals and 80 points consistently, even while playing for the defensive-minded Ken Hitchcock.  He has been an NHL All-Star 6 times and was the NHL 2nd Team All-Star Center in 2000.  He has a 50-goal, 93 point season and a 60-assist, 93-point season to his credit, showing his ability to both pass and score.  He has played in 3 Stanley Cup Finals, winning the Cup in 1999.  Was in the Mighty Ducks. He has represented the United States in many international tournaments, including winning Olympic Silver in Salt Lake City in 2002.  Oh, and he was Stars team captain from 2003-2006.

Weaknesses: Age.  Since he has turned 36, Modano's numbers have been dropping, in large part due to his diminishing role and diminishing talent surrounding him, but age certainly has played a factor.  He has dropped consistently from 22 goals in 2006-07 to 14 last year.  Injuries have started taking a toll, too.  While Modano played at least 80 games in 2 of the last 3 years, he only played 59 in 2006-07 with a knee injury and only 59 last season with an appendectomy and a rib injury.

While Modano is big and fast, he has never been very physical and he has stopped playing much on the penalty kill.  The biggest concern is that Modano will not be able to play more than the 14 minutes per night he played last season. Modano is a professional and a top-notch player and nice guy.  He could be our next Sergei Fedorov or Brian Bellows, a veteran mentor who still has just enough gas in the tank to make a difference for a season or two.  Modano was pushed down the depth chart in Dallas from #1 in 2007-08 (19:14 TOI per game) to #2 behind Mike Ribeiro in 2008-09 (18:14) to #3 behind Ribeiro and Brad Richards last season (14:18).   The chances are Modano would start out at #2 and move down to #3 by season's end, making room for Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson after they get their feet under them.  He would be a great presence in the locker room during the playoffs and would be another threat on the powerplay.  If he gets injured and misses time, it's just more ice time for the kids to take over, as long as he's healthy for the playoffs. Modano ought to be available at $2.5 million per season or less.

In the vein of #2-3 centers, the other potentially interesting center out there, Matt Cullen expressed interest in coming to Washington.  He is a veteran center who has some offensive upside and could be worth a kick of the tires, and he is likely to attract McPhee's attention.

Matt Cullen
Cullen will be 34 in November.  He is a 6'1, 200 pound left-shooting center from Virginia, Minnesota.   He split last season between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Ottawa Senators, who were bounced in the first round of the playoffs. His salary was $2.8 million.
-2009-10 Stats:  81 GP, 16 goals, 48 points, 34 PIM
-Playoffs:    6 GP, 3 goals, 8 points, 0 PIM
-Other Interesting Stats:  2:14 SH TOI/G, 48 Blocked Shots, 35/54 Giveaway/Takeaway ratio, won 51% of 1,121 faceoffs.
In his 12 season NHL career, Cullen has played 880 games, scoring 169 goals and 461 points along with 392 PIM.  He has been very good in 5 playoff appearances with 4 different teams, scoring 11 goals and 36 points in 63 games.
Pedigree: Cullen is not a thoroughbred scorer like Jokinen, Koivu, or Modano.  He is more of a get-your-nose-dirty, crash-the-net player who picked up a little more flash as he got older.  The 35th overall pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 1996, Cullen didn't post his first 20-goal season until 2005-06 and has never been considered elite.
Qualifications: He has scored 41-49 points in the last 5 seasons and has a couple more 40 point seasons earlier when he hasn't been hurt. He has been a reliable #2-3 center for the past several years as he has bounced around the league.  He has good playoff experience, winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina. He is a useful player who can make things happen on offense without sacrificing defense and he definitely shows up to play in the playoffs.  At 34, he should still have another very good season left, and he will not disappoint.
Weaknesses: He is not a top-notch scorer and never has been.  He has been limited by injuries in the past few years.  While he has played well when put into a scoring role, he should not be mistaken for a true scoring center.
Chances are if Cullen were signed, he'd get a year, maybe two, and he'd get something similar to his $2.8 million from last season.  He's another McPhee type player and he's a guy who could start at #2 and move down to #3 center later in the season.  He would not be a reasonable fill-in at #1 center, though, but he would certainly be a better fit there then Eric Belanger.  He would be another stop-gap player, but he would be a solid addition even if he doesn't truly fill a scoring role.
Whatever we may ponder, undoubtedly all eyes will be on the Capitals General Manager George McPhee as the free agent bidding war opens Thursday, July 1.

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