Capitals Trade Prospects: Second Line Center

 [Ed. Note: For updated coverage, check out our Trade Deadline Tracker here!]

As trade movement around the league began in earnest today, this is an opportune time to review the Capitals’ needs leading up to the February 28 trade deadline.  Capitals General Manager George McPhee will have his work cut out for him prying valuable assets away from teams that want to believe they are still in contention without giving away the team’s future.  Unless it is a trade for a top defenseman (see:  Brown, Jeff, and Corvo, Joe), McPhee would rather stand pat than give up too much in trade.  McPhee also does not like to assume too much future risk, meaning he likely will not trade for players with time remaining on their contracts after this season.  The Capitals have about $7.3 million worth of salary cap space to work with assuming they make a trade on deadline day.  I would like to thank the folks at Cap Geek for their excellent salary calculators and up to date salary information. 

In a situation reminiscent of the 2007-08 trade deadline, the Washington Capitals find themselves in need of a second-line center to take pressure off Nicklas Backstrom, a major weakness of the Capitals in last year’s playoffs.  In order to make a trade for a center, McPhee will either have to see that player as a legitimate upgrade over his current team or the player will represent veteran depth.  I could only find three realistic names to put on this list that are legitimate upgrades in ability or experience over Caps rookie centers Mathieu Perreault and Marcus JohanssonUpdate: All statistics are through February 13.

Read on to see who might be wearing Red!

Center #1

Tim Connolly, Buffalo Sabres  (Age: 29)
6’1, 190, Shoots:  Right
2010-11 Salary Cap Hit:  $4.5 million, UFA this summer
2010-11 Stats:  40 GP, 8-16-24, -10, 14 PIM, 16:37 TOI/G (3:17 PP, 1:38 SH), 94 shots, won 46.2% of 517 faceoffs.

-Skill:  Connolly is a very gifted playmaker. In 274 games since the lockout, Connolly has put up 165 assists (0.6 per game) and 232 points (0.85 per game).  While he may not score goals in bunches, he has the skill to make opponents take notice and to make his linemates better. 
-Discipline:  In those 274 games since the lockout, Connolly has 102 PIM and is +23. This season, he has also blocked a respectable 29 shots and has a 13/16 Giveaway/Takeaway ratio.
-Youth and Experience:  Connolly, still just 29, has played 599 NHL games (377 points), representing a significant experience upgrade.  The Capitals top-4 centers (Backstrom, Johansson, Perreault, Steckel) have played a combined 679 games (398 points).  In 30 playoff games, Connolly has scored 5 goals and 21 points and has been to the Conference Final.

-Injuries:  Connolly is one of the most injury prone players in the league.  He has missed 14 of 54 games this season, and he has missed 272 of the last 546 regular season games and 10 of 40 playoff games dating back to 2003-04.  In addition to missing two whole seasons with concussions, he has missed significant numbers of games with various ailments:  knee (19), broken ribs (24), groin (22), hip (15), foot (10), nasal surgery (4), oblique (5), illness (2) and “upper body” (10).  His health will be a major concern to any team interested in acquiring him. 
Physicality:  Connolly couldn’t check a suitcase.  He has 18 hits in 40 games this season and put up a whopping 23 in 73 games last year.  By contrast, Perreault has 11 in 29 games and Johansson has 36 in 43.  He also does not represent much of a size increase down the middle, but at least he’s over 6 feet tall. 
Faceoffs:  Connolly does not represent a significant upgrade over the rookies with a mark of 46.2%.

Likelihood and Cost:
Tim Connolly is a likely target of McPhee at the deadline.  Buffalo is not out of the race yet, but the injury to #1 center Derek Roy ended any serious chance they had.  While the Washington Capitals likely will need a veteran center to help them get deep into the playoffs, an injury to Connolly wouldn’t necessarily dash their hopes, as they would still have Perreault and Johansson for depth.  Connolly is probably not in the Sabres’ plans for the future, as his injuries make him unreliable and hurt his trade value.  His creativity and the lack of available scoring centers will drive up his value, and his moderate to high salary should not make much of a difference, only ruling certain teams out.  Judging by trades for similar players last year, the Capitals will likely have to give up at least a warm body and a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick for Connolly.  Who the Sabres ask for in return may be the determining factor in this deal getting done. 

Center #2

Jason Arnott, New Jesey Devils (Age: 36)
6’5, 220, Shoots:  Right
2010-11 Salary Cap Hit:  $4.5 million with No Trade Clause, UFA this summer
2010-11 Stats:  56 GP, 13-11-24, -9, 30 PIM, 15:31 TOI/G (2:11 PP, 0:06 SH), 132 shots, won 52.1% of 685 faceoffs.

-Size and Strength:   Jason Arnott is a big rig.  His size would be a significant upgrade for the Caps and should make life uncomfortable for opposing defensemen and goaltenders.  His strength helps him on the draw, too, as his 52.1% faceoff mark is significantly better than both Perreault’s and Johansson’s, and he’s been around 50% for many years.
-Experience and Leadership:   Jason Arnott is a grizzled 17-year veteran of 1,155 NHL games (897 points) with four teams, but his true value lies in his playoff experience.  In 106 playoff games, Arnott has scored 30 goals and 66 points, including the Stanley Cup winning goal in 2000.   Always a locker room leader, Arnott was captain of the Nashville Predators for three years.  He’s seen everything and he knows how win.
-Consistency:  Arnott has averaged 25 goals and 56 points per season since 1998-99, including 10 straight seasons of 21+ goals and 11 straight of 45+ points.  His consistency is an artifact of his old-school style of hard-nosed hockey, something the Caps could use more of.  He may not light up the scoresheet like he did a few years ago as a top-line center, but he should still be able to give the Capitals a second-line threat worthy of a contender. 

-Durability:   Because of Arnott’s rough playing style, he’s the kind of player who misses 6-10 games a years with various dings.  While he hasn’t missed any time this season, he missed 36 games over the last two seasons.  His age and the cumulative effects may be catching up with him, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to hold up through a long playoff run at his age
-Defense and Checking:   Arnott may not be a defensive liability, but he’s not on New Jersey’s penalty kill for good reason.  Arnott doesn’t block shots and his hit totals have been down for 5 years (along with his penalty minute totals).  Don’t expect Arnott to drop the gloves or lay someone out like he used to, either.  To put things in perspective, Arnott has 27 hits this season, 9 fewer than rookie Swede Marcus Johansson in 13 more games. 

Likelihood and Cost:
Jason Arnott has a no trade clause and can nix any deal he doesn’t like.  That said, this is a player George McPhee will likely pursue until the end.  Arnott is the sterotypical big scornig center hockey talking heads love yapping about, so he was on everyone’s radar even before New Jersey’s spectacular fireball implosion this season.  Arnott’s asking price is going to be higher than anyone would like because of the demand.  A warm body in return is not a surety, but it is a likelihood as centers like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin get hurt. 

Center #3

Brendan Morrison, Calgary Flames (Age: 35)
5’11, 185, Shoots:  Left
2010-11 Salary Cap Hit:  $725,000, UFA this summer
2010-11 Stats:  58 GP, 9-26-35, +7, 16 PIM, 16:26 TOI/G (2:15 PP, 2:02 SH), 80 shots, won 49.1% of 641 faceoffs.

-Familiarity:   Brendan Morrison knows the Capitals after playing here last season.  He knows the players, the coaches, and the city.  He would fit right back in.  His production last year was decent, too, with 12 goals and 42 points, and he’s on pace for 48 points this year in Calgary.  The most important statistic for the Capitals is this:  3-2 in the playoffs with Morrison, 0-2 without him. 
-Experience and Leadership:   Morrison has 887 NHL games on his resume (and 582 points).  He was the #1 center and alternate captain in Vancouver for many years.  He also has 29 points in 58 playoff games, which may not sound like much, but it’s 29 more points and 58 more games than either Johansson or Perreault have. 
-Versatility:  Morrison is one of those guys who can play anywhere in your lineup because of his all-around ability.  He can center the top line and he can be a 4th-line winger, he plays on both special teams, and he is rarely caught cheating on offense. 

-Size and Strength:   Morrison is pretty much the same size as the Caps two rookie centers, and his faceoff win percentage of 49.1% isn’t a significant upgrade, either.  His age doesn’t help his cause, either, as he’s definitely lost much of his old speed after knee injuries took their toll.  With only 20 hits this season, he’s not much of a physical presence. 
-Boudreau:  Boudreau may be effective on the ice, but he has to get there first.  The Washington Capitals head coach decided to bench his most experienced center in the playoffs for two games last year, plus 8 more in the regular season.  He had his reasons, and those reasons may still matter.  Two of those reasons are gone now (Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Belanger), but whatever Boudreau didn’t like about him then is probably the same now. 

Likelihood and Cost:
George McPhee likes bringing back players he knows, but this is not a very likely move for many reasons.  While Brendan Morrison is familiar with the Caps system and  he was a class act while he was here, he just did not play as well as people had hoped.  He represents a backup plan should the Caps not get their man, though.  He may not even be brought in to be the #2 or #3 center necessarily, he might just be brought in for depth, somthing McPhee does anyway.  Morrison has a small contract that could be easily absorbed by many teams, thereby increasing his marginal cost through competition to a point that might be unacceptable to McPhee.  He is a possibility if he could be had for a 3rd round draft pick, but only if the Caps don’t get someone else.  It is more likely he will be traded somewhere else.

I also wrote about acquiring Morrison in 2009, [One, Two].