The Washington Capitals are at a crossroads heading into tonight's game against the first-place Florida Panthers. They have a veteran-laden roster that has underachieved thus far. They are sitting in 9th place in the conference and 2nd place in the division, just a couple standing points away from being in the playoffs, and they are just a few weeks away from the NHL’s trading deadline. This is not a finger-pointing, blame-game exercise; injuries have taken their toll on the roster and moves made over the summer that seemed like a good idea at the time haven’t worked out as anticipated. The real question becomes what George McPhee will do at the trade deadline in 20 days if the team falls out of the playoff picture.
If the team can stay in the playoff hunt, McPhee is likely to make some moves to solidify his team for the playoffs. It was this time of year in 2008 when the Capitals had clawed their way back into the playoff picture under a new coach but were just muddling along in February. They were lacking a #2 center, had injuries to key players, and needed key upgrades. McPhee went out and acquired a #2 center from Columbus for a prospect, he picked up a #1 goaltender for a draft pick, plus he exchanged a spare part roster player for another team's spare part. The moves worked out beautifully and the Caps won the division and came within a lucky bounce of defeating the juggernaut Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
Much of what will influence the direction of the Capitals is the status of 3 of the 5 players this team has been built around since 2007: Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich. It is telling that the only other players left from that first season under Boudreau are two key forwards, Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and two defensemen, Jeff Schultz and John Erskine. The Capitals cannot realistically expect to compete for a championship without Laich, Backstrom, and Green, and it is a stark possibility that at least two of them will miss a large part of the remainder of this season, damaging the team's playoff chances. These five key players will not be traded, as the team can realistically expect to win the division title next season if they can stay healthy. The variety of supporting casts they’ve had over the years can attest to that.
Other players that will be wearing the Caps logo for training camp in the fall are defenders John Erskine, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Tomas Kundratek, plus forwards Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Matt Hendricks, and Marcus Johansson. Other likely names to be in D.C. next fall are Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Cody Eakin, Jeff Halpern, and Jay Beagle. The other player I fully expect to be wearing the Capitals red next fall is Tomas Vokoun, a must considering how poorly the team plays without him, and he will be making in the neighborhood of $5 million. The rest of the players on the team have the potential to get traded or become free agents between now and then, and McPhee may choose to do trade players now while he can still get something in return, either to salvage this season or prepare for next season. Since missing the playoffs this season is unacceptable and signing key free agents this summer is crucial, he will likely do both.
(John McDonnell – THE WASHINGTON POST)
The Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire September 15, which could change the whole ball game in terms of the salary cap and how contracts are negotiated. Unless a new deal is signed before then, NHL general managers will have to operate under the same rules this summer, meaning the Capitals will need to clear out cap space to re-sign all their free agents and to acquire new players. After re-signing Tomas Vokoun, the Capitals will still have one major void to fill.
The one position that has been McPhee’s bugaboo for years is #2 center, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The one move that McPhee can make right now to both solidify the current lineup and to set himself up for next year is to acquire a true veteran scoring center, one that can fill in for Nicklas Backstrom now and realistically be the #2 center the Caps need to go deep in the playoffs. The problem is it’s going to cost a lot in both salary and the return on the trade. If McPhee has any doubts about Yevgeni Kuznetsov’s availability, health, or NHL readiness coming into next season, a trade could be in order. The one big center that is available and would be a good fit for the Capitals is Jeff Carter. Carter is very much looking to get out of Columbus, and the Blue Jackets need quite a few parts the Capitals have to offer, but the question comes down to which Capital assets McPhee is willing to part with.
Looking at Jeff Carter, he is a 27-year old, 6’4, 200-lb, right-handed center. He is big, fast, he likes to shoot, and he has a history of production, both in the regular season and the playoffs. He is an excellent faceoff man, great with puck control, and doesn't take lots of penalties. He would fit in nicely with Alexander Semin on the second line, and he can play winger if needed. Carter comes with a $5.27 million price tag for the next 9 seasons, so the team would have to make room. He does have some injury issues, but he was always willing to play through them when the team needed him. He also has a reputation as a bit of a wild-child off the ice, but that didn't stop McPhee from signing Ovechkin to a 13-year deal. Beyond debating whether or not McPhee likes Carter enough to own his right for the next decade, the issue will come down to return, as scoring centers aren’t cheap.
When Carter was traded to Columbus, he cost the Blue Jackets a scoring winger (Jakub Voracek), the 8th overall draft pick, and a third-round pick. The Columbus Blue Jackets are in dire need of a goaltender. Ex-rookie of the year Steve Mason has lost his starting job to career journeyman Curtis Sanford after posting a paltry 5-19-2 record with horrid statistics. The Capitals just happen to have a young goaltender with a 27-win season and a playoff series under his belt on the roster that could be very attractive to the Jackets in return. The Capitals parted with Semyon Varlamov last summer because of the team’s depth at the position. They could afford to part with Michal Neuvirth for the same reasons, especially if Vokoun re-signs. After an NHL-ready goaltender, the rest of the asking price for Carter will likely include draft choices, but could include another warm body if there are other teams in the bidding driving the asking price up. The Jackets have another solid scoring center in Antoine Vermette, who still has 3 more years at $3.75 million on his contract, but he would not have the same, much-needed impact on the Capitals line-up.
In the time leading up to the deadline, George McPhee has been laying the groundwork for larger moves on the back end by solidifying his minor-league depth at defenseman. At the beginning of the season, he had Sean Collins and Danny Richmond as potential call-ups. Collins showed his weakness in his two-game call-up and Richmond has since been traded away. With the emergence of Dmitry Orlov and the acquisition of Tomas Kundratek as a legitimate fill-in on defense, if not a solid defender in years to come, McPhee now has a too-full blueline whenever Mike Green returns. Add in the acquisition of 22-year old Kevin Marshall, who had a 10-game stint with the Flyers earlier this season, and it looks like George McPhee is stocking the minor leagues with serious prospects and potential call-ups as he prepares to make changes to the starting blueliners. Even in the best of seasons, McPhee has been willing to trade away defensemen on the roster in search of an upgrade. It could certainly happen again this month.
The Capitals would do well to move Jeff Schultz's contract if he continues to spend the majority of his games on the bench or in the press box. Even though it is obvious Schultz doesn't fit into Dale Hunter's plans, McPhee will not move Schultz unless he is sure of getting solid return. While the Chicago Blackhawks have been mentioned in trade rumors, a more likely destination for the Calgary-native is the Edmonton Oilers. In trading Schultz, McPhee isn’t looking for draft picks, he’s looking for a warm body in return who could help right away, and the Blackhawks are looking to keep their team together. The Oilers, on the other hand, only have four defensemen under contract for next season and have a slew of young players vying for a permanent spot on the roster. One player who seems to have lost that spot at the moment is Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft. The 6’2, 204-lb. Paajarvi had a very solid rookie season last year with 15 goals and 34 points in 80 games and has a very solid pedigree as a scorer in the junior ranks. With just 4 assists in 33 NHL games this season, he seems to have lost his way, and the Oilers might be willing to part with the recently demoted winger for the right price. Paajarvi would be especially attractive to the Capitals because of his chemistry with former teammate Marcus Johansson, and he would be a legitimate second scoring left-winger. He has excellent natural gifts and a high upside, plus he is a McPhee-friendly Swede who rarely takes penalties. In money terms, Paajarvi’s $1.525 million cap hit (with bonuses) is much friendlier than Schultz’s $2.75 million. The exchange of draft picks in addition to the players in this trade could be very interesting.
Considering the bubble position the Capitals occupy, they are not likely to acquire many rental players. There is one big, tough, shot-blocking defenseman out there McPhee could target to add depth for the stretch run. With the New York Islanders likely out of playoff contention and with Milan Jurcina finishing out his contract this summer, his $1.6 million cap hit should be an easy fit for the Capitals. He is not having an all-star season, but he could fill in nicely as the Caps’ #7 defenseman. He has played 41 games for the Islanders this season, averaging over 19 minutes per game (4th among team defenders). He’s posted just 6 points and a -21 rating, but his 20 penalty minutes mean he may have turned the corner on his bad penalties. Considering the last-place Islanders sport 5 of the league’s bottom 20 +/- ratings, the rating is somewhat mitigated. Jurcina has played 211 of his 406 NHL games with the Capitals and should fit in much better in Hunter's straightforward defensive scheme than in Boudreau's zone scheme. Knowing McPhee's penchant for acquiring players he's familiar with, Jurcina could be an inexpensive, short-term solution for major-league depth at defenseman should the Capitals make the playoffs.
The Capitals could certainly make a slew of other moves now to set themselves up for next season if this one goes down the drain or if McPhee just wants the cap room or return. There are three pending unrestricted free agents plus a few veterans with hefty contracts who are showing their age. Considering McPhee admitted he overpaid for the underachieving Joel Ward, plus the amount of interest he received over the summer, it is conceivable he could be traded. Unless he gets a good return, McPhee is likely to wait to see how Ward does in at least one playoff series before making his decision, as that's why he acquired Ward in the first place. Beyond Ward, there are a few other players with trade value.
Even though he's likely to depart in the offseason either way, Mike Knuble still has tremendous value for the Capitals if they were to make the playoffs, as he has won a Stanley Cup and his physical style of play is especially effective in the tight checking environment. Without the playoffs to consider, the Capitals would probably find a willing trading partner in the Detroit Red Wings for the veteran winger. With Knuble’s cap-friendly contract, his desire to win another Stanley Cup, and his diminished role in D.C., he seems like a likely departure in February in exchange for a draft pick. Considering the Red Wings are fond of picking up ancient veterans at the deadline and are especially fond of Michigan-natives, Detroit seems like a likely destination. Ever since his family moved to Michigan when he was young, Knuble’s career and life has centered on the pleasant peninsula. Knuble’s entire pre-professional career was spent in Michigan, and aside from a few stints in the minors, his early professional career was, too. He still makes his off-season home in Michigan and will likely retire there once he finally hangs up the blades. He may end up in Michigan in July anyway if he's not there in February.
The other pending UFA is All-Star defenseman Dennis Wideman. One would think the Capitals would want to hold on to him unless they really fell off the pace, but he has a lot of trade value for a lot of teams should they decide to go that direction. Wideman is a top-scoring defenseman with 500 games of regular-season experience and some good playoff experience, too. The problem with Wideman is that he isn’t Mike Green but will cost the Caps just as much next season, at least $5 million. The only way the Caps could expect to keep both Dennis Wideman and Mike Green is if they traded away Roman Hamrlik, which is no sure thing.
Hamrlik was supposed to be the team’s replacement for Tom Poti, an experienced defender who can be positionally sound, block shots, and provide a little offense. Hamrlik has blocked a lot of shots, but sits 5th among team defenders in points with 7 in 48 games, just ahead of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, who have a combined 11 points in 40 games. He has been steady at times, but painfully slow, soft, and too often out of position. He has played better of late, but still barely at an acceptable level for a 3.5 million-dollar NHL defenseman. Hamrlik is 37-years old with a lot of mileage, but he could be a very valuable piece of the puzzle for another team wanting to go deep in the playoffs. Perhaps he could be the veteran defender the Blackhawks are looking for. In return, the Capitals would likely be happy just to get his contract off the books.
There is much to be decided between now and February 27 before McPhee starts pulling the trigger on deadline day deals. He must begin laying the groundwork for those deals soon, though. He must also begin laying the groundwork for the roster that has new coach Dale Hunter's stamp on it. The Caps can't start a winning streak soon enough.