The Domino Effect

The NHL trade deadline frenzy is fast approaching.  While the floodgates haven’t opened fully, some trades are trickling through as the dominoes start falling on the markets for various positions and players, limiting teams’ options, but also increasing the pressure for the remaining teams to try to acquire whoever is left.  The real question on everyone’s minds is what dominoes have to fall before the Capitals start making some moves.  George McPhee has stated his desire to not be a seller at this year’s deadline, that he only realistically has $1 million in cap room to work with, and that he is going to wait until he knows for sure about Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green to make any bold moves.  He may have said he’s not particularly interested in trading players off the roster, but he reserves the right to do whatever he thinks will make the team better.

This all makes for some high tension between now and February 27.

Read on.

The dominoes that have fallen so far are in the big, stay-at-home defenseman department.  Niklas Grossman went first, moving from Dallas to Philadelphia for a 2nd and 3rd round draft pick.  Next up went monstrous veteran Hal Gill from Montreal to Nashville in exchange for two warm bodies and a swap of picks.  It is interesting that Philadelphia was the team most closely linked to Gill in light of the injury to Chris Pronger, which must have meant the return was too high for them to swallow. 

The next market that has everyone buzzing is the aging Czech puck-moving defenseman market.  There are two confirmed defensemen on that market, Minnesota’s 35-year old Marek Zidlicky (1 more year at $4 million) and Tampa Bay’s 34-year old Pavel Kubina ($3.8 million, UFA).  The third defenseman in that category who could be on the move is the Capitals’ very own 37-year old Roman Hamrlik (1 more year at $3.5 million), and George McPhee has not been shy about trading away veteran defensemen at the deadline before (Sylvain Cote in 1998, Brian Pothier in 2010).  While the New Jersey Devils have been linked to Zidlicky because of injuries and a lack of depth at defenseman, no teams have been linked to the other two.  It will be interesting to see which domino falls first, especially with the Florida Panthers’ injury issues and the Chicago Blackhawks’ depth issues. 

The other market that has started to heat up is at center, where the Caps have a glaring need.  Brendan Morrison moved from Calgary to Chicago earlier this month, but the aging center is still recovering from knee surgery and is not fitting in as planned.  On Thursday, the San Jose Sharks acquired veteran Cap-killer Dominic Moore for a second-round pick.  Thankfully this means Moore is safely in the Western Conference for these playoffs, and it means the Sharks are his 9th team and 4th deadline-day trade in the past 7 seasons.  Several more centers are being discussed in trade talk, making for some very interesting times there. 

In looking at McPhee’s history, the one common theme among nearly all of his trades is that he loves a bargain.  There will be several players out on the market that McPhee could pick up as inexpensive rentals, both in terms of salary or return.  With the loss of #1 center Nick Backstrom, the Capitals must find a player capable of centering Alexander Ovechkin while doing all the little things necessary to win, like winning faceoffs, playing defense, and controlling the play, all while not gutting the roster to get him.  There aren’t too many of those players available, but there are several potentially available on the market who are worth a look.  Some players are just unlikely to be traded by their teams who still think they can make the playoffs this season or next (Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim, Mike Ribeiro in Dallas).  George McPhee balks at players who too much money or term on their contracts (Jeff Carter in Columbus, Scott Gomez in Montreal, Paul Stastny in Colorado).  Others are hurt (Jarret Stoll in Los Angeles) or just don’t fit the bill (Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad in Buffalo, Derek Brassard in Columbus), or are just too Finnish for McPhee (Tuomo Ruutu in Carolina, Saku Koivu in Montreal, Olli Jokinen in Calgary).  Two centers who could be available and not too expensive are Derek Roy in Buffalo ($4 million, 1 year) and Antoine Vermette in Columbus (3 years, $3.75 million).  Both are good scorers and both are struggling this year, dropping their trade value.  Derek Roy hasn’t been the same since a leg injury last season, and he was small to begin with (5’9).  If he could be had for the right price and could fit under tha cap, McPhee could make a move for him, especially as he won’t hinder the development of heir apparent Yevgeni Kuznetsov.  Antoine Vermette is well-liked in Columbus, so McPhee would have to make a pretty sizable offer for the speedy playmaker.  Vermette signed a long-term deal with Columbus and has been pretty successful there as a #2 center, plus he’s still young enough to build around.  Don’t count on this one happening. 

The only player who is still in the NHL and healthy who has centered Alexander Ovechkin with consistent success is Dainius Zubrus, now with the New Jersey Devils.  He has one year at $3.4 million left on his contract and he has not enjoyed the same success in New Jersey that he had in D.C.  The Devils, interestingly enough, have already acquired a forward who fills the same role as Zubrus for less money and term.  The acquisition of Alexei Ponikarovsky from Carolina earlier this season could very well make Dainius Zubrus the next domino to fall in Newark. 

The upside of Zubrus for the Caps is his role as mentor and #1 center for Ovechkin’s first two seasons.  The big Lithuanian played his 1,000th NHL game this season and is only 33, plus he’s got plenty of playoff experience.  He is still producing at more or less the same pace he always has, and at 6’5, 225, he is certainly big enough to center the Caps top line for a few weeks before sliding over to his natural right wing when Nick Backstrom returns.  He may not be the classic centerman, but when Zubrus centered Ovi in 2005-06 and 2006-07, he averaged 23 goals and 58 points a season, decent stats, and Ovechkin averaged 48 goals and 98 points per season, far better than he’s averaging right now.  Zubrus also won 50% of his faceoffs while taking over 1,100 draws per season.  He put up good stats in hits, blocked shots, and a respectable giveaway/takeaway ratio, meaning he wasn’t a defensive liability, even if he did take a few too many penalties.  His strength is in creating space in the offensive zone for his linemates, then clogging the front of the net.  Zubrus is an adept shooter and playmaker, but his below-average stickhandling ability has always limited his scoring chances, even when he used his big frame to compensate by shielding the puck.  The best thing Zubrus can bring right now the the Capitals is a friend for Ovie, one who can make the game fun for him again, but can also slap him on the back of the head when he needs it. 

The obvious move, once Mike Green returns, is for the Caps to make a 1-for-1 swap of Roman Hamrlik for Dainius Zubrus.  Their salaries cancel out, the Caps can clear the 8-defender logjam, and the Devils get the experienced puck-moving defenseman they need.  It is in McPhee’s nature to only trade a veteran D at the deadline for another veteran D, but he could also trade that D for another need.  He’s also fond of re-acquiring players he’s had before.  Zubrus got traded to Buffalo at the deadline in 2007, and McPhee almost certainly made an offer to him in the summer only to be out-bid by the Devils. 

In any event, once the trade for the #2 center happens, the rest of the dominoes are likely to fall in McPhee’s deadline plan.  If the Capitals think they need another depth center who’s played here before and is a friend of a Cap in need of rejuvenation, Brendan Morrison is almost certainly available from the Chicago Blackhawks.  He is a shell of his old self on the score-sheet, as his knee injuries have slowed him down.  He could be a solid veteran addition who can win 50% of his draws, play special teams, and center his old friend Mike Knuble one last time.  He could probably be had for a song, and his $1.25 million salary should fit nicely into the Caps’ books. 

If the Caps decide to go with more depth on defense, the other player McPhee could target is former Cap Milan Jurcina.  With a $1.6 million contract expiring this summer, the big, friendly Slovak would be a cheap, low-impact rental.  While the Islanders are loathe to trade away too many pieces before the deadline as they are in the playoff chase and building for the future, Jurcina is hardly a cog in their big orange machine.  If he can fit into the team’s salary structure, there’s no reason to think McPhee won’t at least make an offer. 

One thing is certain, George McPhee has been burning up the phone lines in an attempt to make his team better.  There’s a very good chance he will.