Tough choices and a tough reality likely await the Capitals in the coming weeks. (Getty)
Things are not going well for the Washington Capitals right now. Heading in to Friday night’s game with the Devils in Newark, the Capitals have lost six games in a row, four of them in regulation. Their record stands at 22-20-8, and their figure of 14 wins in overtime and regulation is tied with Florida for the second-lowest in the Eastern Conference. Ugh.
As always, hard times for the District’s hockey team has meant that many people have come out with ways to try and fix the squad. The universal idea is that George McPhee needs to make a trade or two or three to imrove the team, and he needs to do it fast. All indications point to a season that is rapidly spiraling out of control for the Capitals, and with Sportsnet reporting last week that McPhee was in the last year of his contract, this may be the only way for McPhee to keep his job.
The logical candidates for such a trade are seemingly obvious from Washington’s perspective: Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, and Martin Erat are all players whose salary greatly outweighs what they have brough to this club on the ice, though it should be noted that Laich and Brouwer have received much better, consistent minutes and playing time than Erat has despite not being as good as him. Realistically, however, the chances that any of these players get traded for anything of value is very low. Erat and Michal Neuvirth have both requested trades this season.
Which leads me to a column that was posted Thursday night by Mike Wise of the Washington Post. In sum, Wise suggests that the Capitals should trade Mike Green in order to improve their chances of winning this year. His belief is that a trade of Green is most likely to “still bring the Caps something good in return, maybe even a veteran tough guy, a defensive defenseman for a change.”
I won’t spend much space here analyzing those statements, as Peter Hassett of Russian Machine Never Breaks and ThePeerless at Japers’ Rink have already done so admirably. But I will say that any trade that the Capitals made that sent Mike Green out of town is unlikely to help them win now. Despite his faults, Green is still an above-average defenseman at the NHL level and one of only three blueliners still on the roster who can play big minutes for this team and play them well. Unless the trade brought back someone like Shea Weber or PK Subban (which it of course would not), it would almost certainly weaken their ability to compete for a championship in the short term. The Caps rely on him way too much, despite the fact that he is often the default whipping boy for their struggles for some apparent reason.
I do, however, agree with the overall premise of Mr. Wise's column in total and complete earnest: big changes have to be made.
Absolutely no one can look at this team right now and expect them to even come close to winning a championship. They have large sums of money tied up in underperforming players, which limits their ability to add better players via a trade or free agency this summer. They can’t seem to score or keep goals out with any level of consistency, often relying completely on their top two lines to generate offense. Their possession has fluctuated rapidly throughout the season, and overall it is still poor. Virtually every night, they have two, and sometimes three, defensemen playing minutes that they are not ready for or can’t handle. Looking at the standings, their inability to win even in the weak East and Metropolitan Division is very sobering for their ability to win in the playoffs. And, to top it all off, making the playoffs will be very difficult indeed. Washington’s March is absolute murder: three games against the Bruins, two against the Penguins, two against the Kings, and one each against the Ducks, Sharks, and Canucks.
When looking at all of these facts objectively, one must come to the conclusion that the Capitals are not a contender. There are too many obstacles in their way at this juncture. Sure, there’s a chance that they navigate that minefield and sneak their way in to the playoffs, like they have each of the last two seasons. But is that really what’s best for the team?
No, it’s not. And as a result, I believe that it is time to reload.
What does this mean? It means that the Capitals should sell at the deadline. It means they must either sign Mikhail Grabovski to a long-term contract or deal him at the deadline to a team who will pay handsomely for his services and avoid another disaster in asset management like what happened last year with Mike Ribeiro. It means that they should stop overvaluing their assets and try to move whatever they can. It means that if Laich is healthy, he should be heavily considered for the final compliance buyout the Capitals have if a trade partner does not materialize. And in the offseason, they should listen to trade offers for just about everyone not named Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and whomever they decide is going to be their goaltender of the future. That means listening on Green, Laich, Brouwer, Marcus Johansson, and yes, perhaps even team captain and face of the franchise Alex Ovechkin (for nothing less than an absolute King’s Ransom, I must add. I am NOT calling for Ovechkin to be booted).
The reason I have denoted Backstrom, Alzner, Carlson, Orlov and Carlson as “untouchable” is because of their youth and contract status. All four of these players are under the age of 27 and are signed to team-friendly, cap-friendly deals that give the Caps an advantage over their competitors in the NHL. Making trades with other players on the roster would free up chunks of cap space that could be used for better players or, in the case of some, could bring back younger, cheaper pieces that could help mold the Capitals into a juggernaut once again. It would also free up roster space and playing time for younger players within the organization such as Michael Latta, Tom Wilson, and perhaps Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky.
I realize that this seems like a drastic and rash course of action, and that is because it is. Whatever the Caps are doing now is not working, and it’s never been more apparent than at this moment.
It’s time to make a change. And that means making tough choices.
What else can you do?
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Capitals for RtR. You can follow him on Twitter here.