After Vegas, Things Turn Serious For Caps

June 21, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

After this Wednesday night’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas (7pm on VERSUS) in which three Capitals are up for post season awards (Alexander Ovechkin for Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, Mike Green for Norris Trophy and NHL Foundation Award, and Jose Theodore for Masterton Trophy), things turn very serious for General Manager George McPhee and the Caps with the NHL draft on Friday (7pm on VERSUS) and Saturday (1pm on NHL Network) in Los Angeles followed by the start of NHL free agency on Thursday, July 1st.

Unlike last postseason, where the team felt like they had the correct pieces on board to go deep in the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup yet just needed to build on their previous season’s experience, there is the impression this year that changes will be made personnel wise, based on the talk from McPhee and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau since their game seven loss to Montreal. Boudreau blamed the early round defeat on the lack of secondardy scoring and said his club basically became a “one line team” against the Canadiens. The Caps scored exactly one goal in each of the last three contests in the series so there is no doubt he was correct. Immediately after the season I wrote that personnel changes were needed and felt then, and still do now, that Washington’s biggest need is a second line center.

Clearly McPhee won’t be selecting the second line center he needs for next season in the draft itself, but with all 30 GM’s together in the City of Angels it will be a prime time to talk trades. If the GM can’t get the right deal this weekend then he could try and go the free agency route, however, given the Capitals salary cap situation (and only McPhee and Don Fishman really know the exact figures there), finding a second line center for the right price may not be achievable, given how valuable a commodity pivot men are these days.

With Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom locked up long term and a plethora of wingers in the system, Alexander Semin’s name has been bantered about as a possible player that could be moved. #28 is currently signed for one year at $6M for 2010-11 and is coming off a 40 goal regular season. However, the extremely talented right winger has failed to light the lamp in his last two playoff series. In 2009 against the Penguins in the second round, Semin had a valid excuse, he had a badly injured hand.

In 2010 against the Habs, however, the bottom line is he failed to show up for a large majority of the series. The videotape does not lie, and if one goes back and watches each tilt again, it is clear that Semin sleepwalked through the first four games before making a better effort in games five through seven. Even though he improved, it still was an unsatisfactory and “soft” performance. In game six, the Canadiens scored the crucial first goal of the contest on the power play, which was set up by a Shaone Morrisonn cross checking penalty. But #26 never goes to the box if Semin doesn’t let Maxim Lapierre take the puck from him easily on the right wing boards in Washington’s zone to start the sequence. Then, in game seven, with the Caps pressing and desperate to get the first goal, #28 fails once again to go hard to the net, and instead of tapping home an easy tally, his weak deflection goes off of the pipe.

Semin is one of the most controversial figures on the Caps and DC fans pretty much either love him or are staunchly in the “get rid of him” camp. There has never been a question of his talent, but when it comes to desire that is another issue. Complicating matters for the Caps and McPhee is his current contract situation and the mindset of Semin and his agent, Mark Gandler. McPhee, in an interview on WNST on the Comcast Morning Show back in May, stated that he approached the Semin camp about a long term deal with Washington. Their response, according to McPhee, was along the lines of ‘We don’t want one right now, we plan on having Alex score 50 goals next season and then hitting the open market for the big money.’ That interesting position by Semin and company leaves McPhee with three real options:

1. Keep Semin, then roll the dice and hope #28 shows up in the playoffs next year like he did in 2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers (3 goals, 5 assists, +2 ) and 2009 against the New York Rangers (5 goals, 3 assists, +5)

2. Trade him at the draft with the hope that some team with salary cap room will want him.

3. Hold onto him for the majority of the regular season and then deal him at or near the 2010-11 trade deadline.

The potential downside to holding onto Semin for all of next year is that following the 2010-11 season #28 can hit the open market and Washington would receive nothing in return, should he sign elsewhere. With all of the pressure on McPhee and Boudreau to make amends for the early post season exit in 2009-10, giving #28 a chance to be more consistent and produce in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is quite a risk. Even Ovechkin, who is the team captain and likely Semin’s closest friend on the team, couldn’t get the guy to produce when it mattered so what makes anyone think 2010-11 will be different?

So it would seem that moving Semin, if the Caps don’t feel they’ll get the consistent performance they need from him to win in the post season, is the best route to go. The question then becomes, what is the market for #28? Who can take on his contract and what can you get back for him? Last weekend, seeking some info on what the potential return to Washington could be in a Semin deal, I exchanged texts with an NHL scout who has a handle on the trade market. When I floated the idea of the Caps moving Semin, his initial response was “Trade for what? A 5th round pick? He’s a $6 million cap hit then an unrestricted free agent.” After some more discussion, he sent back “Nobody is taking him at $6 million.”

What Washington does have going for it though, is in such a money driven league making the playoffs is crucial to a team’s financial bottom line. Thus a player like Semin, who will no doubt be motivated in the regular season to rack up big offensive figures, could be the difference for some clubs between making the post season or golfing. So taking on a $6M contract would yield more revenue in return should it put a bubble team into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The NHL is certainly a salary cap league and it is amazing to think, if the scout’s take on the market is correct, that a former first round pick, who has scored 128 goals in 327 NHL regular season tilts, would have such a low trade value. But that appears to be the state of the enterprise these days and a prime example of that is the Chicago Blackhawks, who due to serious salary cap issues, may be forced to give up a prospect or two just to get another team with cap room to take on a highly paid offensive defenseman, such as Brian Campbell. That scenario, among others for the Hawks, was discussed at length by Jeff Marek and others on Hockey Night in Canada Radio immediately following Chicago’s Stanley Cup victory.

In some ways, moving Semin for a draft pick and clearing $6M could be a shrewd move, especially if the freed up money yielded a Patrick Marleau or another bonafide center. Washington has a couple of right wingers in DC that can go the net, such as Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr, or others in Hershey, who aren’t afraid of causing crease chaos, chomping at the bit to get a shot in “The Show”, such as Andrew Gordon or Jay Beagle or even the speedy and fiesty Steve Pinozzotto. The Bears proved, despite having more talent than any other AHL team, that it takes hard work and a willingness to pay the physical price to win a championship. The Caps need to add more players with that mindset.

Moving Semin could cause some friction with Ovechkin, but if it helps the Great #8 and the Caps capture the Stanley Cup they desperately crave, then that situation is clearly workable. At the end of the day, the decision to move Semin, if it is made, isn’t a personal one and it would be based purely on the way NHL business has to be conducted in the post lockout era where you only have so much money to properly craft a Cup winning club. In order to win a title in the NHL, you have to have talent and the players you put the most money into also have to display an undying commitment to winning that carries through to every other member of that squad. Towards that end, I’ll leave you with the scout’s final thoughts on #28, one that certainly has crossed the minds of many people in and around the Capitals organization.

“Semin is an awesome kid, just not a win at all costs guy!”