Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee held a “State of the Caps” press conference Thursday at Kettler IcePlex in preparation for some important events coming up on the NHL calendar, namely the NHL draft on June 22-23 in Pittsburgh and the beginning of free agency on July 1st. In addition, McPhee stated that the coaching search is continuing and he is in no rush to hire a new bench boss to replace Dale Hunter, who announced he is returning to his junior team (London Knights) following the Caps second round playoff loss to the Rangers.
It was an insightful session, granted you realize that there was no way McPhee was going to show any of his cards as he prepares for as important an off-season as the Capitals have had in several years. For a quick synopsis of the press conference, I highly recommend Mike Vogel’s Dump ‘n Chase blog.
So why is this such an important off-season for the Capitals?
For me, the team is finally in a salary cap position to re-tool the roster given that high priced players Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman are set to test the free agent waters. In addition, McPhee has two first round picks in the upcoming draft, the 11th and 16th overall selections. Given the salary cap room and assets in the system, GMGM has a big opportunity to try and obtain the pieces this Capitals team needs to finally get over the hump in the post season.
Since the lockout, McPhee has chosen to go the draft route to build this Capitals team adding free agents or players via trades, when needed. It is a strategy that has worked well in getting Washington to become a consistent playoff team (five years in a row). The Caps have an explosive talent in Alexander Ovechkin and the combination of the Gr8 and winning has seen the Verizon Center become a “place to be,” as evidenced by the fact that the team has sold out 153 consecutive games.
McPhee made mention of that in his press conference, talking about the value of “building from within.” He compared the Los Angeles Kings, who raised Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time ever this past week, to his own club pointing out that significant players Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick were all LA draft picks. Clearly Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and Braden Holtby form a comparable group for Washington to the Kings crew listed above. Both teams successfully stockpiled picks for several years and used the draft to help build a large portion of the core of their team.
But that is where the comparisons stop for me. After the names listed above the Kings can add Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, and Dustin Penner. Those are four top six forwards to go with Kopitar and Brown and each one was acquired in a trade with the Richards and Carter deals falling in the blockbuster category. Kings GM Dean Lombardi recognized the holes on his top two lines long ago, as LA was reportedly one of the finalists in both the Ilya Kovalchuk (2010 trade deadline) and Brad Richards (summer 2011) sweepstakes, before the Devils and Rangers obtained their respective services. To get each of those top four forwards, Lombardi traded the following:
Richards (acquired summer 2011): forward Wayne Simmonds (2nd round in 2007), forward Brayden Schenn (1st round & 5th overall in 2009), and a 2012 second round pick
Carter (acquired trade deadline 2012): defensemen Jack Johnson (1st round & 3rd overall in 2005) and a 1st round pick in either 2012 or 2013
Williams (acquired trade deadline 2009): forward Patrick O’Sullivan and a 2nd round pick
Penner (acquired trade deadline 2011): defensemen Colten Teubert (1st round & 13th overall in 2008), a 1st round pick in 2011, and a conditional 2nd round pick
Those four, with Kopitar and Brown are arguably as good a top six group of forwards as any in the league. To get those players Lombardi had to give up assets, high drafted players along with high draft picks. Lombardi has also done well in the free agent market adding key defensemen Rob Scuderi (in 2009 from the Penguins) and Willie Mitchell (in 2010 from the Canucks). McPhee actually had Mitchell in town in 2010 before he eventually inked with the Kings. Simply put, the Kings GM made some very bold moves and took chances to build what is now a championship winning club.
Coaching is important in hockey, but there is no substitute for quality players. Darryl Sutter didn’t start working magic with the Kings until the Carter trade occurred, which gave Los Angeles two scoring lines. As McPhee said in his press conference, the coach he is looking for is one who will get the entire team to buy in. Dale Hunter did that this year with the Caps and they had some success, but in the end they were done in by their inability to score goals. I put that issue on the personnel as the Capitals were essentially a one line team, making it much easier to shut down the Caps big guns.
So the coaching system by itself, in my opinion, is mostly irrelevent, because the major driver in winning or losing is the talent level. As we stand now, assuming Semin leaves, there are at least two, and perhaps three or four, openings on the top two lines. Fill those gaps and whatever coach McPhee brings in can implement whatever system he chooses to try. After all, a coaching system can be changed or tweaked by the bench boss, but you don’t have a lot of opportunities to change the personnel, especially once the season starts. As GMGM stated at his presser on Thursday, the next few weeks seem to be the best time to make moves to improve your club. McPhee said it is not his desired route, he prefers to make changes while games and practices are occurring, but that is the way things have shaken out since the lockout ended and the NHL entered the salary cap era.
In pro sports, consistent winners almost always have a good draft history, so there is no question that is the main building block for a successful organization. The Caps have done that over the last five plus years. However, to get to the elite level and break through to win a championship, it is clear that management needs to take some additional chances. Recent Stanley Cup victories by the Kings, Bruins, Blackhawks, and Penguins bear that out.
GMGM stated last month that he tried to move one of next week’s first round selections for a top six forward at last February’s trade deadline but the return wasn’t deemed great enough that day. So McPhee knows what he needs to do, but coming out and saying that in a press conference now only drives prices up, so it is rare that you’ll hear the GM openly state his intentions.
Based on the talk on twitter from several NHL insiders just today, the trade market is getting hot again and prices are not likely as high as they were in late February since there are more teams willing to move players. Washington needs an influx of high end players, especially at forward, if they want to challenge for a Stanley Cup.
That is why this offseason is so important for the Capitals. They can’t afford to play on the edges anymore, so McPhee must be aggressive and try to make some big moves to improve the talent level. Hopefully he can find the right dance partners in the coming weeks.