The holidays have come and gone but don’t look now, with an 18-day Olympic break looming in February where rosters will be frozen and the NHL trade deadline fast approaching on March 3rd, there are roughly 30 or so days left for NHL General Managers to make trades to either better themselves for the playoffs or load up on draft picks and prospects to prepare for the future. The Washington Capitals, who have their eyes squarely on one prize, the Stanley Cup, will try to be buyers at the deadline in an attempt to improve their team for what is shaping up to be a long post season run. At last year’s trade deadline, GM George McPhee did not make any deals and one factor in that decision was the lack of salary cap flexibility GMGM had at the time. This season, though, is different now that Michael Nylander is off the books and he cleared just over $2.1M in prorated salary in the trade that sent Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina to Columbus for forward Jason Chimera. McPhee has financial flexibility this time around and with that typically comes more trade options.
Back in December, when #92 agreed to take a demotion and play for Grand Rapids of the AHL, I came up with the following shopping list for McPhee and the Caps:
1. Permanently call up defenseman Karl Alzner and his $1.6+M prorated salary cap hit to the NHL for the rest of the season (Washington was 5-0 when #27 was up with the big club and the team played some great defensive hockey during that stint).
2. Acquire other players now or at the trade deadline to help with depth and put this team over the top for what promises to be a long playoff run (remember the Penguins added Bill Guerin at the NHL trade deadline after he was rumored to be heading to DC, and #13 played a role in Pittsburgh winning the Stanley Cup).
Possibilities for acquisitions include:
– Acquire an enforcer to help protect the Caps top players. Just last night and on Friday evening there were a few runs at defenseman Mike Green (including a punch to the head by Andrew Alberts of Carolina) and Alexander Semin is often targeted for rough play by opponents and his health is paramount to a Caps long playoff run. And don’t forget the cheap shots the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled on Alexander Ovechkin on November 1st that cost him 6 games in the line-up.
– Add another defenseman to their roster.
– Bring in a veteran goalie to go with Semyon Varlamov should Jose Theodore continue to struggle and Michael Neuvirth not learn to produce at the NHL level. Given Varlamov’s injury history relying totally on him in the playoffs could be a risk.
Now that we have over a month’s worth of new data, let’s re-examine the list.
1. Permanent Alzner call up– Two days after writing that blog, #27 was recalled. The Caps went 4-1 in the first five contests following the second recall after going 5-0 in his previous five games in 2009-10. Alzner played very well during that stretch but he, along with the rest of the team, struggled for three games after the Chimera trade. Just last week, after King Karl was sent to Hershey, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said that it might not be long before #27 is back up in the NHL. Given the way defensemen Tyler Sloan and Shaone Morrisonn have played recently, that seems like a good idea. After all, if you are going to try and use Alzner in the playoffs this season, and Washington did not play him in the post season in 2008-09, then wouldn’t you want him to get as many games at this level as possible? #27 dominates in the AHL so other than logging alot of minutes, I am not sure if he is gaining much by playing for the Bears at this point in his career. Yes, the Caps save money while he is down there but given the recent transactions one would think dollars is not a big issue, but who knows? If McPhee and Boudreau believe Alzner is legitimally one of their top six defenders they should bring him up to prepare him for the playoffs. I personally would like to see how a Brian Pothier-Alzner pairing would do on a nightly basis.
2. a) Acquire an enforcer – McPhee, last summer and throughout this season, has steadfastly said that he does not think it makes sense to bring in a guy who is strictly an enforcer. From a salary cap perspective it does not make sense given how much money most of those guys, who play six or so minutes a night, make. In the playoffs, you don’t need an enforcer because too much is at stake. You do need team toughness though, and as Mike Milbury said on HNIC radio on Wednesday afternoon “The Caps could use a guy who can play and fight but those guys are hard to find.” Hard to find is right and I believe that McPhee is hoping that the Chimera acquisition, along with defenseman John Erskine and the ultimate team guy, Matt Bradley, position the Caps to handle any more regular season rough stuff.
2. b) Add another defenseman – When analysts dissect the Caps they typically focus on Washington’s blue line when pointing out weaknesses. I’ve even had a couple of NHL scouts mention that to me in conversation. There seems to be a push from the outside (fans, media, bloggers, etc.) for a big defenseman that can clear the front of the net for the Caps goaltenders. I watch alot of NHL games during the season, and I have to be honest, I don’t see many of those type of players any more on many clubs. The Adam Foote’s and Brendan Witt’s of the world, I hate to say this, are a bit of a dying breed. The NHL is all about skating now with the way the rules are set up. If you can’t skate well you can forget playing at the top level. What is needed these days are guys who have hockey smarts, know how to be positionally sound (i.e, can box out opposing forwards so the goalies can see the shots coming), and can move the puck quickly out of their own zone. The Capitals have a bunch of guys who fit the “move the puck quickly” mold starting with Mike Green, then Tom Poti, Brian Pothier, and Jeff Schultz. Alzner is another guy who can do this if given time to develop at the NHL level (we have to remember he is only 21). Another guy who will join that mix in the future is 20 year old Hershey defenseman John Carlson. Now improving their play in front of the Caps goalies is something that hopefully Boudreau and assistant Coach Bob Woods are constantly working on. Where am I going with this? I don’t think another defenseman is really needed unless they get a bargain deal on a guy like Scott Niedermayer, who is an unrestricted free agent and will likely be retiring this summer or possibly after next (he already retired once and came back).
2. c) Add a veteran goalie – This is another option that is often linked to the Caps by some media outlets, bloggers, and fans. It seems pretty clear that if Varlamov is healthy then he is the #1 guy for the playoffs. However, he hasn’t played an NHL game since December 7th (he did play one game in Hershey, won it, but injured his knee). Michal Neuvirth drastically improved since I made the first list in December and was on a real roll, until this week. #30’s confidence appears to have gone down the tubes right now but we all have to remember he is only 21 as well. Given the recent struggles of the young Czech, a Varly-Neuvy combo for the post season seems like a HUGE risk given #40’s injury history. Jose Theodore had one of his best outings of the season in relief last night in Florida. The role I see him playing is logging minutes and helping get wins down the stretch drive, but realistically, would anyone have confidence in #60 in the playoffs after the game 1 disaster against the Rangers last spring? Jose would really have to take his game to a much higher and consistent level the rest of the way before he could really be considered as a potential starter for the post season opener in 2009-10. Therefore, this could be an area where GMGM might make a move. The list of unrestricted free agent goalies includes Marty Turco and Alex Auld (Dallas), Vesa Toskala (Toronto), Jonas Hiller (Anaheim), Martin Biron (Islanders), Johan Hedberg (Atlanta), Patrick Lalime (Buffalo), Antero Niittymaki (Tampa), and Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis (Nashville). Nashville is very likely going to make the playoffs so I don’t see GM David Poile moving either one of those guys. Hiller seems like a very attractive and cost effective option ($1.3M salary) but I doubt the Ducks are trading a guy who was a very effective #1 goalie last post season. Of the remaining list above, Turco is the most intriguing net minder but he is an expensive rental ($5.7M) and having watched him play quite a bit this year, he has been subpar, at best.
46 games into the season we have seen the rotating door that has been center on the Washington roster. The Caps have Nicklas Backstrom that can match up with any #1 pivot man in the league but after that the recent centers have been Brendan Morrison (#9 is a true center and has pretty much been the #2 guy) and Tomas Fleischmann. Potential Hershey call-ups Mathieu Perreault and Keith Aucoin also fit the smallish profile, were tried for stints, but really aren’t every game NHL playoff options. Brooks Laich is another potential middle man, but he has been struggling recently too. Morrison has been slowing in recent weeks and Flash does not have much experience at center, so this position is a real concern for April and beyond. So I think center definitely needs to be considered for the list and may be the highest priority. Preferably you would think the Caps would desire someone who has some size to compete with the Penguins, who are loaded up the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. McPhee, on DC 980 AM radio today and courtesy of Tarik El-Bashir’s twitter page, apparently made the following remarks about the likelihood of finding dance partners to make trades before the March 3rd deadline:
“My concern this year is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot out there. With the way our league is right now there aren’t many teams that are out of it, so you might, in years past, have eight or 10 teams you could talk to about players. This year, it might be four or five. It might be slim pickings, so I’m concerned about that.”
Slim pickings, especially at such a key position as center, is correct. Clubs that are likely golf course bound right now include Carolina, Edmonton, Columbus, St. Louis, and Toronto (likely the 4 or 5 squads GMGM was talking about). On the fringe of premier tee times are Dallas, Florida, and Tampa Bay. Looking at the centers on those teams, and trying to find one with size, the guy who was most appealing to me was Shawn Horcoff of the Oilers. But the former Michigan State grad has a long term contract and a $5.5M a season cap hit. That is far too rich for Washington’s blood but that type of player would be a real fit and could be the key piece of the puzzle to lead Washington to the promised land in June. The type of guy I don’t want to see would be of the Wayne Primeau mold, big but can’t score. Center is one of the hardest and most coveted positions on a hockey team. The Penguins are lucky to have three top notch guys up the middle. Washington likely needs to answer and I have to imagine that McPhee and his scouts are examining possible options. Based on what he said today, you know he is going to try and do his best to improve this Capitals club for a shot at Lord Stanley in June.