November 23, 2014

MacLellan distances himself from McPhee with free agent signings

Anybody miss George McPhee yet?

No one really knew what to expect from Brian MacLellan when he was promoted to general manager; with no track record, he was an unknown commodity. The amnesty buyout period came and went with no movement and fans began to fear the had traded one complacent general manager for another.

Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore.

MacLellan boldly distanced himself from his predecessor as free agency opened with the signings of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to monster contracts.

McPhee’s cautious, don’t overpay approach to free agency frustrated fans who saw a championship contender that continually failed to address its obvious weaknesses. Had he been able to adequately fix those weaknesses, perhaps the Caps would have been able to live up to their lofty expectations.

But MacLellan’s approach is certainly not perfect and he has plenty of detractors already in the wake of the team’s recent signings. Though he was very aggressive in attempting to fix the team’s defense, he may have been overzealous.

The Caps committed $67.75 million to two players. That’s a lot of money. Granted, $40.25 million of that goes to Niskanen and at 27, he is entering his prime. He played 81 games last season and has a close relationship with new assistant coach Todd Reirden. It is easy to see the thought process behind this signing.

The Orpik deal, however, is hard to defend. Five years and $27.5 million is a sizable raise for the 33 year old veteran. He made $3.75 million last season and will make $6.5 million in his first season with the Caps.

Did I mention he was 33 years old?

While the money is high, the length is what makes this deal especially costly. Orpik will be 38 when this deal expires. To put that in perspective, Roman Hamrlik was 38 when the Caps placed him on waivers. Clearly at the end of his rope, he played in 16 games that season and only four games with the Caps. He retired soon after.

Orpik will make $4.5 million in the final year of his deal. The Caps will need more than 16 games from him that season.

The bottom line is that Orpik cannot possibly live up to his contract. It would not be fair to assume he will be a Hamrlik by the end of the deal, but he will not be worth the $4.5 million he is owed in the final year. That’s not a matter of opinion or speculation, that’s a fact. MacLellan knows that and therein lies the difference between him and McPhee.

There are three ways to build a roster: the draft, trades and free agency. Being able to draft well is the most important, but it takes time. Trades are useful in specific situations, but depending on trades can prove costly; in order to bring something in, you have to give up something of value.

The major downside to free agency is that you always overpay for the best players. Relying solely on free agency guarantees carrying a lot of expensive contracts that will hinder a team in the long run. For a team that considers itself a contender, however, free agency is a good way to quickly bolster the roster.

The Caps needed a top four defenseman and leadership and they got both in Orpik. By signing him, MacLellan is rolling the dice and saying the first three years of this deal will make up for the last two.

It’s a deal McPhee never would have made, but that’s not to say McPhee never handed out bad contracts. Brooks Laich was signed for six years, $27 million; John Erskine for two years, $3.925 million; Jeff Schultz for four years, $11 million; you get the idea.

McPhee was loathe to make big moves in free agency relying rather on his “core players” and in doing so, he overpaid those core players and neglected to quickly address the team’s weaknesses.

MacLellan’s strategy, however, has some drawbacks as well.

In addition to defense, second line center has been a long term weakness for the Caps. In order to address this, McPhee has brought in among others Sergei Federov, Michael Nylander, Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Jason Arnott, Mike Ribeiro and Mikhail Grabovski. Some were more successful than others, but the point is that McPhee at least attempted to address this hole on the roster even if he did neglect the defense. MacLellan now faces the opposite problem.

By spending so much on two defensemen, MacLellan has left himself little cap room to bring in a second line center. Trading one weakness for another is not a great strategy.

Being aggressive in free agency is one thing, being reckless is quite another. The jury is still out as to which side of the coin MacLellan falls on.

If Orpik turns out to be a team leader and a key player in a championship run, however, it certainly will take the sting out of the doomed fifth year of his contract. While this is not a gamble you can make repeatedly, it can pay off in limited cases.

We are still early into MacLellan’s tenure as general manager and there are still many questions as to what sort of general manager he will be. One question he did answer clearly, however, is that he is no George McPhee. Whether that will ultimately be a good thing for the Caps remains to be seen.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and is a college football and Washington Capitals blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com. J.J. follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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