April 17, 2014

Big changes needed for Caps to contend for Cup in balance of Ovechkin’s career

Caps Captain Alex Ovechkin and Alternate Captain Nicklas Backstrom presented Mike Knuble and his family with a Sea-Doo on behave of the Caps players (Photo by @jlrpuck))

Will Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom ever play for a Stanley Cup? (Photo by @jlrpuck))

With the postseason slowly slipping away from them with every loss, the Washington Capitals have quietly put themselves in prime position for the offseason. With the NHL’s salary cap expected to go up and major revisions to the defensive corps on tap, the salary restraints being lifted could not have come at a better time.

How they use that cap space, and who makes those decisions, will shape whether this team will contend for a Stanley Cup during the balance of one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the league’s career with the Caps.

CLEARING THE DECK

GM George McPhee essentially pulled off the world’s quietest fire sale during last week’s deadline. He shed the team of Martin Erat’s $4.5 million and Michal Neuvirth’s $2.5 million. Both players wanted a fresh start where they could be a bigger part of a team’s plans; the team wanted to shed their salaries. McPhee moved both players without acquiring NHL contracts they’d be on the hook for past this season.

In the process, the team acquired UFA G Jaroslav Halak and LW Dustin Penner. Both veterans were immediately inserted into the lineup with the idea they could add a presence to help the Caps qualify for the playoffs this season. It hasn’t really worked out that way as the Caps have lost five of its past six games — and now stare a three-game west coast swing right in the face.

The organization can spin the trade deadline acquisitions all they want, but the moves were all about clearing cap space for the offseason.

THE LOOSE ENDS

With the Caps locking up D Dmitry Orlov to a two-year deal on Thursday — and finally bringing on forward Evgeny Kuznetsov after his contract expired in the KHL, the Caps have just three free agents heading into the offseason: the aforementioned Halak and Penner, and C Mikhail Grabovski, the past offseason’s major acquisition. Grabovski, who has been hurt much of the second half of the season, signed a one-year, $3 million deal to come to D.C. this year to re-energize his career after being relegated to the doghouse in his last season in Toronto. He was hopeful to put up big numbers and earn a multi-year deal.

It looked like he was well on the way to driving his salary up into the $5-6 million range, with a hat trick on opening night (courtesy of a couple of tip-ins) and 12 goals and 21 assists in 50 games. But the injury that has kept him out of the team’s past 17 games has really hurt him, which may make him easier to re-sign as the season nears its conclusion.

As for Halak and Penner, it’s debatable whether the Caps have any interest in re-signing either one. Halak is a good, dependable starting goalie in the league, but he’ll be expensive as a free agent. He’s of the age where he’ll want a 4-5 year deal, and with Braden Holtby (and Philipp Grubauer in the wings) it doesn’t seem like that’s the route the Caps would go, unless they have a major change of heart.

Penner is a big, rugged winger who has failed to register a point in five games since joining the Caps. In 49 games with Anaheim this season, he had 13 goals and 19 assists and hasn’t eclipsed 20 goals since the ’10-’11 season. He’ll be 32 at the end of the season, and has spent his entire career up until the past week and a half in the Western Conference. With Adam Oates’ reluctance to play him on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, it isn’t a stretch to see the Caps allowing Penner to walk without so much as a second thought.

ELEPHANT(S) IN THE ROOM

The Capitals have one more buyout available (they used their first on Jeff Schultz) and it’s quite possible they might exercise that buyout this offseason. They have two prime candidates: F Brooks Laich ($4.5 million cap hit) and D Mike Green ($6 million).

Laich, 30, signed a long term deal a couple of seasons ago when he was a 20-goal scoring, two-way forward capable of playing on the power play as well as the penalty kill. He was a versatile player, able to move among the top three lines in a variety of positions. But the groin injury that’s robbed him of most of the past two seasons has really cut into his availability and reliability, as well as his production. This season, Laich has eight goals and seven assists in 50 games and is currently not practicing at all while trying to remain available for games.

Green has always been a liability in the defensive end. The fact that his possession numbers remain decent is hidden by the fact that when he gets beaten, it’s often ugly. He’s a target for opposing forecheckers, and that wear and tear has resulted in several head injuries in the past three seasons. In the past, the Caps were willing to live with Green’s inadequacies, but he’s just not putting up the kind of numbers that made him a two-time Norris Trophy finalist. His eight goals and 27 assists this season are nothing to sneeze at, but hardly worth the $6 million per annum Green counts against the cap.

BALANCING THE CAP

According to Capgeek.com, the Capitals — with Orlov’s new contract and the Laich/Green albatross contracts — will have a little over $14 million to spend under the expected cap available to sign free agents or bring in players via trade.

Obviously, it the team buys out either Laich or Green, they’ll have even more money to spend. Buy one out (Laich) and trade the other (Green) and the Caps would have a cash bonanza to work with.

CALLING THE CAVALRY

So if the Caps have all this money to play with in the offseason, where should they spend it? The simple, fast answer is on defense. The Caps have a dependable pair of defensemen in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, even if the opinion of the two is a bit inflated within the market. We’ve detailed Green’s shortcomings. If he was paired with a reliable, dependable defense-first partner, his shortcomings could be mitigated better. Right now, he’s paired with Orlov, who’s prone to his own bouts of turnover-itis in his own end.

The rest of the staff has been filled with has-beens (John Erskine), never-weres (Alexander Urbom, Tyson Strachan) and youngsters just barely out of high school. The Capitals have some promising young blueliners, but Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, Cam Schilling and Patrick Wey have all been overmatched, and Madison Bowey is still a couple of years away in the grand scheme.

A cursory glance at the top UFA defensemen provides a sobering moment when considering how the Caps should spend their money. There’s just not that much available on the open market that one might consider a “Top-4″ defenseman. Certainly there are some useful players out there that could bump Carrick, et al. back to Hershey for another year of seasoning to seriously upgrade the bottom pair. But how likely are the Caps to lock up an older player for several seasons to play in the third pairing, blocking the youngsters?

The Caps need to get better on the blueline from the top down, not the other way around. And it’s going to take going to the trade market in the offseason to do that.

If the Caps want to add to the forwards roster (and if Laich is let go, they would certainly be in the market) there are some interesting players still in their prime available, including Thomas Vanek, Paul Stastny, Jussi Jokinen and Matt Moulson, in addition to their own Grabovski and Penner.

CALLING THE SHOTS

The biggest question might be: Who will make these decisions? It’s no secret that both GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates (and the rest of his nascent coaching staff) are on the hot seat. McPhee has build this team into a seasonal playoff team, if not a Stanley Cup contender. If the Caps were to miss the playoffs this season, the organization would miss out on that nice chuck of playoff revenue, which in turns hurts the bottom line throughout the system.

There are plenty of folks inside and outside of the Beltway that wouldn’t mind seeing a new manager put in charge of re-energizing this franchise. McPhee’s detractors point to exactly zero trips past the second round since the team’s Finals appearance in McPhee’s first season at the helm. At some point, just making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

But McPhee has overseen a rebuild before. And the moves he made at this past trade deadline didn’t seem like the moves a man in fear of his job security would make.

As for Oates, everyone wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially the way he was able to help Ovechkin get back to being the most lethal goal scorer on the planet. But the fact of the matter is that the Caps have steadily been in decline in terms of puck possession since he took over. The puck movement in the Caps’ own end has been amateurish at times. And instead of playing dump-and-chase, too often the Caps are relegated to playing dump-and-change, taking so long to get out of their own end that all they can do at the end of their shift is head back to the bench.

Add on the fact that the Caps aren’t above 50 percent in the faceoff dot, and it all adds up to a team that seems to still be searching for an identity under the first-time head coach.

Head coaches in this league have been let go for less.

THE BIG PICTURE

With 15 games left in the regular season, it’s still early to write this team’s epitaph. But the writing’s on the wall. Losses in five of the last six games and the brutal schedule ahead leave the Caps solidly behind the eight-ball in terms of postseason play. Most simulators have them with less than a seven percent chance at qualifying for the playoffs.

Whether they sneak in or not, big changes are needed if the Washington Capitals indeed want to compete for the Stanley Cup in the near future. Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom aren’t kids anymore. Every year that this team can’t truly compete in the second season is wasted. The Caps need to make some big changes soon, or the duo will go down not only as the best players in this generation to not win a Cup, but not even play for one.

And that would be a shame for all involved.

Washington Redskins jump in with both feet on day two of free agency

The Washington Redskins, fairly quiet in the first day of the free agent signing period, were quite a bit more active in day two.

The Skins added four players, including former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher.

The team also added defensive end Clifton Geathers, linebacker Darryl Sharpton and cornerback Tracy Porter.

Hatcher, 31, enjoyed his best year in the league last season, recording 11 sacks. He spent the first five seasons of his career as a backup and broke the starting lineup in 2011. He played right defensive end in the Cowboys’ 3-4 system that year before switching to tackle last season in a 4-3. He’s expected to play end for the Skins.

Hatcher represents a huge upgrade along the defensive front for the Skins. Not only did Hatcher have more sacks than the entirety of the Skins defensive line last season, he’s also adept at putting pressure on the offense in the running game.

Geathers, a massive 6’8″, 340-pound fourth year defensive lineman, appeared in 16 games with the Philadelphia Eagles last year, recording 13 tackles.

Sharpton recorded 87 tackles for Houston, starting the final eight games of the season. He should compete for a starting inside spot next to Perry Riley Jr., re-signed by Washington on Wednesday.

Porter started 16 games for Oakland last season with 67 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown. Porter has had injury troubles in his seven-year career, playing just one full season as a pro. He can play against both wide and slot receivers.

Washington Redskins venture into free agent waters, but not too far

The first day of NFL free agency is in the books, and the Washington Redskins did indeed pick up a couple of useful pieces, but did not make a headline-grabbing splash as they’ve done in years past.

The Redskins used the first day of the signing period to bring back two of their own: LB Perry Riley and WR Santana Moss; and added G Shawn Lauvao, slot WR Andre Roberts and special teams standout LB Adam Hayward.

Lauvao, a 2010 third round pick out of Arizona State, started 11 games for the Cleveland Browns last season and started all 16 in 2011 and 2012. ESPN reported that he signed a four-year, $17 million contract. Lauvao is graded as a good pass blocker but not as strong on run blocking.

Roberts, who spent his first four seasons in Arizona, is a 5’10″, 195-pound slot receiver. He caught 43 balls for 471 yards and two touchdowns in ’13. Roberts signed for four years and $16 million.

Heyward is 6’1″, 240-pounds and has played primarily as a special teamer in seven season in the NFL. He played for current Redskins secondary coach Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay.

 

 

Washington Capitals GM George McPhee on NHL Free Agency: “We Stayed Away.”

Washington Capitals GM George McPhee met the media Monday on the first day of Development Camp. His most intriguing comments came right up front when asked about the NHL Free Agent signing period, and the Caps reluctance to enter the market for a second-line center with the departure of Mike Ribeiro to Arizona on a four-year deal.

McPhee was up-front in his assessment, stating that he wasn’t impressed with the players available. And for those few that the Caps did take interest in, he wasn’t impressed with the contract demands.

“We didn’t think it was a great class of players,” McPhee said from Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Not a great pool of players to invest in, so we didn’t. There were a couple of players we had interest in, but when the numbers get the way they were going in terms of salary or term, we stayed away.”

“We didn’t really make any offers, we just knew where they were going,” McPhee continued. “Usually the issue is the term. Salary you can compete with, but when people get into term that’s too long, you can ultimately hurt your competitiveness down the road. We try to avoid that.”

The conversation naturally turned from the free agent crop to the Caps two UFAs they allowed to walk — Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks.

“We made our best offers at the trading deadline, with both of [those] players. We liked both of those guys a lot — as people, as players — but we made our decisions around the trading deadline, in far advance of July 1. You can’t wake up [at the start of the free agency period] and say, ‘What are we going to do?’.”

What McPhee didn’t do is chase either player and sign them to long-term, salary cap crippling deals. Both players signed four-year deals at higher rates than they commanded on their last contract, something the Caps were obviously — and correctly — reluctant to do.

So if the Caps aren’t going to obtain a 2C, who will they turn to in-house? How about their jack-of-all- trades, Brooks Laich? In a perfect world, the Caps would have Laich centering a third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, players whose natural ability might seem to jive better with the lunch-pail Laich.

But McPhee sees Laich as a suitable player to fill the role.

“If you look around the league, it’s a hard position to fill,” McPhee noted. “ How many teams these days have a couple of elite centers? Five or six, maybe? Generally, you need a really good two-way player to play there, which is why we’re looking at Brooks Laich to play there now.”

“We had him there in the playoffs a couple years ago, liked it a lot. He’s a natural center. We think it’s time to  play him. He gives you the size and speed you’re looking for, the good two-way play you’re looking for, the face-offs… we think he’s capable of it. We don’t see any real difference in terms of ability to play between a Brooks and, if you look around the league, a Mike Fisher in Nashville, Mike Richards in L.A. or David Backes in St. Louis. Same type of players.”

Time will tell if McPhee is right. Since Sergei Fedorov left, the Caps have been looking for that elusive second-line center to provide scoring assistance and take some of the burden off their top scoring line. Last year, they finally had that, as Ribeiro turned in what has proved to be a consistently productive season, especially on coach Adam Oates’ revised power play.

What seems certain is that the players the Caps have on their payroll today is the squad they’ll enter camp with. How those players will be deployed is the million dollar question.

But as their opponents in their new division make additions to their roster they feel will help them be better teams, the Caps are obviously, and maybe disappointingly, standing put.

Washington Capitals: Seasonal Disappointment for Fundamentally Flawed Team

The Washington Capitals are 3-6 now in playoff series in the Alex Ovechkin Era, and the franchise has yet to advance past the second round in that time. If you judge the success of an NHL franchise in playoff wins and Stanley Cups, the Capitals have not only been a failure, but a spectacular one at that. Of the six playoff series losses since the ’07-’08 season, the Caps have held a two-game lead in three of them, five have gone seven games and the Caps hosted Game 7 and lost four times. That’s not just losing, that’s losing badly.

Of course, you know all this already.

During the Ovechkin Era, the Caps have been eliminated from the playoffs in eerily similar fashion. They run into a hot goalie, and teams game plan to frustrate the Caps’ talented players by blocking shots and clogging up the neutral zone and passing lanes.

These teams: the Flyers, Canadians, the Penguins, the Rangers — twice (the Lightning sweep in ’11 doesn’t count), have simply shown more patience than the Caps and waited them out.  Eventually, and ultimately, the Caps shoot themselves out and their opponent waits and waits and counterpunches when the Caps run themselves out of the building. It’s not unlike a heavyweight boxing match when a lesser-skilled boxer will allow his opponent to wear himself down punching, then sneak in when he gets tired.

It happened in Game 7 again.

Look no further than the number of shots. Not on goal, but overall number of shots taken. The Caps attempted a grand total of 79 shots. 35 made their way to Lundqvist, and yes, he turned them all away. But Washington also had 27 attempts blocked by Rangers defenders and another 17 missed their mark altogether. The Rangers attempted 47 shots, 27 on goal. Five went in.

Every year the Caps are bounced after a grueling series and we hear the same things from the losing locker room. “We ran into a hot goalie.” “We thought we were the better team.” “We’re frustrated with the result.” I could go back and look up quotes but you know them as well as I do.

Here are this years:

“You can see one guy beat us. Of course they have good team, great players, great defensive team, but the goalie out there was unbelievable. That’s why he’s best in league,” said Ovechkin. “In my mind it was Lundqvist. They have great team, no doubt about it, but Lundqvist was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”

And:

“It’s the same thing as previous years, I would say,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “We came back regular season then playoff came and we’re not good enough. I can just talk for myself and my effort. Not good enough. No excuses. It’s just a bad effort.”

And:

“We threw the kitchen sink at him at times and he stood there and defended,” Mike Green said. “He’s a great goaltender we knew that, we talked about it before the series how to beat him and the times that we did score was what we talked about. At times I thought we kind of got away from that. I’m at a loss for words.”

But it’s much deeper than that. Yes, Lundqvist is a world class goalie. Yes, Jaroslav Halak stood on his head for three weeks that spring. But the real reason these goalies have so much success over the Caps is that the shots that get through are lesser quality — from farther away — and from less dangerous areas of the ice. Look at the shot chart. You’ll see where the goals are scored during the playoffs.

The Caps got a grand total of 226 shots on goal in the seven game series, an average of over 32 SOG per game. That’s good. But they scored just 12 goals, a shooting percentage of just 5.3 percent. That’s beyond bad. It’s also a testament of where those shots are coming from. In the regular season, the Caps had ten players with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent. In the series, that number was four.

Ovechkin, obviously, led the team in shots with 30 and scored once, for a shot percentage of 3.3 percent. Ugh. Is that the result of suffocating defense? A hot, world class goalie? An injury? Bad luck? Even during the period of Ovi’s toughest struggles the last couple of seasons, that kind of shooting percentage is simply anomaly.

But here’s the kicker: the next three highest shot totals in the series all came from defensemen. Karl Alzner, of all people, tied for third on the team in shots on goal with 19 (he was 15th on the team in the regular season with 39). Those are shots from the deep perimeter that have a very low chance of going in. And a team with Karl Alzner pacing them in shots on goal isn’t going to win very many series — no offense to Karl. He isn’t paid to light the lamp.

The Capitals are, essentially, a perimeter team. Ovechkin prefers to carry the puck and rush at the goalie, or get fed for one-timers at the face-off dot. Green shoots from the point. He has a wicked shot, but it’s from outside the circles, nonetheless. During the regular season, when defensive players are less apt to “sell out” to block shots during a grueling 82-game schedule, they have success shooting from their outside spots, with talented finesse playmakers like Nick Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro setting them up.

But during the playoffs, the book is out on the Caps. If you clog up the box, put all five skaters inside the circles to jam up the shooting and passing lanes, the Caps will get frustrated. Oh, they have a modicum of success early in the series, winning games early in the series until the opposition realizes the deal and really buys into it. But as the games creep closer to elimination, it works without fail.

There’s not enough room to operate between the circles. That’s one of the big reasons players like Backstrom and Ribeiro are neutralized in the playoffs. That’s often why you see players like Brian Boyle score in the playoffs: they’re willing to go to the net. But the Caps lack enough of these types of players. Just look at the shot totals from the series from the forwards on this team not named Ovechkin. No forward had more than one goal. Jason Chimera was the next highest forward in shots with 15. That’s barely two shots per game. And he was the best of the forwards named Ovechkin.

Look at the goals from the games the Caps won in this series.

– Game 1: Ovechkin scored his only goal of the series on a put-back off the back wall. Marcus Johansson on a breakaway on a great spring pass and defensive breakdown. Jason Chimera though a screen.

– Game 2: Mike Green on the power play in overtime from inside the top of the faceoff circle.

– Game 5: Ribeiro, at the top of the crease.

Only Johansson’s can be called a “pretty’ goal, and that was caused by a spectacular breakdown by the Rangers defense.

Philadelphia. Montreal. Pittsburgh. New York. These are all series where the Caps had home-ice advantage and lost Game 7. They all used the same script against the Caps. It matters not when the book is so clearly out on these Capitals. Stuff the box and they have no other way to score. And the Capitals will be moving into a division with three of the four next season, along with New Jersey and the up-and-coming Islanders. Their path to hockey’s holy grail just got infinitely more difficult.

I’m not advocating the Caps go back to playing Dale Hunter hockey. Far from it. These teams that play hyper-defensively do it because they don’t have the offensive capabilities of the Capitals. You don’t win a Stanley Cup playing that way, you’ll eventually run out of energy or bodies. You need to have a balanced approach, be able to make adjustments when presented with challenges and be willing to sacrifice both in the defensive and offensive zones. The Caps, simply, don’t have enough of those players yet.

The other part I want to mention is the whole “woe is us” mentality following these playoff ousters. Ovechkin’s comments about the officiating, the lack of calls in Game 6, and someone wanting to see a Game 7 were ridiculous and smelled of sour grapes.

“The refereeing… You understand it yourself. How can there be no penalties at all (on one team) during the playoffs?

“I am not saying there was a phone call from (the league), but someone just wanted Game 7. For the ratings. You know, the lockout, escrow, the League needs to make profit… I don’t know whether the refs were predisposed against us or the League. But to not give obvious penalties (against the Capitals), while for us any little thing was immediately penalized…”

For his part, Ovechkin also said that he, the other stars on the team, and the team in general simply didn’t play well enough, but offered no specifics in how or, more importantly, why.

GM George McPhee backed his superstar in his comments to the media Wednesday.

“I don’t think there’s a league conspiracy but it sure didn’t feel right. Alex wasn’t wrong,” McPhee said when asked directly about Ovechkin’s comments. “I talked to them during the series but at some point you stop. They’ll referee the way they want to referee.”

“I didn’t like the refereeing, but if you complain about it during the series and you’re accused of trying to gain an edge. If you complain about it after a series is over, then it’s whining and sour grapes.”

But Ovechkin’s not the only one wondering what happened. Here’s Eric Fehr, talking about both the points I’ve been trying to make.

“The Rangers must have blocked a hundred shots. It was crazy how well they kept us on the outside,” veteran Eric Fehr said. “They do a good job of it, and they are allowed to do a very good job . . . Holding and pushing, they are allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do in front of the net.”

Every year teams complain about the officiating. It’s an NHL tradition as think as growing playoff beards. At some point though, these Capitals have to stop feeling sorry for themselves and take matters into their own hands. The way they collapsed after the power play ran dry at the start of the second period of Game 7 was palpable and disheartening.

The biggest difference between the Caps and the Rangers was evident in the third period. After the fourth goal, the Caps were skating at half speed, trying to get off the ice as fast as they could, and the Rangers were still blocking shots with a four, then five, goal lead.

I think Adam Oates has a pretty good idea what constitutes good hockey. He’s lauded as one of the smartest guys to ever play in the league. It took a little while this season, but he was able to find the way to rejuvenate Ovechkin and get him to play his best hockey in years. And not just scoring, but all-around. He was a better playmaker this year. He brought his physical game back. He skated better. Will that be sustainable? Caps fans have to hope so, because the success of this franchise is directly tied to Ovechkin being the “Great Eight”, not the mediocre or league-average Eight.

I also think that Oates still doesn’t have the roster he wants or needs to be successful. After Ovechkin and Backstrom, there’s a serious drop-off in talent. There’s also a significant lack of power forwards on the team. Why did the Caps turn to 19-year old Tom Wilson in Game 5 of the series to make his NHL debut? His size and willingness to play in front of the net. There is a dearth of that on this team. The Caps hope and pray Wilson turns out to be their Brian Boyle or Milan Lucic, and could stand to add another player or two like him.

This column might sound like I’m down on the Caps. I’m not. The last 35 games of this season showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with in the NHL. They didn’t do it with smoke and mirrors, they did it by outplaying the teams on their schedule. But there are significant holes in the roster. Their level of competition will get higher next season. And they are fundamentally flawed when the ice gets shorter in the playoffs.

The Caps have a little under $6 million available under the cap for next season, and that’s before trimming some dead weight off the roster and evaluating their own free agents. We’ve said this for a while, but it’s a crucial off-season for GM George McPhee. Coming into this year, it looked like the Caps weren’t counting on having a season at all with the lockout. The turnaround showed promise after the near-fatal start, but there’s lots to do this summer.

The almost-free path to the playoffs that the Caps’ Southeast Division schedule afforded them is gone. That playoff revenue is critical to the Capitals organization, and it just became much more difficult to obtain.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the goaltending, which I’m not completely sold on. But that’s a post for another day.

Washington Nationals Hot Stove: LaRoche decision looms

Adam LaRoche hits one of his 33 homers in 2012 – Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals, 9/6/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Adam LaRoche had a career year for the Washington Nationals N.L. East title-winning team last season, this much is certain. He was an integral part of their offense, especially early in the season when then were missing so many key pieces. His 33 home runs were a career high, his 100 RBIs tied his career best. The .271/.343/.510 were all above career averages. He earned his first Gold Glove. He produced –when healthy — just as GM Mike Rizzo said he would.

The news Thursday that LaRoche declined his option for 2013 and elected free agency is no surprise. Neither is the fact that the two sides didn’t work out a long-term extension before that happened. LaRoche should test the free agent market. He should find out what the contract parameters for a 33-year old first baseman with his pedigree would earn on the open market, especially considering he should be the most sought-after free agent first basemen in a weak crop this off-season.

Then, he should re-sign with the Nats anyway.

LaRoche owes it to himself to gather all available offers out there. At this point, you’d have to imagine at least Boston and Baltimore (having allowed Mark Reynolds to depart) would be extremely interested in filling the holes they have at first base with LaRoche’s production and steady glove. LaRoche might not be a sexy free agent — MLB Trade Rumors has him at No. 15 of their “Top 50 Free Agents of 2013“. But he will be sought after and garner a contract of at least three years — and maybe north of $36M when all is said and done.

Why then should he re-sign with the Nats anyway? First, I think the Nationals are willing to give him a three-year deal. They don’t really have any long-term prospects pushing for playing time at first base. Sure, Tyler Moore provided some pop off the bench last season. But Moore profiles more as a fourth outfielder/fill-in 1B. Davey Johnson did a masterful job getting Moore quality at bats where he could while Michael Morse was out, but the Nats would prefer a big left-handed bat in the middle of the order and slick glove at first base. After Moore, failed first round draft pick Chris Marrero is still in the organization, but he’ll be 24 next year after another lost season in the minors.

Second, I think the Nats are willing to dish out the money it will take to bring him back. The Nationals already have roughly $87 million committed to their 2013 payroll, according to the calculator work Adam Kilgore did Wednesday. His conclusion:

Some way or another, the Nationals seem likely to push past a $100 million payroll this winter for the first time.

If the market dictates a three-year, $36M contract, I think the Nats would be willing to accept that. In fact, I think the Nats have enough financial flexibility to absorb two $13M contracts (give or take) this off-season. They will get a bump attendance-wise next season, and at some point will reap the benefits of a new MASN contract. Also, I expect the team to shed some payroll burdens, like John Lannan’s $5M, and perhaps even Michael Morse or Tyler Clippard — who will be due a huge raise through arbitration.

Third, the Nats are comfortable with LaRoche in the middle of the order and in the field and feel like he will remain productive throughout a three-year deal, though he will be 33 when he signs the deal. They’ve shown with Jayson Werth — for the right athlete — they’re willing to lock players up until their mid-30s. LaRoche has been a dependable player throughout his career, despite losing much of 2011 to a shoulder injury that required surgery.

Finally, the player and his family are comfortable in D.C. Why fix something that isn’t broken over what might amount to not much difference in money, if anything? The Nats and LaRoche’s representation have already been working on the parameters of a deal leading up to his free agency filing, so once all the cards are on the table it should be a relatively easy negotiation. Either it’s yes or no.

The Nats are expected to be players for center fielder Michael Bourn as well. Bourn would give the Nats more speed and adequate OBP at the top of the order to allow Bryce Harper to slide down the order a bit into a more natural run-producing slot. It’s enticing to think about a batting order featuring Jayson Werth and Bourn in the first two slots (either way), with some combination of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond filling out the middle of the order.

Notice a name missing out of that scenario? If the Nats re-sign LaRoche and land Bourn, it spells the end of Michael Morse in a Nats uniform. There’s just no place to put him. Frankly, that’s fine. Morse is a productive bat when healthy, but his problem last season, much like most of his career, is that he just can’t stay healthy. When he was on the field in 2012, all of his numbers dipped from his career year the previous season. His extra base hit percentage fell from 11.7 percent to just barely above MLB average (7.8 % including all positions) at 8.4 percent. His K/BB rate was an astronomical 6.06, due to his K% ticking higher and BB% plummeting 3.7 percent — well below MLB average of 8.4 percent.

On top of all that, his fielding in left field is Adam Dunn-esque – a heavy liability that was really exposed in the playoffs. He’s just not an MLB caliber outfielder. He played passable defense at first base in 2011 when LaRoche was injured. If the Nats don’t sign LaRoche, Morse could go back there and hope he stays healthy and his numbers rebound in what will be a walk year for him. But if the Nats re-sign LaRoche, look for them to move Morse and a relatively friendly contract to one of the A.L. teams looking for a first baseman — or designated hitter.

Bottom line: coming off the best season in franchise history and their first playoff appearance since the relocation, it makes sense for all parties to maintain the status quo and bring Adam LaRoche back on a three-year deal. If someone on the free agent market blows that away, LaRoche would be nuts to turn it down. But if it comes down to haggling over percentages of upwards of $36 million dollars, the Nats ought to win that bid.

Washington Capitals sign RW Joey Crabb; McPhee patient in down market

The Washington Capitals finally entered the free agent pool late Monday night, picking up depth right wing Joey Crabb, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Crabb signed a one-year deal, reportedly for $950,000. Crabb, 29, recorded career highs in goals (11), assists (15), points (26) and games played (67) last season with the Maple Leafs. [Read more...]

Washington Redskins jump hard into free agency

The Washington Redskins are often called “Off-Season Champions” for the way they’ve thrown money around chasing overpriced, past-their-prime free agents. Every Redskins fan can recite the name.

Bruce Smith.

Jeff George.

Adam Archuleta.

Deion Sanders. [Read more...]

Wizards Mid-Season Manifesto, Part Two: Into the Offseason

This is the second installment of a two-part column chronicling staff writer Nathan Hamme’s obsession with building a better Washington Wizards team.

Draft post players and shooters.

You can’t stress enough how important this draft is to the Wizards future. They’ve been in the top half of the lottery three consecutive seasons, and returning there for a fourth seems likely. Fans won’t accept if it happens a fifth time, and I’d feel more comfortable with an evaluator like Pritchard at the helm this year.

At the top of the draft there are several players who could help the team to varying degrees next season. The Wizards will certainly hope lightning strikes twice and they end up with the number one pick and Anthony Davis.  A freshman power forward with incredible shot blocking ability (NCAA best 4.8 per game) as well as a great motor and basketball IQ, who’s been called the most polished defensive big man to come out of college since Tim Duncan. He’s the kind of low risk, low-post, high upside, high character guys that would be a perfect addition to the Wizards.

PF/C Andre Drummond may ultimately have the highest upside, but at only 18 and not yet dominating on a struggling UConn team he comes with some risk. His size (6’10”, 270) and post presence are something the Wizards could really use, and he would be an outstanding consolation prize if he decides to declare—and his interestingly timed leap to college this summer suggests he will. Unfortunately this is not the no-brainer pick it seemed before the season, as Drummond has some developing to do.

The next tier consists of more known commodities: Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Thomas Robinson and Jeremy Lamb. Robinson is a DC native whose maturity, rebounding and post play make him a personal favorite. Sullinger has drawn comparisons as varied as Kevin Love and Michael Sweetney, but he’d be another quality rebounder and big body for a rather milquetoast Wizards front court. Barnes and Lamb are both very talented scorers whose viability depends largely on what the team decides to do with Nick Young. They would both be quality outside shooters that could help take some pressure off of John Wall, with Barnes probably the pick should they decide to go for perimeter scoring.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had been rising up boards but is apparently not going to declare for this year’s draft. Bradley Beal is another name to watch for the Wizards depending on how many of these underclassmen decide to stay in school.

I expect the Wizards will try to acquire another pick before this year’s deep draft, but moving up might be just as prudent. In addition to their own second rounder they have Dallas’ (projected in the low 50’s) from the Ronny Turiaf salary dump. They also have two in next year’s draft, and given the number of projects and reserves on the roster it’s probably time to turn quantity into quality. Trading two or three of those second round picks might move them into the first round.

Players like Arnett Moultrie, John Henson, Fab Melo, Terrance Jones, Perry Jones and Doron Lamb may be available in the mid-late first round and have significant upside. If the Wizards choose to stay put, the early second round features players like Kevin Jones, Jeffery Taylor, Augusto Lima and Virginia’s Mike Scott. Jae Crowder is a sleeper pick who may not even be taken on draft day, but his basketball IQ, toughness, defensive motor and three point shooting are things the Wizards covet—could he be Marquette’s next Wes Matthews.

Use the Qualifying Offer but make an overture.

Questions still surround what to do with JaVale McGee after the season when he likely becomes a Restricted Free Agent. Centers are at a premium in today’s NBA—even mercurial and inconsistent ones.

Which is why nobody should be surprised if McGee ends up with a $10 million a year deal at the end of the summer. But heck, nobody would have been surprised if Nick Young was offered a $7 million a year last fall. Is it also possible that this season will end and teams will be wary of McGee’s unpredictable play, just as they were with Young in the shadow of the CBA negotiations?

McGee has not shown that he’s worthy of the deal DeAndre Jordan signed in December (4 years, $43 million), or Brendan Haywood was granted from the Wizards before him (6 years, $55 milllion). Yet it’s the kind of money he’s likely to expect, and if you look at stats alone he’s not the least bit crazy.

McGee averages more points, assists and blocks than Jordan in fewer minutes. He has an almost identical rebound rate, and astonishingly is a better free throw shooter (48.5% vs. 48.1%). McGee’s PER is significantly higher despite Jordan having one of the highest FG percentages in the league. But the main difference offensively is what’s expected of the two centers. Jordan takes five shots a game, McGee almost 10. McGee does not have the benefit of an offensively oriented power forward to take the burden of scoring down low, and gets the ball in the post multiple times a game—as opposed to solely on alley-oops.

Unfortunately his bone headed play count (turnovers + goaltending violations + missed box outs) largely invalidate McGee’s efforts as a shot blocker, and his advanced statistics show opposing centers score and rebound well against him. Jordan is a far more polished defender and rebounds well even with another elite rebounder in his front court. Since Jordan can concentrate on what he’s good at he is regarded as a solid contributor for a contending team.

Hopefully McGee’s reel of lowlights will be enough to dissuade teams from making an offer calibrated on statistics alone. The Wizards should give him his Qualifying Offer, let him spend a couple weeks on the open market, then make him make a decision on a 4 year, $36 million contract. After all, he’s 24 year old true center with very little history of injury—he might just need some seasoning and the right coaching staff to blossom. If he’s given a near-max offer by someone else, the Wizards can move on to Omer Asik and Roy Hibbert, both of whom will be on the radar for teams looking for a center and may demand a similar bounty. Regardless, the team has one true center and is a must have position for any team who wants to succeed.

Wait until the summer to shop Andray Blatche.

Bottom line: ‘Dray is a sunk cost this season. He’s not lived up to his deal, even if he’s put up some impressive stats over the years, and isn’t scheduled to come off the payroll until 2015. The Wizards will be lucky to get another equally unpalatable contract in exchange for him this season—with the team’s interest in Tyrus Thomas being a prime example.

But, as Wizards fans have learned over numerous false prognostications about Blatche’s corner-turning, he’s always seems most appealing in the spring and summer—either putting up empty stats or not around to put his foot in his mouth. If Charlotte agrees to sending Thomas or teammate Boris Diaw it will happen immediately. Unfortunately Blatche’s stock hasn’t been lower in years.

In the broader perspective, however, his deal is not really so unpalatable. He’s made only $2-3 million over the mid-level exception for the duration of the contract, and has a unique skill set that could be more impactful in a reserve role on a contender. A more veteran team may convince themselves to gamble on the big man’s potential, so waiting until the cream of the crop is off the market might be the best marketing they can hope for.

Because Blatche is seen as so toxic in the locker room the Wizards have openly shopped him and destroyed any semblance of leverage in the situation. If a deal can’t be struck that gives some type of return on investment the team would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach instead of pushing the panic button. With Trevor Booker playing increasingly well lately at both power forward and center, and numerous other talented youngsters waiting in the wings, it is still something that should be addressed before next season.

Be a player in free agency—even if you can’t sign your targets.

The players mentioned in the trade deadline section may also rightfully apply here. But with Eric Gordon and others likely entering the market in some capacity over the summer the Wizards will need to act the part of a desirable team.

This means opening the pocket book, even doing it a bit more than others, while being as risk averse as possible. Don’t give a lot of years to a guy with an extensive injury history, and don’t be afraid to give a guy the contract he wants with incentives that make it worth his while.

Gordon may fit into both categories. He’s missed almost a season and a half in his short career due to injury, but also stands to be the prize of the free agent market after the Dwight Howard/Deron Williams situation shakes out. While I love his grit and ability, he’s likely in line for a four year deal in the $50 million range—while entirely shifting the evaluation of the Chris Paul trade. But his injury history makes him a risky proposition, and one I don’t expect, or recommend, that the Wizards pursue.

With no other candidates for maximum contracts the Wizards should start looking at second-tier free agents from the outset. While Orlando is not likely to give him up without a fight, Ryan Anderson has proven himself a unique commodity worthy of a four year, $32 million deal. With all the Dwight Howard drama going on how much can they afford to dedicate to Anderson?

The Grizzlies may give O.J. Mayo his $7.3 million qualifying offer, but would they match if the Wizards went four years $34 million for the talented guard? Ultimately the Wizards positional targets will depend on who is selected in the draft, but the need to add known and talented commodities is paramount.

Then there are mid-level exception targets. Robin Lopez has a $4.0 qualifying offer, but might be attainable at the MLE. Brandon Rush is turning into a knock down three point shooter and has a mere $4.3 million QO. Ersan Ilyasova has been a revelation for Milwaukee, both on the boards and as a long range shooter, and will get a raise in free agency—although if he continues his stellar play it may be a big raise.

As near-minimum salary options, Ian Mahimi, Reggie Evans, Hamed Haddadi and Jamaal Magloire could all help the Wizards in different capacities. Let’s face it—not everyone on the team can be on a rookie salary scale, getting useful pieces with minimum-level contracts can be great value. And since upper-echelon veterans are unlikely to covet a stint in DC, the team must see what still productive veterans are still available.

Use Amnesty on Rashard Lewis and save $10+ million.

If Lewis is waived this off-season he is now officially due only $13.7 million of his $22.7 million deal. Using Amnesty should allow the Wizards to take advantage of that opt out while giving themselves about over $30 million in cap space—a pertinent move dependent on whether they’re able to use much of it. And while Rashard’s contract expires after next season and could be seen as a valuable trade asset it requires that the Wizards not cut the veteran and reap those $10 million in savings–something that only makes sense if they’re unable to lure any free agents in the off-season, though that is entirely possible.

The alternative path would involve using Amnesty on Blatche, who has a combined $23 million due over the next three seasons. If they also choose to waive Lewis this option still leaves the Wiz nearly $30 million in  cap room. That’s plenty of money to build around John Wall, Trevor Booker, and whoever remains after an active trade deadline and off-season.

While I don’t advocate locking up three high priced free agents at once, there is no question the Wizards need to spend some of their money to start fielding a merely competitive team. With a little draft lottery luck they can start seeing drastic improvement by the end of next season.

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