December 19, 2014

NHL Trade Deadline brings more questions for Caps than answers

The Washington Capitals were busy at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline. Out went Michal Neuvirth and Martin Erat; in comes Jaroslav Halak and Dustin Penner. General Manager George McPhee made a couple of moves that might help this team sneak into the playoffs this season, though back-to-back losses this week to the team immediately ahead of them in the standings, the Philadelphia Flyers, makes that task that much more daunting.

But that’s immaterial. The real benefit of these moves will come in the offseason, when the money comes off the books.

Halak and Penner are both dependable NHL veterans and will contribute on the ice. Had they been here since Day 1 this season, things might look a little different for the Caps. But neither player lines up at the Caps biggest weakness, on defense. It’s there that the Capitals hope that the return of undersized puck-moving defenseman Jack Hillen will give the team the boost it needs on the blueline.

But Wednesday’s loss to the Flyers, with Hillen in the lineup, provided no evidence that will be the case.

Hillen was primarily responsible for the Caps’ first goal against, when Sean Couturier outmuscled Hillen to a puck near the Caps blueline, then fed a streaking Claude Giroux who beat Braden Holtby cleanly with a backhand after deking the Caps’ netminder.

This isn’t a critique of Hillen in his first game back. But expecting Hillen to be a difference-maker on the defensive squad is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. The team probably needs to add two NHL-caliber defensemen to the roster; a legitimate shutdown defender, the type teams have to game-plan around and another rugged defenseman that can skate. It’s easier said than done.

McPhee said Wednesday after the trade deadline that those types of players just weren’t available. A look at the defensemen that did get moved (Rafael Diaz, Andrej Meszaros, Nick Schultz) is evidence of that. Useful players, but not the types teams sacrifice assets to bring in. McPhee said the players already on the payroll were as good as what got moved today and while any of the three previously mentioned players would knock a Caps player or two back to Hershey, it’s certainly easy to see that true quality defensemen didn’t get moved at the deadline.

This isn’t to defend McPhee. The team he put together this season was woefully inadequate on the back end and it’s proven to bite his team night in and night out. And he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — find a dance partner at the deadline to address that issue.

But in the long run, the moves he made today will help the Caps out — not necessarily in making the playoffs, because I think that damage has already been done. Bringing in two players who are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season opens quite a bit of money for the Caps to have available to go fishing during the offseason, either via free agency or taking on other teams’ overpriced veteran players. Considering the salary cap is expected to go up next season, the Caps could be sitting pretty.

That’s the real benefit from the deals the Caps made this week. Removing Erat and Neuvirth’s salaries from the books for next season opens up a world of possibilities. If they use their second compliance buyout on Brooks Laich, there would be even more money to go around.

Could they re-sign Mikhail Grabovski, Penner and still go out and pick up two NHL defensemen? That would be expensive, but with the money the Caps could have available, anything would be possible.

This week’s moves amount to a well-hidden fire sale. McPhee brought in two veterans that might help the Caps sneak into the playoffs, but they are both on expiring contracts — and he moved a significant amount of money off the books. The real benefit will be in the offseason. This week’s moves were not the type that a man fearing for his job security makes.

Washington Nationals trade for Denard Span

NATIONALS SURRENDER 2011 FIRST ROUND PICK ALEX MEYER IN DEAL

The Washington Nationals Thursday acquired the “dynamic” center fielder GM Mike Rizzo has coveted really since he was appointed GM of the team.

In a trade with the Minnesota Twins, the Nats receive Denard Span, 29 in February, a left-handed hitting centerfielder with terrific defensive instincts. The Nats sent Alex Meyer, the No. 23 overall pick in the 2001 MLB Amateur Draft.

Span is a career .284/.357/.389 hitter over five seasons (589 games) with the Twins. He actually has better numbers against left-handed pitchers than righties, hitting .293/.374/.398 in 344 games. For his career, he’s stolen bases at a 76.2 percent clip (90-for-118).

Span missed 92 games in 2011 with concussion symptoms, but returned healthy in 2012 to play 128 games, hitting .283/.342/.395 in 568 at bats. Span is under contract through 2014 on a five-year, $16.5 MM contract he signed with the Twins, with a team option for 2015.

In a conference call with reporters, Rizzo extolled the virtues of Span’s defensive capabilities.

With Span in center field, Bryce Harper will move to a corner outfield slot with Jayson Werth in the other position. That leaves the Nats in a quandary with what to do with Michael Morse. The slugger is under contract for another season, but it seems the only position he would qualify for now is at first base, where Adam LaRoche excelled last season for the club. LaRoche is a free agent this off-season, and while the Nats have had discussions with LaRoche, the player and his representatives are exploring their options.

What is crystal clear is that the team cannot keep both Morse and LaRoche on the roster.

Meyer, 22, was one of the Nationals’ top pitching prospects. The 6-foot-9 right-hander went 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA in 2012 with low-Class A Hagerstown and high-Class A Potomac. Many industry scouts think Meyer’s lack of a MLB-quality third pitch, plus the added burdens of his size and repeatability issues, have Meyer destined for a big league career in the bullpen, but there’s no doubt he has an MLB-quality arm.

Alex Meyer - Winston-Salem Dash v. Potomac Nationals, 8/12/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Alex Meyer – Winston-Salem Dash v. Potomac Nationals, 8/12/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Caps Pick Up Ribeiro, Say Goodbye to Eakin in Draft Day Deal

For the second year in a row, the Washington Capitals addressed a major roster need at forward in a draft night deal, picking up center Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars in exchange for forward Cody Eakin and the 54th overall pick in this year’s Entry Draft.

In Ribeiro, General Manager George McPhee hopes to have finally found an answer to Washington’s absence of a second-line center. The 32-year-old Montreal native, with 10 NHL seasons under his belt, has recorded at least 51 points in his past eight campaigns, including a career high 27 goals and 56 assists for the Dallas Stars in 2007-08. Last season, Ribeiro recorded 18 goals and 45 assists in 74 games, ranking 17th overall in the NHL in points and 11th in assists among centers. His 63 points would have put him second in the Capitals last year, behind only Alex Ovechkin. [Read more…]

Aucoin up, Eakin down first of many moves for Caps?

Keith Aucoin mixing it up in a January game for Hershey. (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

The Washington Capitals made a flurry of moves Thursday for what may be just the start of a very busy couple of weeks for GM George McPhee as the NHL trade deadline approaches.

The move with the most obvious impact was sending forward Cody Eakin down to AHL Hershey and recalling forward Keith Aucoin.  Aucoin, 33, leads the AHL in points (70) and assists (59) with 11 goals in 43 games with Hershey this season.  Aucoin in only 30 assists shy of matching the AHL record for assists in one season.  He’s a seasoned AHL playmaker and right now, the Caps can use all the veteran help they can get.

Eakin, 20, has four goals and four assists in 29 games with the Capitals this season.  A widely heralded prospect, Eakin just hasn’t been able to get on a run with the Caps, and recently has been helming the fourth line, getting around six minutes a game under Coach Dale Hunter.  At this point in his development, it’s better for him to be playing every day at Hershey getting plenty of playing time.

The switch starts to address one of the major needs for the Capitals, though it still perpetuates another.  The Caps are getting very shaky contributions from their centers and Aucoin brings a more seasoned game than Eakin right now.  Unfortunately, it’s not just on the offensive end the Caps need help with regard to their center position.  On defense, the center has to act as a third defenseman, and Aucoin is small in stature (listed at 5’11, 170) as are fellow centers Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault.

It’s not a perfect fit, but the Caps need to try everything at their roster disposal until they decide to get into the market for a second line center.

The Capitals also made a pair of minor league trades Thursday.  In one, they sent RW Matt Ford to Philadelphia in exchange for 22-year old defenseman Kevin Marshall.  Marshall recorded five points (two goals, three assists) for AHL Adirondack this season and appeared in 10 NHL games for the Flyers, collecting eight penalty minutes.  He was a second round pick (41st overall) in the 2007 entry draft for Philly.

In the other deal, the Caps acquired center Mike Carman from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Danny Richmond.  Carman, 23, scored six points (three goals, three assists) for the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL.  Carman was a third round pick (81st overall) of Colorado in the 2006 entry draft.

Both players will report to AHL Hershey.  Marshall gives the Caps a little more blue-line depth in the organization.

Matt Ford and Danny Richmond, shown here in a January game in Hershey. (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

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Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.

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