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.