October 25, 2014

Washington Capitals End-of-Season Roundtable, Part VII: Free formin’

Just like the Stanley Cup Playoffs, our end-of-season roundtable has seven parts. For our final installment, I asked our panelists to free form on any topic of their choosing on any facet of the team (owner, front office, coach, team, individual player, affiliate, media).

Once again, our panelists are Dave Nichols (DSP Editor-in-Chief), Abram Fox (DSP Caps Page Editor), Erika Schnure (Ravings of a Rink Rebel and DSP’s Caps minor league contributor), Andrew Tomlinson (DSP Caps contributor) and respected Caps media Ted Starkey (author of Transition Game and Red Rising), Peter Hassett (Russian Machine Never Breaks) and Adam Vingan (NBCWashington.com and Kings of Leonsis).

Click here to see Part I, “Disappointed or encouraged“, here to see Part II, “How did Hunter do?”, here to see Part III, “Overachiever or underachiever?”, here to see Part IV, “Captain, My Captain“, and here to see Part V, “Free agent frenzy,” and here to see Part VI, “Where to go from here?”

So panelists, have at it…

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Dave: Hockey is hard. Only one team wins each year. Never in their history have the Capitals found the combination to put themselves over the top and the past season was no different, ending in bitter disappointment yet again. It’s now up to George McPhee and the rest of the hockey operations staff to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how to go about fixing it.

Ever since The Purge, the Caps have steadfastly stuck to the “improve from within” mantra that has seen them draft, develop and then depend on talent from within their system, supplementing that talent — generally — with role players via free agency or trade. For the past several seasons, it’s been clear that there are holes in the roster they’ve put together. With the core players in, or rapidly approaching, their peak athletic years, it’s time once and for all to go all in. The free agent class is thin this season, especially at center, but McPhee needs to put heavy attention to rebuilding the second line. They will be paring quite a bit of salary with Semin and Wideman’s departures, freeing up cash to chase potential assistance on the market.

But a lot of that planning relies on knowing what Alex Ovechkin they’ll have next season. Is he healthy? Is he dedicated? Is he focused? His competitive spirit can’t be questioned, but the way he channels that spirit at times probably can be. McPhee can’t make any decisions until he knows what he’s going to get from Ovechkin going forward. “Winning” isn’t inherent. It’s a learned thing. The great ones learn what it takes to be a champion. Some never do. Ovechkin, as great a player as he is, is still figuring it out.

This team has consistently made the playoffs for the last several seasons, though this season that prospect was dicey for a while. McPhee has engineered a winning hockey developmental program from top to bottom, but he has some very important decisions to make in the next couple of months in the effort to finally push this franchise over the top.

Abram: For years, the Capitals have boasted one of the deepest prospect system of any NHL team, with three AHL championships and one ECHL championship since the 05-06 season. That system is starting to get tapped out, in part because the organization’s minor league success has led to the team relying on home-developed players rather than free agents: 11 of the Caps’ regulars in 2011-12 had previously won Calder Cups as a member of the Hershey Bears.

While the focus may be on retooling Washington’s roster for Stanley Cup contention, the team’s eight selections in next month’s Entry Draft, especially the 11th and 16th overall picks, will be significant for determining how the team’s roster looks several years down the road. Here’s hoping their draft looks more like 2006 (Backstrom and Semyon Varlamov at #4 and #23, respectively) and not 2005 (Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley at #14 and #27). That is, if GMGM doesn’t deal either or both of those picks and really sells out the future for present success.

Erika: The team is going to go through a lot of change this summer. Situations presented this offseason, by their very virtue, are going to have to violently shove the team in a new direction, and I only hope the players can keep up. It’s nearly impossible to tell Capitals fans to be patient with what may be a very trying season, but patience will be a good virtue for fans to have in 2012-2013. There’s a very good possibility that the coming season is going to be a rebuilding one.

We’ve been spoiled the last few years with amazing seasons, and now it seems we’re almost entitled to easy hockey seasons. But you have to go through some adversity, and learn from your mistakes before you can reach that ultimate prize.

Andrew: This is a critical offseason for General Manager George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis. Both players in the development of this Caps team have lived in a fantasy land for too long, thinking they are only a piece or two away from really making a run to the Cup. The truth is, there are a lot of problems on this team and most of them can’t be fixed by bringing in one player.

Instead of looking for quick fixes, it is time for Washington to look long-term and decide what they need to add in order to be a top team for the next 10-years. What that means is being honest about where this team is. They are not a top team in the Eastern Conference anymore and, while still a perennial player in the playoffs, is not as untouchable as they once were. If both men hope to achieve their ultimate goal, a Stanley Cup, it is time to sign smarter contracts, cut players who are nothing but dead weight and start to bring in the kind of talent that can be a productive member of this organization for the long haul, not just the short-term.

Ted: This will be a very interesting offseason, not only of the Caps, but for the league with the collective bargaining agreement expiring in September. Washington will have an opportunity to revamp its roster with some big-ticket departures, as Semin, Knuble, Wideman and Vokoun likely won’t return. The key for Washington is to use the money they gain wisely, as spending as they have the last few seasons by overpaying depth players is going to be an opportunity lost.

Peter: I don’t know what the “character” of the Caps will be next season, but I earnestly hope it will contain some amount of fun. The last six years saw the Capitals explode in popularity– not just because of Ovechkin or the red jerseys– but because they were playing a FUN brand of hockey. I believe any style of hockey that can dominate in the regular season can also win in the postseason, and I believe that shifting to the buttoned-up defensive styles we see on other teams is both cynical and counterproductive. This team has some once-in-a-generation scorers on it. We gotta let them do their thing.
Adam: Is it October yet?

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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.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. Ted, I would not lump Knuble or Vokoun in as “big-ticket departures” if that is a reference to players with significant contract salaries that are likely departing. Vokoun was only making $1.5 million (and only $2 million next year with the Pens) and I think Knuble was in the same ballpark. There is a little savings replacing Vokoun with Holtby but not a lot. Similarly, Knuble’s less than $2 million salary is probably actually below the average for a player who would be expected to chip in about 20 goals – essentially what they were expecting Knuble to do last season before it began. Big savings would have occurred if the Caps could have replaced Semin at $6.7 million with Kuz at presumably a $1 million or so, but that is a pipe dream now. They could probably get Semin’s production out of a player making $3 to 4 million, but they will have to give up players, prospects or picks for that type of player given the limited free agent pool. And I think Semin’s defensive game was under-appreciated and he was under-utilized on both the PP and PK, so in my view his potential value on a salary scale than what his PPG was last season.

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