Last season, the eighth place team in the Eastern Conference had 92 points, roughly 1.12 points per game. In this lockout-shortened season, that works out to about 54 points. After Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss at home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Washington Capitals record stands at 2-7-1 (five points), a 24-point pace for the season.
In order to garner those 54 points to have a chance to qualify for the playoffs, the Caps need an additional 51 points, equivalent to a 22-9-7 record for the remaining 38 games of the season. For reference, that’s a 110-point pace over the course of a regular 82-game schedule.
So now that we’ve identified how difficult it will be for the Caps to qualify for the playoffs after the horrendous start they’ve played to so far, the more appropriate question at this point may be where, exactly, do the Caps go from here?
All over social media last night, fans were calling for the organization to “blow up” the team and start all over. Even national hockey media were speculating as to what Caps GM George McPhee might be able to obtain for free agents Mike Ribeiro, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson and others. It’s a fairly common, but knee-jerk, reaction to a disappointing start from a team that expected to compete.
Sure, McPhee could try to trade everything that isn’t nailed down. But that really isn’t the Caps problem. The problem really lies in what IS tied down.
The Caps have eight players signed to long-term deals (through at least 2014-15): Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jay Beagle, Mike Green and John Carlson. This is the “core” of the Washington Capitals. These are the players that the Caps should be demanding the best of in their respective jobs on the team. When these players struggle, it affects the Capitals in the harshest way possible.
When folks want to “blow up” the team, these are the players that have to be evaluated to be traded since they are the “core” of the team. And I’m of the opinion that most of them are, for all intent and purposes, untradeable. Besides, they’d have to be playing well to attract any trade partners, and right now none of the players listed are playing at a level that would justify what the Caps would want in a return. In order to trade any of these players/contracts, the Caps would have to take pennies on the dollar, or similarly bloated contracts of underperforming players.
Let’s get it out of the way: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich and Green cannot be traded. Their salaries, both in terms of money and length of contract, are so untenable that practically no NHL GM would touch them. I say “practically” because one should ever underestimate the depth of ridiculousness of a handful of GMs out there. Those that are calling for the Caps to trade Ovi or Backstrom are really just banging an empty gong, making noise to hear themselves talk.
The others? Well, their salaries don’t necessarily make them untradeable, but combined with performance it’s probably out of the question. The Caps really made a couple of talent evaluation mistakes in this group, in my opinion.
They thought Brouwer was going to be the second coming of Mike Knuble, a gritty, hard-nosed player that would camp in the slot and bang home 20-25 greasy goals a season on the flank of Ovechkin and Backstrom. What they got was a 15-18 goal scorer who has a knack of finding the soft spot in the defense but has trouble finishing, who has now bounced between linemates so much you never know who he’s lining up with from game to game.
They thought they were buying the Joel Ward that led Nashville to a remarkable playoff run, but in the end they got… Joel Ward. That’s a pretty good player, a solid third line grinder, just not at the terms they signed him to. And Carlson? Well, for a while he looked like he might end up being one of the best players on the team, a good puck mover who was defensively responsible, the Yin to Alzner’s Yang. His performance this season has to be most troubling to the Caps, right up there next to Ovechkin.
The Olympics are being held in Ovechkin’s home country in February 2014, just one year away. He has vowed to play for Russia regardless of whether the NHL allows players to leave or not and Caps owner Ted Leonsis has vowed to support Ovechkin’s decision. This is what drives Ovechkin, playing for his homeland. The Caps can only hope that as the Olympics approach, Ovechkin elevates his game appropriately and he returns an invigorated player.
The other reason that makes it difficult to “blow up” the Caps is that their two best prospects — and two of the better prospects in the game — Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg, won’t play in America until after the Olympics either. Take heart, Caps fans, that’s just over a year away. Both of these players should walk onto the Caps roster following the Games, or at least by the start of the ’14-’15 season.
So what do the Caps do this season? Do they trade Ribeiro at the deadline? Or do they sign him to a long-term deal, looking a year in the future when Kuznetsov and Forsberg could be filling up his wings? Do they make smaller moves with RFAs like the disappointing Marcus Johansson or one of the goalies, both of whom will be RFAs at year end?
One place I don’t see the Caps making a move, though, is at General Manager. McPhee has been here for a long time, and Mr. Leonsis is very loyal, maybe to a fault. I have a hard time seeing Leonsis make major changes to the braintrust of the Capitals, especially when he’s as aware as anyone that his highest paid players have to be the team’s best players on the ice, and that’s nobody’s fault but the players themselves.
You can change the supporting pieces as much as you want, but this team is only going to be as good for the next couple of years as their best players, their “core” players. If by the time Kuznetsov and Forsberg come over the 8-19-20-21-52-74 combination still isn’t working, then you take pennies on the dollar and start over around the younger talent. Until then, it’s on those players to prove those with the knee-jerk reactions wrong — for better or worse.