Friday, January 12, 2007

The Tough Decisions Are Arriving . . . Sooner Than We Expected?

In his fine roundup to last night’s game at Japer’s Rink, JP makes an important point:

“ . . . the difference between [the Caps and the Lightning] - $14 million. Without question, the $14m difference in payroll between the squads was the difference tonight. A defenseman (or two), a second-line center or winger - it wouldn't have taken much for this to have been a Caps win rather than a loss. Now that's two straight one-goal losses to Tampa. Three one-goal losses to Atlanta. Eleven one-goal losses on the year. These points get harder and harder to give up knowing that the Caps are simultaneously so close and yet so far away.”

Juxtapose this with what Tarik El-Bashir posted on December 28th in his “Capital Insider” blog in the aftermath of losses to Buffalo and Montreal:

“The Capitals will tell you that they didn't come ready to play against Buffalo. That a couple of defensive zone breakdowns led to Montreal's first two goals.

“And they are right.

“But take a step back and look at the bigger picture. What I saw was two $43 million dollar teams show the Capitals exactly how much an extra $13 million in salaries buys these days.”

In between, there was this from The Man, himself, in his January 9th “Owner’s Corner” column . . .

“Mention of the playoffs leads people to ask if we’re going to “make a move” – as if it were as simple as crossing something off a shopping list. That’s not to dismiss the importance of improving your team when you have the opportunity, and we will do that – if it’s the right opportunity. I know you’ve heard me say this before, but we won’t do it just for the sake of ‘making a move,’ or if it will unduly cost the franchise down the road.

“Could we make a trade? Of course. One of the reasons we stockpiled draft picks and focused on our farm system was to create value. And we’ve been strategic in our approach to the salary cap so that we are not handicapped in that regard, as some other teams are. Simply having room under the cap, however, is not reason to spend it.

“It was written recently, after we lost back-to-back games, that ‘You Get What You Pay For.’ In the NHL nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t want to pick on individual teams, but a quick glance at the standings will prove the fallacy of that headline. Some of the highest payroll teams occupy the bottom of the standings. Trust me, if anyone knows that you don’t always get what you pay for in this business, it’s me.

“There are strategic reasons why we need to manage our payroll now too. In 2003-04 I promised you that we would build a team that you could watch grow. But we aren’t going to be hockey’s Montreal Expos, developing stars to make their marks with other teams. To keep the Ovechkins, Semins, Backstroms and Greens into the prime of their careers, we will need to have flexibility under the salary cap. It’s an important fact of life in the ‘new NHL,’ especially with players eligible for free agency at younger ages.”

The discussion suggests that the Caps are arriving at a critical juncture in their rebuild. Given the dire predictions at the start of the year, one would have to conclude that the Caps are ahead of schedule in their return to competitiveness. You would not have thought when the season started that the Caps would be buyers in any trading market this year.

But now? That’s a hard question to answer. The arguments . . .

As JP points out, the Caps have 11 one-goal losses this year, five of them to Atlanta and Tampa Bay, combined. If the Caps managed to steal an additional point in five of those contests – less than half – they’d be seventh in the conference with 50 points. If they’d managed to steal two of those points from their conference foes (say, one each from Atlanta and Carolina, and denying them a point in the process), the Caps would be just a point behind Carolina and within striking distance of Atlanta (six points down with a game in hand). Could a mid-range salaried center have contributed to such a result? A similarly compensated defenseman? We’re not talking Daniel Briere money or Zdeno Chara money . . . a mid-salary range center, particularly, would likely be an improvement over the revolving door on the second line. The problem, as always, is what do you give up?

There is, though, the longer view as expressed by Ted Leonsis. And this gets into the strategic management of the cap. Right now, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green (three of the players specifically identified by Leonsis and currently under contract) account for a combined cap hit of $5.967 million. Ovechkin alone would command more than that (and will, when eligible) as a free agent. One could argue that Semin could command, say, Simon Gagne money -- $5.25 million – as a free agent. Green, even if he develops into no more than a 3-4 defender, could command the same $3,000,000 a year Filip Kuba is pulling down with the Lightning. So, for these three players, we could be looking at an outlay of $17.05 million (in 2007 cap dollars) to keep them in the fold. The difference is $11.8 million of the $13 million Tarik El-Bashir spoke of in his commentary. And we’re not even up to Nicklas Backstrom yet.

I’m not advocating a quick-fix/trade during this season any more than I’m advocating keeping the powder dry to see how the kids develop or to test the free agent market next summer. This is why George McPhee has a harder job than fans normally give general managers credit for. What I am saying is that a decision point that was inevitable is arriving sooner than many might have thought – a product of the Caps being ahead of schedule in their development. Does the club start using some of those picks/prospects stockpiled in the sell off as trading assets?

Sports being what they are – difficult to predict in terms of future performance – there are no clear criteria on which to base a decision. That the Caps would have sacrificed points that could cost them a playoff spot this year could end up being equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking for fans. The associated effect of that could be sufficient frustration that some full/partial season ticket holders will not renew, thinking that the club is more serious about not losing money than about winning hockey games.

On the other hand, if the gamble on youth pays off next year or the year after, and a solid foundation is established to compete year after year – a core of players like those Leonsis mentioned with role players being swapped in and out as opportunities arise – then the gamble will likely payoff with more fans in the stands, more money to invest in players, scouting, and infrastructure, and a winning team.

But it is a gamble, and not an insignificant one. It could be no less than a gamble on hockey as we know it in Washington. The Caps invested in high-priced free agents in an effort to establish a “brand” and saw that strategy explode in their faces as losses -- on the ice and on the balance sheet -- and disgruntlement piled up. Then, the Caps tore out the walls right down to the studs to go with a youth movement. If that doesn’t work, what’s Plan C?

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Lightning

No points tonight, Caps fans . . .

And that, dear reader, qualifies as a wasted opportunity. The Caps did precisely what they needed to do against the Tampa Bay Lightning last night…

They needed to keep the Lightning out of man advantage situations, where they scored more than a third of their goals in the previous ten games. They did (Tampa was held scoreless in two opportunities).

They needed to take advantage of the few opportunities they were likely to be presented, given that Tampa had been shorthanded only 33 times in the previous ten games and faced shorthanded situations less often than any team in the league except New Jersey. They did (1-for-2 in their own power play opportunities).

They needed to keep this an even strength game and muster a measure of aggression in the offensive zone to try to keep the “three amigos” – Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards -- off their backs. Well, that’s where the wheels sort of came off . . .

. . . and that was a product of goaltending. It wasn’t one for the scrapbook of one Olaf Kolzig, who permitted five goals on 25 shots. More’s the pity, because he wasn’t necessarily the lesser of the goaltenders playing on this evening (Johan Holmqvist let four pucks elude him on the 22 shots he faced). But he really didn’t give his teammates the chance to win he does on most nights.

The silver lining here is that this was an abnormal night for the veteran netminder. If the Caps play games like this in terms of the performance of their skaters – and this was not an abnormal performance for this year – they will win more than they lose. Alexander Semin had two goals as he quietly marches up the goal-scoring rankings (he is now tied for seventh after potting his 23rd and 24th last night, giving him seven in his last four games). Alexander Ovechkin closed to within four points of Sidney Crosby for the overall scoring lead after getting two assists. Lawrence Nycholat continued his surprising play; he now is 2-5-7, +5 in ten games.

But all that was at the offensive end. At the other end, Kolzig had his troubles, but Brian Pothier had a difficult night (-3), as did Shaone Morrisonn, those being a product of the Lecavalier and St. Louis being a combined 3-2-5, +4 for the night. And that is precisely what the Caps could not allow to happen if they were to win this game.

Washington is now 11th in the conference, but at this point –- with five points separating 7th place from 13th -- it is hardly worth the heartburn of worrying that yesterday they were in the playoff mix and today they’re not. A nice eight or ten game points-earned streak would be nice, but what is likely to happen for the foreseeable future is more of the same tightly bunched jockeying and scratching for every available point.

They could have used one last night.