Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Has he lost it?

This has not been a good three months for Certified Genius Lou Lamoriello. On April 2nd, he fired his coach in the midst of a playoff run and stepped behind the bench. Then, his team looked all too vulnerable against Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs before going quick and quiet against Ottawa in the second round. He didn't have a chance to make a pick in the 2007 draft until pick #57 came around (Mike Hoeffel for those scoring at home). As July started, he watched as Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, and Brad Luckowich left the warm embrace of Newark.

So, what did Lou do to strike back?

He signed Dainius Zubrus to a six year deal at $3.4 million per.

I'll repeat that . . . he signed Dainius Zubrus to a six year deal at $3.4 million per.

OK, that's half the cap hit of what Scott Gomez is costing the Rangers, but...geez, Lou.

The Peerless will stipulate that Lou forgot more about hockey over his morning coffee than I am ever going to know, but . . . geez, Lou.

This for a guy who in 79 games centering a supreme goal scorer and then manning a wing on the top offense in the National Hockey League managed to score a total of . . . 60 points. Who was 0-8-8, +1 in 15 playoff games.

$20.4 million over six years.

Geez, Lou.

The plot thickens . . .

“On Sunday, July 1, 2007, Kevin Lowe, Oilers general manager, and Mr. Mike Gillis, certified agent for Michael Nylander, negotiated and agreed to a multi-year NHL Standard Players Contract, starting in 2007-08. Mr. Gillis confirmed same to the Oilers in writing . . .

“ . . . However, while the Oilers were expecting the returned signed agreements from Mr. Nylander and Mr. Gillis, the Oilers discovered through public announcements made mid-afternoon on July 2, that Mr. Nylander had subsequently entered into a long-term contract with the Capitals."

Ah . . . a soap opera to entertain us through the summer.

Uh....where are we?

This is as good a place as any to take stock of where the Caps stand this summer. It’s a chance to step away from the pessimism that too many Caps fans often marinate themselves in and look at the stages that brought us here…

I. Trading Deadline:

Dainius Zubrus and Timo Helbling to Buffalo for Jiri Novotny and Buffalo’s 1st round pick (28th overall) in 2007.

This was a deal to get something – anything – for free-agent-to-be Zubrus. What the Capitals got was a chance to audition a center and an additional first round pick. Novotny did not make a significant impression in his audition (Novotny would not be extended a qualifying offer, the Caps electing to forsake their rights to Novotny as a restricted free agent). The pick – at the end of the first round in what was widely perceived to be a relatively weak draft – wouldn’t be retained, either, but more on that later.

Richard Zednik to the NY Islanders for a second round pick in 2007.

There isn’t a lot of “there” there in this trade. Zednik was acquired for a third, sent for a second, but in a weak draft. It’s a wash, value-wise.

Jamie Heward to Los Angeles for a conditional draft pick in 2008.

Given that the 2008 draft is thought stronger than the 2007 draft, this could be a sleeper pick, but it doesn’t inspire flights of imagination.

Grade: C+

II. Draft:

The 2007 entry draft did not offer much to distinguish itself after the top half dozen or so prospects (not that there wouldn’t be drama with respect to one of those prospects, although that drama would concern the Caps only in passing). By the time the draft would get to #28, there really wasn’t a lot of distinction between the 28th pick and the 58th pick (to pick a number out of thin air).

The Capitals got the man they wanted, if news reports could be believed, with the 5th overall pick – defenseman Karl Alzner, who might have been the surest bet to have a substantial NHL career of any pick in this draft. But the entertainment was provided by that 28th overall pick. The Caps held it until the last possible moment, trading it to San Jose for a second round pick in 2007 (41st overall) and a second round pick in 2008. Then, the Caps sent the No. 41 to Philadelphia for the 84th overall pick in 2007 and the Flyers' second-round pick in 2008. The Caps parlayed the 28th pick into the 84th pick in this year’s draft (used to select USHL Player of the Year Phil Desimone) and two selections in the second round in 2008, thought to be a much deeper draft.

In between the hijinks with the Buffalo pick, the Caps picked Josh Godfrey, the news reports for whom read as if he is the second coming of Al MacInnis with his cannon slap shot, and Ted Ruth (the return for the Zednik trade), a defenseman whose nickname might be “Sandpaper,” given his characterization as having “grit.”

Not that the hijinks were over…George McPhee moved the Caps’ fourth-round pick (#95 overall) for a sixth-rounder from Los Angeles (#154 overall) and a fourth-rounder in 2008.

In all, it was a busy weekend – the Caps went to Columbus with 10 picks in the 2007 draft, and they ended up making 10 picks. But they came out with two extra second round picks (three in all) and an additional fourth rounder in 2008 – ten picks in all in what is supposed to be a deeper draft.

Grade: A

III. Free Agency:

The Caps came into the unrestricted free agent signing period with considerable cap room, even relative to the mid-point of the salary range ($42.3 million). Even if one felt that the Caps would end up with a payroll somewhere south of that number, they had to spend money (just to get to the salary floor), so that they would do so on Day 1 was neither a surprise nor a symptom of a more free-spending attitude.

The signing of defenseman Tom Poti right out of the gate, then forward Viktor Kozlov addressed needs, although it appeared that lesser needs were being met – power play help from the blue line and a right wing of some offensive skill to mesh with Alexander Ovechkin and (until a real NHL center could be obtained) Nicklas Backstrom. By itself, that pair of signings would have constituted far less than what fans might have expected, especially since the big-three centers all signed with Eastern Conference teams (Chris Drury and Scott Gomez with the Rangers, Daniel Briere with Philadelphia).

It was left to Day 2 for the other shoe to drop, and with it some unresolved intrigue. As the day progressed the story emerging with respect to Center #4 – Michael Nylander – was that he had agreed to terms with the Edmonton Oilers, that all that was left was the announcement. Based on the effort from some enterprising members of the blogging community, the story was deemed to be false. Then, just before 5:00 pm, the announcement came, not that Nylander signed with the Oilers, but with the Caps – a front-loaded four year deal that would pay him a total of $19.5 million.

The story isn’t over, if this report in the Edmonton Sun can be believed.

Grade: B+

So let’s recap…relative to where the Caps were on June 21st, they have:

- added two 2nd round and a 4th round pick in the 2008 draft while still preserving 10 picks in the 2007 draft

- added a two-way defenseman – Karl Alzner -- via the draft with the 5th overall pick

- addressed specific needs on the parent club at a fraction of the cost of the “big-three” defensemen. This point cannot be overemphasized. Much as fans would like Ted Leonsis to open the purse strings, that is a risky road to walk in this NHL. Guaranteed, no-trade contracts of eight years (as in the case of Daniel Briere) carry too much potential for “dead money” at the end of the deals. And it’s hardly a sure thing that signing high-end/high-cost free agents contributes to a winner (certainly in the first year of a deal). The Caps added three players at a total cap hit of $10.875 million. At the moment, that is second or third among NHL teams (depending on the as-yet undisclosed terms of the Ladislav Nagy deal in Los Angeles) in the dollar value of salary cap additions. But the Caps did it with a balanced approach (center, defenseman, forward), whereas the Rangers – who added the most salary cap dollars -- did it with typical piggishness (two centers?...and who is playing defense for this team?).

- Preserved some measure of cap room (even if their “cap” is the salary range mid-point) and flexibility to make additional deals

There is much to be done. For example, the log jam at defense now includes (without respect to signing status, waivability, or other pesky details):

Shaone Morrisonn
Steve Eminger
Brian Pothier
Milan Jurcina
Tom Poti
Mike Green
Jeff Schultz
John Erskine
Josef Boumedienne
Karl Alzner
Viktor Dovgan
Joe Finley
Josh Godfrey
Patrick McNeill
Sasha Pokulok
Sami Lepisto
Keith Seabrook
Oscar Hedman
Ted Ruth
Jamie Hunt

What was once an almost embarrassing organizational weakness has the potential to be its strength. But, some of the excess needs to be addressed, and in the short term a stay-at-home defenseman remains a shortcoming.

This isn’t a fantasy league enterprise; this is a dynamic, ever-changing environment that requires both the long and the short view. In other words, it requires the astute application of the word “manage” as a verb. Strategically, in addressing immediate needs, in acquiring future assets (to play or trade), in working within a budget, the Caps deserve a lot of credit for their performance so far. We’ll qualify that (as a Caps fan is almost required by law to do) by saying that the actions taken now might never translate to success on the ice, but so far George McPhee and his staff have done what they’ve had to do and done it rather well.

Here is what signing Nylander means...

Obviously, Michael Nylander provides the Capitals with the first line center that was a requirement for this off season, but there is another benefit as well as it pertains to the strategy this club appears to be pursuing.

Look at the top two lines' experience...

Alexander Ovechkin -- 163 games
Michael Nylander -- 808 games
Viktor Kozlov -- 749 games
Alexander Semin -- 129 games

There is sufficient experience here so that the Capitals can work a youngster (Backstrom) or two (Fehr or Fleischmann) into the lineup to get experience in responsible situations, at least on an experimental basis. The team does not have to bury kids on a fourth line for maybe eight minutes a night, unless their play dictates they're not ready for more.

That is the kind of mix a club wants to employ if it is going to be "draft-centric" in building its core, which in this case is Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and perhaps whoever mans that other right wing.

If Nylander (or a player of similar skill) is not obtained, the carefully-crafted mixing of veterans and youngsters -- to give the kids the best opportunity to succeed without undue pressure -- can't be performed.

And that is why the timing of free agency is important. Until now, the Caps weren't "ripe" enough among their kids to merit investments in higher-dollar free agents. Well, Ovechkin and Semin are well past 100 games of NHL experience (not to mention their international experience); they have kids ready to make the leap to the big club. Now -- not last year, not the year before -- is the time to begin making those investments.

As disappointing as the start to the free agency period looked after Day 1, it looks a lot better now.