Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rentals -- the game of risk and reward

The Peerless doesn’t have much use for the concept of “rentals.” We’ve mentioned that in the past. The problem is risk and return. A team sends off players, prospects, and or high draft picks for a player who might play no more than 20-or-so games for his new team before cashing in on his big payday (elsewhere, it usually seems) as an unrestricted free agent.

But there are those occasions when “rentals” can be done right, where the risk is small. Such was the case with what George McPhee did on Tuesday in securing the services of Cristobal Huet, Sergei Fedorov, and Matt Cooke – all set to become unrestricted free agents absent signing contract extensions – for the remainder of the season.

Here is what McPhee gave up from what he started the season with…

Brian Sutherby (traded for the second round pick that became Cristobal Huet)
Matt Pettinger
Ted Ruth

Sutherby, once thought of as a potential captain for the Capitals, struggled through injuries early in his career and never could elevate the offensive portion of his game to get consistently high game minutes. Left to primarily third and fourth line duty, he finished his career with the Caps 26-35-61, -29, in 259 games. And keep in mind that the pick secured in the Sutherby trade that was turned for Huet is in 2009, not the expected deep draft this June.

As we noted in a previous entry, Pettinger’s fall from grace was as stunning as it was swift. Although he hinted at a rift with head coach Bruce Boudreau, the seeds of this trade were planted before Boudreau arrived. Pettinger was 1-2-3, -3 in 21 games under Glen Hanlon this year. He was 1-3-4, -9 in 36 games under Boudreau.

But what made Pettinger expendable can be summed up in two words, “Brooks Laich.” Laich is this year’s Pettinger of 2005-2006. Last year, the 24-year old forward had his best season (really, his first full one in the NHL), going 7-14-21, -9 in 71 games. This year, he is 13-10-23, -1 in 64 games. He is more versatile than Pettinger in that he can play any of the forward positions. Laich – a fellow who had to play himself onto the roster in camp – did just that, while building on that achievement with a solid year. Pettinger, who one might have thought would be entrenched on the left side of a checking line that would also provide some offensive pop, played himself off the roster.

Ted Ruth was the 46th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is currently a freshman at Notre Dame. Ruth described himself this way: “I’m more of a defensive defenseman… I’m a strong skater and I move the puck well. I play a lot like Scott Stevens." Certainly, the Caps could use that sort of a defenseman. However, lead times for developing defensemen being what they are, it would have been unlikely that Ruth would be defending the Capitals’ end until perhaps the 2009-2010 or 2010-2011 season. And let’s also remember, the 2007 draft was not thought of as being especially deep. If you go back and look at defensemen drafted in the vicinity of the 46th overall spot 5-10 years ago, you find names such as: Tomas Linhart, Kirill Koltsov, Tomas Slovak, Doug Lynch, Libor Ustrnul, Tero Maatta, Gerard Dicaire, Andrei Shefer, Maxim Linnik, or Jason Beckett. You’ll also find a Matt Greene or a Trevor Daley or a Jordan Leopold or a Mike Commodore or an Ossi Vaananen – capable pros, all. But the point is that at this level of the draft the likelihood of finding that capable pro diminishes. It is why the second round comes after the first.

And in the meantime, McPhee addressed specific needs – a second line center, goaltending insurance, and some attitude (with more scoring upside than Pettinger was demonstrating). Whether he will have successfully addressed them we’ll know at the end of the year, but if he has not, what he risked in finding out wasn’t as much as what other teams risked, and it is in those deals where we have our problems with the concept.

Pittsburgh – a team already in the hunt to win the Atlantic Division, if not the Eastern Conference top seed, will be getting Sidney Crosby back (presumably). However, Ray Shero made (and won) a play for the nominal prize of the deadline – Marian Hossa. And what did the Penguins give up for this, plus Pascal Dupuis?

Colby Armstrong
Erik Christensen
Angelo Esposito
2008 1st round draft pick

They gave up assets from their current roster, a prospect who was a 20th overall pick (albeit one with a sinking reputation in a relatively weak draft) and their top pick in what is expected to be a deep draft. Christensen was the odd man out, given that he is a natural center, but not only are the Penguins taking risks with current team chemistry (Armstrong is characterized as a heart-and-soul type), but they are gambling some of their future, too. And chances are, they will fail. It is the nature of the game – only one team wins a Stanley Cup – and Pittsburgh has pushed all their chips to the center of the table, betting that they are that team this year. If they do not succeed, the gamble will have been a failure. Less so if they can sign Hossa to an extension, but even if that comes to pass, it would be hard to spin this deal as a success.

Pittsburgh risked much in a gamble on winning the Stanley Cup now. Fail, and the gamble will have been lost, to the detriment of their future. The Caps risked little on the chance that they can make the playoffs (itself sitting in the realm of “possible,” as opposed to “likely”). If they fail to make the playoffs, the gamble -- such as it is -- will have been lost, but their future will remain largely intact. Frankly, we think the Caps version of the game of “rental” makes a lot more sense than what Pittsburgh did. If the Penguins win the Cup, we will be glad to admit our error.

But it would not be the way to bet.