Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Rebuild...Reloaded

Long-time readers of this space will remember an entry we made in January 2007 on “The Rebuild…Revisited." Well, it’s fair to take a look back at that and ask, did any of the grades change? Let’s take a look in "The Rebuild...Reloaded."

Steve Konowalchuk – traded to Colorado for Bates Battaglia and the rights to Jonas Johansson, October 22, 2003.

Both players obtained for Konowalchuk are long departed from the organization. Battaglia, who played his only season with the Caps in 2003-2004, is with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL (the farm club of the Maple Leafs). Johansson, who played one NHL game in his career (in 2005-2006, for the Caps) is out of the NHL. He played for HV71 Jonkoping in the SEL last year.

There really isn’t a way to put a dress on this pig and make it a prom queen. The trade yielded nothing.

Original Grade: F
Revised Grade: F (can we give an F-minus, Peerless?)

Robert Lang – traded to Detroit for Tomas Fleischmann and a 1st round draft pick in 2004 (defenseman Mike Green) and a 4th round pick in 2006 (forward Luke Lynes), February 27, 2004.

Since being traded away in 2004, Lang has put up respectable numbers for Detroit and Chicago. In 235 games, he is 61-112-173, +40, with 11 game-winning goals. That works out to 21-39-60, +14, with 4 GWG per 82 games. Green, on the other hand, has emerged as perhaps the best under-25 offensive defenseman in the game. Fleischmann clearly has skill – he demonstrated as much in his time with the Hershey Bears (52-62-114, +20, in 102 games with the Bears, plus 16-37-53, +16, in 39 playoff games there). But he has not yet translated that to success at the NHL level on a consistent basis. 10-20-30, -7 was not a bad season for him, although it was disappointing in a way, given his starting the year on the top line (and, he’s still only 24 years old). He does – and perhaps is expected – to take another step up this year. Lynes played for the Stockton (ECHL) Thunder for two games last year after completing his season with Brampton in Canadian juniors. We was re-signed by the Thunder for the 2008-2009 season.

Lang is a dependable veteran, but the operative word there is “veteran” (he will be 38 in December), and Lang was not in the long-term picture for this team. If you’re looking for a late-30’s veteran center, the Caps are better off with Sergei Fedorov. In the meantime, the Caps have a defenseman who could be worthy of Norris consideration before too long. Fleischmann remains a work in progress for whom the upcoming season could be pivotal for his career.

Original Grade: B
Revised Grade: A

Sergei Gonchar – traded to Boston for Shaone Morrisonn and 1st (defenseman Jeff Schultz) and 2nd (center Mikail Yunkov) round draft picks in 2004, March 3, 2004

Gonchar, as most folks know, ended up in Pittsburgh, where he signed on a five-year deal for $25 million. During that first year in Pittsburgh, he was wearing that contract like an anchor chained to his waist. But he has improved in each of the last two seasons with the Penguins and this year was mentioned as a potential Norris Trophy finalist. You’d have to go back to the 1999-2000 season (with the Caps) to find a better plus-minus than his +13 last season.

Morrisonn has become as close to a shut-down defenseman as the Caps have on the parent roster. He continually draws the assignments of facing the top offensive performers among opponents. And if you consider the time he spent paired with Mike Green (and JP has, over at Japers’ Rink), there is his added value in letting Green do what he does. Schultz is something of an enigma…not for his play (although he doesn’t necessarily play to his size), but for the reaction he evokes in fans. In both Hershey and now, in Washington, he has inspired criticism of his style, which tends more to the positional than the physical. But, facts are facts, too. Last season – his first full season in the NHL – Schultz was 3rd on the club among defensemen in scoring, fourth in average ice time (discounting Brian Pothier, who played only 38 games), and led all Caps defensemen in plus-minus. Despite the barbs cast his way about his style, he emerged as a solid second-pair blueliner for the Caps. Given his age and experience, it would seem he is likely only to improve.

Yunkov played last year in Russia with Spartak (Moscow), where he was 4-6-10, -1 in 57 games and 1-0-1, +1 in five playoff games.

Gonchar is, if not an elite defenseman, than as close as an offensive-minded player at his position is. However, the Caps have in return two young, defensive defensemen who could be fixtures on the club for a decade or more.

Original Grade: B
Revised Grade: A

Jaromir Jagr – traded to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter, January 23, 2004 (Caps also liable for a substantial share of remaining value of Jagr’s contract)

Jagr has been involved in perhaps the most inconsequential deals for an elite player in the history of professional sport. Pittsburgh traded Jagr to Washington (with Frantisek Kucera) for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Russ Lupaschuk, none of whom made a ripple in the NHL, with Beech hanging by a thread as far as any future NHL career goes (the others are gone).

Then, after two-plus indifferent seasons in Washington, he was peddled to the Rangers for Anson Carter, who played two-plus seasons for four different teams (including the Caps), then ended up playing for Lugano this year in Europe. Carter was traded to Los Angeles six weeks after the Caps got him from New York. Jared Aulin came in return, and he is out of professional hockey.

This is another one that’s hard to pretty up. The best one can say of it is, “at least Jagr’s gone.”

Original Grade: D-
Revised Grade: D- (the only thing saving this from being an “F” was the karma that led to the Caps drafting Alex Ovechkin later that year)

Peter Bondra – traded to Ottawa for Brooks Laich and a 2nd round draft pick in 2005 (parlayed with another pick via trade with Colorado into the 27th overall pick – defenseman Joe Finley), February 18, 2004

After leaving Washington, Bondra finished up his career with Ottawa and Atlanta, going 31-36-67, even, in 120 games. It was an unfortunate end phase of a career that saw his goal production decline from 45 goals in 2000-2001 to 39, 30, 26, 21, and ultimately five in 37 games in his last year in Atlanta.

The return for Bondra looked modest at the time – a 20-year old, former sixth-round draft pick who had precisely one game of NHL experience. Fast forward to last season, and Brooks Laich has achieved something of a cult status, at least among Caps fans. Laich had career highs in goals, assists, and points in going 21-16-37. He was third on the team in goals, and tied for third in power play and game-winning goals. This despite being 16th on the club in average ice time and ninth among forwards.

This is one of those trades that gives truth to the phrase, “you have to wait a few years to see if it was worth it.” Laich has emerged – well, at least last season (mindful as we are of the possible Matt Pettinger analogies) – as a very efficient player. His versatility in being able to play any forward position adds to his value.

Original Grade: C-
Revised grade: B+

Mike Grier – traded to Buffalo for Jakub Klepis, March 9, 2004

Mike Grier, for whom Caps fans’ lasting memory is likely that of a player who couldn’t finish a play against an empty net, remains a decent pro (now with San Jose).

Klepis, on the other hand, is one of those players folks will likely remember as “disappointing.” A former first-round pick (16th overall in 2002), he had the skating and playmaking ability – or so it seemed – to be a scoring line center. But is 66 games with the Caps, he managed only four goals and 14 points, never able to stick with the parent roster for a full season. He played 19 games at Hershey last year, then returned to the Czech Republic to play for Slavia Praha HC.

Grier was a consistent source of frustration to Caps fans (perhaps to management as well) with his inability to finish plays – shorthanded breakaways were betting certainties to end poorly. But he was, and remains, a flesh and blood contributor to a very good hockey team. The Caps ended up with squadoosh in this deal.

Original Grade: C
Revised Grade: F

Michael Nylander – traded to Boston for a 2nd round draft pick in 2006 (Francois Bouchard) and future considerations (a 4th round pick in 2005 – defenseman Patrick McNeill), March 4, 2004.

What a difference 18 months make. Nylander is now with the Caps, and Bouchard and McNeill remain in the Caps’ system. Bouchard gives evidence of being a potential scoring line winger (although he took a step back – numbers-wise – last year at Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL). McNeill split time between South Carolina (ECHL) and Hershey (AHL).

Nylander, in returning to the Caps, was something of a mystery last year. He started poorly, then was injured, tried to play through it, was ineffective doing so (at least in terms of defense and faceoffs), then was shelved for good after 40 games.

For the Caps, it’s all good, one supposes, since all of the principals in this deal are with the club. But all of them are unfinished pieces in this puzzle.

Original Grade: Incomplete
Revised Grade: Incomplete

Brendan Witt – traded to Nashville for Kris Beech and a 1st round draft pick in 2006 (goaltender Semen Varlamov), March 9, 2006

Witt went to Nashville, then to Long Island where he is now as close to a cornerstone defenseman as the Islanders have. Given the Islanders’ finish last year (79 points, 13th in the East), you can draw your own conclusions about how strong that cornerstone is. This is not to say Witt is a bad defenseman – he’s not. But he is, at this point in his career (33 years old) perhaps more a second-pair type than a first-pair shut-down defenseman.

As for the return, it’s all in what Varlamov becomes. While he seems to be on a path to the NHL (he looked much, much better in the recent Caps development camp than he did in a similar setting last summer), nothing is guaranteed, especially with goaltenders. Everything depends on Varlamov, because if you look up the term, “well traveled,” in the dictionary…well, by God, there’s Kris Beech’s picture! Consider the first time Beech played for Washington and was traded to Pittsburgh in the Jaromir Jagr deal. He went to Nashville, Washington (again), Columbus, Vancouver, Washington (yet again), then Pittsburgh (he’ll probably start next season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton). All since July 2001.

Original Grade: Incomplete
Revised Grade: Incomplete

So, to reiterate . . . the Caps moved:

Steve Konowalchuk
Robert Lang
Sergei Gonchar
Jaromir Jagr
Peter Bondra
Mike Grier
Michael Nylander
Brendan Witt

…and received in return:

Jonas Johansson
Tomas Fleischmann
Mike Green
Luke Lynes
Shaone Morrisonn
Jeff Schultz
Mikail Yunkov
Brooks Laich
Joe Finley
Jakub Klepis
Francois Bouchard
Patrick McNeill
Kris Beech
Semen Varlamov

…and nothing for Jaromir Jagr

As the trades have “ripened,” so to speak, they have ended up for the most part better than what they looked like 18 months ago. That is what prospect development does. Mike Green, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Brooks Laich are important elements of the current Capitals squad. Tomas Fleischmann might reach that status yet. Varlamov could get there in another 2-3 years. Ditto for Bouchard.

What has transpired over the past 18 months is a caution to fans – don’t look at a trade on the day of the trade, especially when veterans-for-picks/prospects is involved. It pays to take a look in the rear-view mirror once some time has passed to see just what you have from those deals.

Dave Fay Memorial Classic II

Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed didn’t exchange as many head shots in their combined “Rocky” movies as did the teams of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Free State of Maryland did last night in the second Dave Fay Memorial Hockey Game. When the smoke cleared, the Commonwealth survived the Free State, in a shootout (!) – 12-11 – in a game reminiscent of those offensive donnybrooks of the 1980’s (goaltenders…you’re on your own).

But the real winners were the fans treated to some summer hockey and the fight against cancer, for which the game was played and the accompanying silent auction was held. We don’t know how much was raised at the end of the evening, but based on what the bids were on some of the memorabilia (among them, a signed Nicklas Backstrom jersey, a signed Caps team jersey, and a signed 2008 Western Conference all star jersey), it looked to be a successful night in that regard.

As for the game, Virginia scored on its first shot seconds into the contest, but Maryland roared back with three unanswered goals. Knocked to the canvas, the Virginians threw five straight haymakers – the last with less than two seconds in the opening period – to take a 6-3 lead.

Maryland opened the second in a frenzy, scoring a five-spot of their own to take an 8-6 lead. From there, it was a back and forth affair. Virginia and Maryland each scored a goal in the final two minutes of regulation to knot the score at 11.

The shootout – a five rounder, as opposed to the NHL’s three-round format – was won by Virginia, 2-1, to give the Commonwealth the privilege of wearing Lord Brown’s Boot for the next year.

As for the three stars of the game, they would have to go to Rob Keaton, Ben Wilson, and Gavin Toner – the three gentlemen who founded “Put Cancer on Ice.” If there was a “first star,” though, it would have to be Gavin “Sidney” Toner, who was credited with a number of assists when he, from accounts, wasn’t on the ice. There is a Penguin contract waiting for you, sir.

When it was all said and done, it was handshakes and head-rubs all around, and a portrait of both teams with the “Boot,”…a cool evening, indeed, on a sultry summer night.