Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 9: The Goodbye...And The Hello

At number 9 in this look at the top ten stories of 2009, we look at a goodbye… and a hello.

Starting with the drafting of Alexander Semin in 2002, the Caps drafted six Russians in six drafts through June 2007. Although only Semin and Alex Ovechkin from that cohort would be with the team to start the 2007-2008 season, those two would be important cogs in the Capitals’ machine heading into that season.

In that summer of 2007 the Caps would add Viktor Kozlov as a free agent from the New York islanders, a player of considerable skill, but something of a disappointment in his career, too. What he brought to the team was a measure of maturity, having toured the NHL as a member of four other teams over 12 seasons. He could be as much of a help to the young Russians in the locker room as he could on the ice.

Later that season, the Caps would execute a heist on the Columbus Blue Jackets, giving up prospect defenseman Ted Ruth for veteran and hall-of-famer in waiting Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov – a hockey legend on two continents – was just what the Alexes needed at their respective points in their development. It might be hard to quantify the effect the marriage of Fedorov to the young Russians (figuratively speaking) might have had on the youngsters, but there is no doubting the amazing record the Caps compiled (11-1-0) in their head-long rush to a playoff spot in 2008.

Kozlov and Fedorov were back for the 2008-2009 season, but it could be reasonably said that neither were critical contributors on the ice – numbers-wise – to the Caps record-setting 108 point season. Kozlov played in only 67 games and contributed only 41 points (he dropped from a plus-28 to a minus-9, worst on the team). Fedorov fought lower body and ankle injuries in playing only 52 games and finishing eighth on the team in scoring (11-22-33). When the playoffs came, there was only one real highlight for either player, although it was a doozy – Fedorov’s series-winning goal in Game 7 of the Easter Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.

When the season ended it was clear that the $6.5 million in cap hit accounted for by the two Russians was not yielding as much of return as hoped for, and it was iffy that either would be resigned. Both players made the decision easier on the Caps by accepting offers in the Kontinental Hockey League – Kozlov with HC Salavat Yulaev and Fedorov with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the latter fulfilling an ambition to play alongside his brother Fedor.

It left the Caps with two top-six forward positions to fill. Neither Eric Fehr nor Tomas Fleischmann had been able at that point in their careers to grab that role by the throat, and no one from Hershey was ready to be given that responsibility. It left the Caps to be a player in the free agent market last July.

On July 1st, the first day of open season on unrestricted free agents, 49 free agents were signed. Washington eschewed the high-end signings such as Marian Hossa ($62.8M/12 years by Chicago) or Marian Gaborik ($37.5M/five years by the Rangers), targeting need in signing Mike Knuble for two years and $5.6 million. Knuble might not have had the reputation of being a flashy 40-goal scoring type, but the Caps had enough of those already, either in fact or in potential. What Knuble brought was precisely something the Caps didn’t have enough of – a knack for scoring in close, cleaning up garbage, and being a solid power play presence in front of the opposing goalie. Although he has missed time (12 games to a broken finger), the Caps are 17-9 in games in which he played so far, 7-5 in games he missed.

Nine days later, on July 10th, the Caps took a chance on a guy who had been remarkably durable (six consecutive seasons playing all 82 games) and solid in his numbers (averaging 21-39-60, plus-7 in those six years), before missing 43 games to wrist and knee injuries in 2007-2008 and recording only 31 points in 81 games (split between Dallas and Anaheim) upon his return last season. Brendan Morrison was the guy the Caps took that chance on as the replacement for Sergei Fedorov as the center for the second line. Morrison has proven to be durable (played in all 38 games heading into tonight’s action), productive (10-15-25 in 38 games, a 22-32-54 pace that is consistent with his 20-36-56 career per-82 game pace), and flashy, in keeping with the team concept…

Morrison and Knuble – teammates once more after once having been teammates at the University of Michigan – are on a pace to out produce the players they replaced:

It could be fairly said that the Kozlov signing and the trade for Fedorov were the right moves at the right time given the state of the Caps’ development. They lent a certain veteran gravitas to the roster that could help in the progression of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. By the same token, both players had become something of a weight on the team, primarily because of their respective contracts and production issues. Replacing them with Morrison and Knuble was the right move (with a $2.2 million reduction in cap hit, to boot) at this stage of the Caps’ development. Ovechkin is a leader in production and in fact on this club, and Semin (while he still has a bit of a way to go in this regard) is a more mature player at this point in his career than he was before Fedorov was brought in. The need for mentors such as Fedorov or Kozlov isn’t as keen a need as production.

To Fedorov and Kozlov, Caps fans might offer a thought of appreciation for their time here. For Morrison and Knuble, Caps fans might be excused for thinking that they are the cogs the club needs to set up an appointment for an engraving order. For that reason, saying goodbye to Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, and saying hello to Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble is the ninth of the top-ten Capitals stories of 2009.

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