Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Day After Christmas

Well, the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and another “Trading Day” is over. For the Caps, it was one of those days that might make a few fans do a facepalm.  We didn't get all the presents we might have wanted, but from this chair, it was a day of subtle reengineering that could be more important to getting a Stanley Cup that getting the flashy name. Why? It’s a matter of need…

Top-Six. It would have been a reach to think that the Caps would have made a play for any player who might fill the bill of “top-six forward.” The club is more or less set there with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, Brendan Morrison, and Brooks Laich. Compare that to teams like Pittsburgh, who needed a scoring winger (Alexei Ponikarovsky) and New Jersey, who needed more punch at forward (Ilya Kovalchuk). The Caps didn’t have needs there. So, with that part of the team in good shape…

The Next Six. There are a few things that might have been accurate about the next six forwards that could have hampered their chances for success in a playoff scenario. First, they don’t get enough offense (or at least enough consistently) out of that group. David Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon have a combined 16 goals this year in 153 man-games. Quintin Laing adds another two in 28 games. Eric Belanger brings 13 in 60 games from Minnesota. The Caps do not need much by way of offense in general, but what Belanger provides there is more of a threat from the undercard.

Second, there is the lingering idea that this group isn’t sturdy enough and is a little too “earnest” in their play. While Matt Bradley is certainly a guy who will stand up for his teammates, and Jason Chimera will have his moments, the threat of orneriness isn’t generally an attribute attached to this group. Scott Walker will provide that. As a group, the Caps are now better positioned to give compete more with New Jersey in a grinding game and to make like more difficult for skill forwards of the sort Ottawa and Pittsburgh employ.

Third, there is penalty killing, the soft underbelly of the Caps, especially on the road where they are 29th in the league. Washington is not a very good penalty killing team, although it hasn’t been for a lack of trying in terms of putting out a couple of forwards who can do the job. Ten Caps average at least 30 seconds of power play time a game; seven average more than a minute. Belanger will assume responsibilities here and should be an improvement (his being a good faceoff man doesn’t hurt, either, for defensive zone draws). To the extent he assumes a larger responsibility for this, guys like Nicklas Backstrom (1:03 in average SH ice time) and Tomas Fleischman (1:19 in average SH ice time) won’t. Those two will be fresher for the things they are better at. And, with a couple of veterans added, there shouldn’t be as much the intimidation factor on the road that might play a role in the woeful PK numbers the Caps have as visitors.

Defense. If the Caps could have sprung Dan Hamhuis out of Nashville, who we look at as sort of a “Rob Scuderi” sort of player in terms of being effective at the same time as being relatively unknown, we’d have done hand springs. As it is, the Caps traded one “puck mover” (Brian Pothier) for another (Joe Corvo). And, they sent prospect forward Oskar Osala to Carolina in the deal. In the short term, the evaluation can only be whether the Caps could be more successful with Pothier or with Corvo. Pothier is safer; Corvo is more “high-risk.” Pothier isn’t an especially physical defenseman, but then again, neither is Corvo (or at least, neither really fills the perceived need here). Pothier, who was signed to be something of a two-way defenseman on the heels of a 35-point season in Ottawa in 2006, never really filled that role with the Caps. Corvo, who has a 40-point season on his resume (with Los Angeles in 2006), had a 38-point season with Carolina last year but fell off to 12 points in 34 games, fighting injury along the way.

It seems to us that Corvo is here for one reason, and that is to provide Mike Green with some relief. Green is a minutes-eater (12th in the league total, but that is along with being 96th in SH ice time). Corvo should get some power play time to leave Green fresher to deal with the sort of abuse he endured last year in the playoffs and that no doubt he will face once more in the spring.

The addition of Milan Jurcina, who won’t be available for at least a month, is more a depth move. The 6/7 spot could have been John Erskine/Tyler Sloan. Now it is Erskine/Jurcina (or will be). Folks might clamor for either Karl Alzner or John Carlson to get their shot, and they might yet get that opportunity. Someday, Alzner and Carlson will be a cornerstone pair for the Caps. But at their respective points of their careers, Alzner and Carlson are not obviously better than Erskine and Jurcina in that 6/7 role for this team. That said, that sixth defenseman spot is going to remain a lingering problem.

Goaltending. Did the Caps make a play for Boston’s Tim Thomas? Was there interest expressed to Florida about Tomas Vokoun? We don’t know. Vokoun would have been an upgrade in talent, Thomas we’re not as sure about given his performance this season. Having not made a move at this position, the trouble for the Caps here is uncertainty. Jose Theodore is on a 13-game streak in which he hasn’t been beaten in regulation. But we’ve seen this sort of performance before, leaving the question of whether his performance is improving or if it is another high in a pattern of inconsistent performance. In early December, Semyon Varlamov was showing all the signs that he was going to take the number one job. Then he got hurt and has played in only one NHL game since (17 for the year). Michal Neuvirth has been generally good, but has had some problems with inconsistency on his way to a 9-4-0 mark. It would not be precisely correct to say that the Caps will offer up a “goaltender by committee” arrangement, but Theodore and Varlamov will be taking these last 20 (now 19) games to audition for opening night on Broadway, as it were – Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs. A trade would have provided clarity as to who that goaltender would be, but now, for the moment, it isn’t clear who that is.

In the end, the Caps didn’t need to beef up their skill positions in the same way that New Jersey did or that Pittsburgh did. And, they resisted the temptation of making the splash to do so. The Caps targeted the weaker elements of their roster and performance…

Next Six forwards – improved for defense and penalty killing, should provide a little more offense in the process. Getting Belanger and Walker were plusses (probably more the former than the latter).

Defense – Allows the team to spread the responsibility around a bit more, especially on the power play. Corvo is high-risk/high-reward, but the clear benefit should be in leaving Mike Green fresher. Although, we’re more or less left crossing our fingers that Corvo leaves his big ol' bucket-o'-risk in the locker room. Having Jurcina is as better option than Tyler Sloan, but it isn’t the sort of thing that will make folks squeal in delight.

Goaltending – OK, boys… Jose, Semyon, Michal? Fight it out.

Overall, the Caps are in a better position to compete over the entire roster with the Devils, Penguins, and (if it comes to that) the Sharks or Blackhawks, and that was the object of the exercise, not to add the flashiest name.


JR said...

I'm pretty sure the Caps weren't calling about the one year wonder in Boston, who's owed another $15 million over the next 3 seasons. Eh?

Anonymous said...

Regarding goaltending, now that Neuvy was sent down, isn't he officially off the roster unless called up for an emergency? What are the rules that apply here?

Anonymous said...

"Jose Theodore is on a 13-game streak in which he hasn’t been beaten in regulation. But we’ve seen this sort of performance before, leaving the question of whether his performance is improving or if it is another high in a pattern of inconsistent performance."

Help me out here, -- in this 13 game streak, Theo has tied both his career longest win streak and the Capitals longest win streak. Given that's the case, when have "we seen this sort of performance before"? What does it take to NOT be a high in a pattern of inconsistent performance? I guess I'm wondering, if he were to manage to not lose another game in regulation this season, does the rap on him become "well, he folded in last year's playoffs"?