Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Blueprint

When the Caps tore out the 2003-2004 team all the way to the studs and began the Great Rebuild in earnest, the ensuing plan had as its core the idea of building through the draft. That’s nice, as far as it goes, but it does not fully describe what unfolded over the next several years as the Caps dragged themselves up from being the functional equivalent of an expansion team to a championship contender (and yes, dear pessimists, you would have to still consider the Caps a “contender”).

If one looks at the current roster and a couple of other guys you might pencil in as possibilities to make the opening night roster, you can peer a little deeper into the method the Caps have employed – and continue to employ – for building a roster. Looking at the skaters first, the 21 players in this group break down roughly into three groups: The Core, The Upper Crust, and The Foot Soldiers.

The Core

These four players have also been known as “The Young Guns” and represent both the most skilled players, and the players in whom the Caps have made the biggest investments. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green all are on contracts of at least five years; and Alexander Semin is being compensated to the tune of $6,000,000 this season. As a group, these four players will encumber $27.5 million of cap space this season, 46.3 percent of the total cap space available. All are first round draft picks; three of them selected in the top 13 picks of their respective drafts.

The Upper Crust

The eight players in this group might be described as skill or critical players that occupy (or are expected to occupy before too long) top-six forward or top-four defenseman slots, but do not command the investment in time or money that The Core enjoys. It is noteworthy that five of these eight players are Caps draft picks, and two others (Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann) played at least 100 games in the Caps’ farm system before sticking with the parent club for good. For all intents and purposes, you could consider them “home grown.” Only Mike Knuble came to the Caps as a fully-developed NHL player from another organization. What separates this group from The Core is the fact that they are comparative short-timers. Four of the eight are not under contract past this coming season. If you had to describe them in one sentence, you might call them “important, but replaceable.”

The Foot Soldiers

If the idea is to draft for skill and fill other needs through other means, then these are the guys who fill other needs and (mostly) have been obtained by other means. Of the nine players in this group, two were obtained by trade, and five were signed as free agents. Only Eric Fehr (who could make the leap to the next level this season; we wrestled with this) and Boyd Gordon were drafted by the club. These are the positions that one might expect to swap in and out over time as players’ contracts expire, and they either move on to another club (or another league) or retire (although sometimes, as in the case of a David Steckel or a Matt Bradley or an Eric Fehr, they get extensions). You will note that Tom Poti is included in this group, which might seem like an anomaly. We decided on placing him here more as a product of the manner he was obtained – as a free agent at a time when the Caps were trying to flesh out a comparatively weak roster. At the time, the Caps were coming off their second consecutive 70-point season, and the prospects of a playoff-caliber season to follow were uncertain. Poti might have been seen as much as a veteran to help bring along players like Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. We will not argue with you about the merits of placing either Poti or Fehr up in the next group. Generally, these are the more or less interchangeable parts of the roster that serve as role players.

Finally, we have the goaltenders. Consider that since the current hockey operations regime took over in 1997, the Caps have drafted 14 goaltenders and have taken at least one in 10 of 14 drafts. Only once (1999, 2000) did the Caps go consecutive drafts without picking at least one goaltender. Eleven of them never played a game in the NHL, mostly a product of Olaf Kolzig being the number one netminder since that asteroid killed off all the other dinosaurs. Rastislav Stana (1998) played in six games, all in that godforsaken 2003-2004 season.

That leaves Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth, both products of the 2006 draft and semi-welded at the leg pads ever since.

Varlamov is further along on the development curve than Neuvirth (51 NHL regular season and playoff games to 22 for Neuvirth – none in the playoffs), but Neuvirth is arguably more accomplished, having backstopped the Hershey Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships. Both are on entry level contracts, and both are entering the last year of their respective deals. It might be that a decision will have to be made about which of these two to keep after next season, but even if the Caps have a decision to make in that regard, there is yet another drafted goaltender waiting in the wings – Braden Holtby – who will serve his apprenticeship in Hershey this season and perhaps could become a backup goaltender for the Caps in the not-too distant future. The theory here apparently is “volume-volume-volume” when drafting goalies. Now, as was the case in the early 1990’s (when the Caps had Olaf Kolzig, Jim Carey, and Byron Dafoe on the roster), the Caps have what could be the most pleasant hard choice to make, which two of three goalies to keep going forward.

Whether a coincidence, or whether it is a part of The Plan, the Caps have constructed a roster that seems to obey certain rules with respect to how they fill certain roles. Draft for skill, obtain other players by other means. Having gone from 70 points in 2006-2007 to 121 points in 2009-2010, it seems to have been a productive strategy. But, as The Boss is fond of saying, “we still have work to do.”  And in that respect, look at that "Upper Crust" group.  I would argue that it is this group (perhaps with the exception of Perreault and Johansson, who might or might not be on this roster this season) that has to come up big, that has to step up their game in the playoffs if the Caps as a team are really going to be the "Upper Crust" sort of team we hope to see playing in June.

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