Friday, July 02, 2010

Spending Day One Window Shopping

About a third of the teams in the NHL sat out signing any unrestricted free agents of note yesterday. The Washington Capitals were one of them. It was as if they were out on the sidewalk gazing in at the sparkling toys and gifts in the window, knowing full well that they were not going to head into the store to make any purchases. Was it surprising? Was it the right thing to do? Well, looking at the individual players that might have been on the Caps radar, let’s look first at the defense and what they signed for...

Anton Volchenkov -- 6yrs/$4.25M average salary
Paul Martin -- 5/$5.0M
Zbynek Michalek -- 5/$4.0M
Dan Hamhuis -- 6/$4.5M
Sergei Gonchar -- 3/$5.5M

Verdict?... Look at the terms. Like it or not, the Caps just don't do long term FA deals for other teams’ players, and there was little chance (based on that history, at least), that the Caps were going to offer up five or more years for the younger defensemen on this list. Since the lockout, the Caps have signed two noteworthy defensemen via free agency – Brian Pothier (four years, $10 million) and Tom Poti (four years, $14 million). It is just not the Caps M.O. to go long on terms for UFAs.


Saku Koivu – 2 yrs/$5.0M average salary (make that $2.5M)
Matt Cullen – 3/$3.5M
Matthew Lombardi (not yet signed)
Mike Modano (not yet signed)

There are those who will argue that the situation at center – that being who will center the second line – is a more urgent problem to be addressed by the Caps. At the moment, the candidates for that slot would be: Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, and Mathiew Perreault. All are capable players in some respect, or (in the case of Perreault) have the promise to be such a player.  None of those possibilities is going to strike fear in the hearts of opponents as a second-line center, even if the Caps are returning the most prolific offense in the NHL for the 2010-2011 season.

As for the players who signed, we think the term for Saku Koivu would have been friendly for the Caps, but $5.0 million just isn’t something that makes a lot of sense, given the Caps’ existing salary structure (edit: well, it wouldn't at that price, but at $2.5 million -- as a commenter pointed out -- it might have been nice). As for Cullen, he’s a nice player in a lot of respects, but he is also a player stuck in the 45-50 point range for the last half-dozen seasons or so, and he will be 34 a month after next season starts. Think he’s going to be a 50-60 point player for the Caps for three years? We are not sold on that conclusion. As for the others, either would likely be an upgrade to what the Caps have to ice right now (although whether Modano would be is not a certainty in that respect; he’s averaged about 50 pts/season since the lockout). This just points how very thin the group of centers the Caps is, at least until Marcus Johansson, or perhaps Mathieu Perreault, are ready to assume the role behind Nicklas Backstrom.

The Caps almost certainly will not go through July without signing a free agent (ok, it looks like they signed Dany Sabourin). They might even sign one today. But it is not a certainty. The fact is, the Caps sign their own soon-to-be free agents to long term deals (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green). They don’t sign other teams’ free agents to such deals. Their sweet spot for free agents seems to be the second or third tier player at a modest salary to fill a role for a limited term.  Like it or not (and we subscribe to this view), that has been a part of “the plan.” It is not surprising, then, that the Caps did not sign any of these defensemen or centers. It would seem that the Caps have cast their lot in trying out their farm hands for more responsible positions and waiting for trades to shore up deficiencies.

For the record, we think spending lavishly on high-end free agents (and this looks like a thin crop this year) is a fool’s errand in almost all cases. Teams overpay for talent for too long a term that ends up being something of a burden at some point. But as for sitting out Day One being the right thing to do, if Volchenkov wins a Cup in New Jersey, if Hamhuis wins one in Vancouver, or – heaven forbid – Martin and Michalek win a Cup in Pittsburgh before the Caps win one, then at best you would have to question whether the Caps’ plan – either in concept or execution – has a Stanley Cup sitting at the end of it.


Hooks Orpik said...

Yeah, ultimately we'll see. I'm not in love with the term the Penguins gave out, but they don't have guys like Alzner/Carlson to bring up so they need to pay for established players. I am excited they've overhauled the defense, but we'll see.

Gonchar was 31 when he signed in Pittsburgh and a lot of people hated that contract in it's early years. By the end, they wished he had signed for longer, and in the interim he was the #1 defenseman on a Cup contending (and winning) team. It can work, but it has to be worked right, else you end up with an albatross like the Brian Campbell contract.

Anonymous said...

Koivu's deal is $2.5M per, $5 total.

Anonymous said...

Don't agree with your argument. You really believe Martin or Mihalek will be the difference in a Cup in Pit or Volchenkov in NJ? If either wins it will be due to Pitt adding quality wingers and Brodeur finally having a decent postseason again for NJ. Same with us. Caps winning or losing depends on their core not any overpriced FA. That's the bigger question: at what point should we cut bait on Semin,Flash,Fehr,Laich and Knuble as Ovie and Backstrom's running mates? Those guys plus our young goalies will decide when or if we win a cup.


The Peerless said...

The argument I've made since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were rookies has been that the trick will never be drafting a Crosby or an Ovechkin. The trick will be how well their respective GMs build a team around them. The Caps have done a good job securing Backstrom for the next decade, and Green still has a few years. But if the Caps go one and done again this season while Pittsburgh advances and New Jersey once more goes deep, then I'm going to wonder whether the Caps are doing the best job possible building a team around Ovechkin and the core. I'd hate to be sitting here typing a decade from now a post about how Alex Ovechkin is the greatest player in the history of the sport...

...never to win a Stanley Cup title.

Hooks Orpik said...

"If either wins it will be due to Pitt adding quality wingers"

Couldn't disagree more, Eric. The Penguins have already proven that wrong.
They won the Cup with Fedotenko, Satan, Talbot, Guerin, Kunitz and Sykora around Malkin/Crosby as Top 6 wingers at some point of that playoffs.

They also had Scuderi/Gill shutting things down. I'm inclined to agree with Peerless - it's who you surround them with. The Caps did well to draft/develop guys like Carlson and Alzner. The Pens prospects haven't paid off so well, so they had to bring in NHL talent to replace what they've lost in Martin and Michalek. A bunch of ways to skin a cat, and all of that.