So…the roster…its architects…the renovation. Any insights from all this? Well, there is a logic that has led to this point. And, it illustrates that the whole draft OR free agency OR trades argument in roster development is missing the point, because it takes no account of two things -- time and development. It requires a combination of tools, even if it is “draft-centric.” Try on this logic...
1. 2004 - Caps begin sell off of overpriced and/or aging assets for picks and/or prospects.
2. 2004 - Caps finish badly, third worst team in league, win ping pong ball contest, draft Alex Ovechkin
3. 2005/2006 - Caps have rookie Ovechkin and not much else (Alexander Semin didn't play that year, Mike Green played only 22 games), a roster made up largely of players who will be long gone when Ovechkin hits his prime. With no "core" to speak of yet, why would the Caps spend a lot of money on free agents or trade? And what would they trade, the picks and prospects they just got by selling off those overpaid/aging assets? Caps finish badly, get top-five pick -- Nicklas Backstrom.
4. 2006/2007 - Caps have Ovechkin, but Backstrom is not yet with team. Semin plays in 77 games, and Green plays in 70 (2-10-12 was his scoring line), so the Caps at least have given a part of their future lots of game experience. But again, Ovechkin, Semin and Green have little experience. Why would you buy free agents and essentially waste the first couple of years on their deals while Ovechkin, Semin, and Green were maturing. And as far as trades go, again...what would you trade away? Think you'd get much for Ben Clymer or Jakub Klepis? So Caps finish badly again, get another high pick -- Karl Alzner.
5. 2007/2008 - With young core adding year of experience, Caps deploy a free agency strategy, adding Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander. Ovechkin has an historic year in making, Backstrom is a Calder candidate, Green puts in claim as one of best offensive defensemen in the league (18-38-56), Semin was a 26-goal scorer in only 63 games. The Young Guns are in place and make a the run at playoffs. Team rewards them by making trades to help with present -- Sergei Fedorov and (ugh!) Matt Cooke. The logic here is that the young core demonstrated an ability to compete for a playoff spot, making an investment in trades advantageous here and now to the Caps, as opposed to previous years when such moves would have been wasted waiting for the core players to develop. Caps make playoffs, indicating that they are now a competitive team, opening up other tools for the front office -- they traded up to get Anton Gustafsson (a dud) and traded a former high draft pick (Steve Eminger) for another first round pick (which became John Carlson). The Caps being competitive, they can implement other roster-building tools to supplement the draft (in this case, trading deadline trades and draft day trades).
6. 2008/2009 - The five players who would ultimately become the core (defined by commitment of dollars/years: Ovechkin, Semin, Green, Backstrom, Laich) are top five scorers on team -- all were drafted or (in case of Laich) obtained as prospect in selloff. Team improves to tie franchise record for wins. Team stands pat, advances to second round.
7. 2009/2010 – The Caps have what amounts to two-thirds of an elite first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. They are sufficiently far along on their development curve that the Caps could invest in a Mike Knuble to supplement that first line with skills and traits it doesn’t have – an ability to eat space in front of the net and do the dirty work from in close to get those “garbage” goals. The team was far enough along to be able to take a chance on a free agency like Brendan Morrison to help shore up the middle on the second line (some things do not turn out quite as planned, as Morrison faded, only two goals and 17 points after Christmas). And, the Caps could once more be active players on the trade market, obtaining Jason Chimera at mid-season, they Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, and Joe Corvo at the deadline.
8. 2010-2011 – Here the draft once more bears fruit, but it is the product of decisions made in previous years. Karl Alzner was a result of those talent-poor teams after the selloff, a fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. John Carlson was what came of a trade of Steve Eminger to Philadelphia for a first-round draf pick. They served their apprenticeship playing alongside one another at Hershey, and now they were a pairing that would consume lots of minutes with the Caps. So many, and in so many responsible situations that they were as close to a shutdown defensive pair the Caps had. Either of them could make a case for being a potential “core” player in time. And this further development from within could provide the confidence to fill in other holes – trading forward Tomas Fleischmann for stay-at-home defenseman Scott Hannan early in the season, then adding Marco Sturm via waivers, and Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman via trade at the trading deadline in February.
The chronology of events and the continuity among decision-makers has provided the benefit of stability and patience to build a team in a stepwise fashion – sell off the overpaid and/or aging assets, collect picks and prospects, build a core from that. As the core is assembled and allowed to develop, keep the power dry in terms of executing trades or mid-to-high end free agency signings. When the core has sufficiently matured, at that point the team could begin to add other assets – trades at the trading deadline when the club was in a position to compete for the playoffs, free agents to start filling holes in other areas of the lineup. Finally, with the Caps’ core essentially set and, perhaps more important, largely a body of assets to which the club has committed money and years, attention could be focused more on the other parts of the roster. The club could make a trade for a Dennis Wideman who was more than a rental, but had time and money left on his deal that would provide another year’s worth of stability to work with the core. The club could invest during this off season in free agents like Tomas Vokoun, Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward, or Jeff Halpern.
It is not an abandonment of the draft-centric philosophy the club adopted when the selloff was undertaken. In fact, it is precisely because the Caps built a core almost entirely from the draft, then committed money and contract years to it that allowed them to fill other roles by other means. Since the Caps became a playoff-competitive team in the 2007-2008 season, this has meant letting the core develop into their prime and performing periodic “renovations” as a means to build around it.
The flip side of this, though, is that the Caps are committed to that core – at least to Alex Ovechkin (through 2021), Nicklas Backstrom (2020) and Brooks Laich (2017). Whether Mike Green and Alexander Semin, two players of the original “Young Guns” (who have themselves been given previous commitments in dollars and/or years) retain their place in that group might very well depend on their performance in the 2011-2012 season (Green will be a restricted free agent at year’s end; Semin will be an unrestricted free agent). That will be one of the interesting subplots to the season.
But as far as the “renovation” part of the rebuild is concerned, the Caps are now at that part of the rebuild where a point we made on other occasions steps to the forefront. And that is, it is not in drafting a generational talent like Alex Ovechkin that success is achieved or not, it is in the team that is built around him – the renovations around Ovechkin and the core. Having built that team, one could reasonably argue that now the duty to perform rests on the shoulders of the players and the coaches. But whether players like Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, and Tomas Vokoun are the right players to build around Ovechkin and the core in their quest for a championship will speak to the skill and judgment of the architects of the rebuild, too.
Put another way, there really are no more excuses. If not now, when?