Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Search for "Sergei 2.0"

The press release on February 26, 2008 led with this…

“The Washington Capitals have acquired center Sergei Fedorov from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Washington draft pick Theo Ruth, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today.”

And thus, an important piece of the puzzle to finish the run the Caps had started when Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon behind the bench was put in place. Fedorov’s numbers were not stunning in those late games of the 2007-2008 season with the Caps – 2-11-13, minus-2 in 18 games – but he provided stability and leadership in plugging a hole on the young Caps’ team.

Well, here we are again. The circumstances are different only in degree and consequence. In February 2008 the Caps were looking for that piece to provide a late spark for a successful run to the playoffs. Obtaining Fedorov (as well as goaltender Cristobal Huet and winger Matt Cooke) helped the Caps finish 14-4-0 after the trade and vaulted them into the playoffs.

This year, the Caps are looking for that piece of the puzzle that can launch them on a run deep into the playoffs and into position to win their first Stanley Cup. So, the question is, “Who might be Sergei 2.0?”

To answer that question, ask yourself what the profile is we are looking for here…

First, the player has to be available. That means a center on a club that is out of contention or sinking out of contention. In 2008 Fedorov was toiling for a Columbus Blue Jackets team that was 29-26-9 and in 11th place in the West (five points behind Nashville for eighth) on the day the trade was made. Even if your threshold is clubs that are more than five points out of a playoff spot (a margin that could be made up in ten days, under the right circumstances), you have a group of only seven teams to pick from this season: Toronto, Florida, New Jersey, the Islanders, Ottawa, Colorado, and Edmonton.

Second, the player has to be reasonably productive. Fedorov was, in some respects, a special case, a player bordering on legendary over most of his career. At 38 years old when traded to the Caps, he was clearly on the far down slope of his career, but still he posted nine goals and 28 points in 50 games for the Blue Jackets before the trade that season (a 15-31-46 point pace over 82 games for a struggling team). If you are looking at comparable (or reasonably better) production among players on non-contenders at this point, you’re looking at players such as Mikhail Grabovski in Toronto; Mike Santorelli (17-14-31 in 59 games), Stephen Weiss (16-24-40 in 58 games), or Marty Reasoner (11-14-25 in 59 games) in Florida; Jason Arnott (13-11-24 in 60 games) or Dainius Zubrus (13-11-24 in 59 games) in New Jersey; Josh Bailey (9-11-20 in 49 games) or Frans Nielsen (7-24-31 in 54 games) from the Islanders; Jason Spezza (10-16-26 in 39 games) or Peter Regin (3-14-17 in 55 games) from Ottawa; Ryan O’Reilly (5-11-16 in 52 games from Colorado; and Andrew Cogliano (9-15-24 in 60 games) or Shawn Horcoff (8-15-23 in 37 games) from Edmonton.

Third, you have to have a “get serious” moment. There are players in the group that are in their respective teams’ plans that would be untouchable or too hard to pry away, or have contracts that a team probably does not want to burden itself with, even for a rental. Taking that “get serious” deep breath, you can probably drop players like Grabovski, Santorelli, Bailey, Nielsen, Spezza, Regin, and O’Reilly from the group.

Fourth, you’d like a player with some miles. Not so many that he is running on fumes at this point in his career, but one who has the experience (and preferably playoff experience) to be able to understand and deal with what makes the playoffs a different creature from the regular season. That would make a player like Marty Reasoner (23 career playoff games) perhaps more attractive in this respect than a Stephen Weiss (no playoff game experience) in Florida. You might add Arnott (106 games of post season experience and a Stanley Cup) to the group before Zubrus (68 playoff games) from New Jersey. Edmonton’s Shawn Horcoff has 35 games of post season experience (including a trip to the Stanley Cup finals), while Andrew Cogliano has no such experience (and at 23 is probably too young and might still be in the Oilers’ plans).

So, we are down to Marty Reasoner, Jason Arnott, and Shawn Horcoff as our finalists in the “Sergei 2.0” challenge. Here is the tale of the tape…

As one might expect from players who might be available in trade, there are plusses and minuses with each. Arnott has the size to cope with the beasts of the East, Philly in particular. And, he has considerable playoff experience. He is the biggest scorer among the three over his previous three seasons. But he has never played on a team that plays at the pace of the Caps, at least not since he broke in with Edmonton in the mid 1990’s. Complicating the matter is the recent run of uncommon success by the New Jersey Devils that has propelled them to within shouting distance of a playoff spot (in 13th, nine points out of eighth). Jersey might not be inclined to move him, or would do so only for a high price likely to include players who could contribute now (unlike the price exacted for Fedorov – prospect Ted Ruth). He would be a rental with, given the Caps’ situation for the remainder of the season, an affordable rental (prorated $4.5 million cap hit).

Reasoner has enough size to compete and is a decent two-way center. Never having recorded as many as 25 assists in a season (and averaging 14 over his previous three seasons), is he a good-enough set up man to fill the need on the second line for the Caps. He would certainly be an upgrade over the current alternatives and would be a cheap rental (prorated $1.15 million cap hit), but one has the feeling that in the “filling the need” matter, he would fill it only a part of the way.

Horcoff has enough post-season experience (35 games) and can provide scoring punch (averaging 46 points over his last three seasons, one of which was limited to 59 games). But can he hold up his end at the other end (he is a minus-42 over his last five seasons, including this, although accommodations might be made considering the team he has played for). And, his 144 penalty minutes over 674 career games raises the question of whether he has the constitution to stick his nose into crowded spaces to get things done. This is complicated by the fact that he is not long in having come off a knee injury that sidelined him for 18 games. He also carries a $5.5 million cap hit through 2014-2015. That kind of cap hit for a player at 32 is one thing. At 37? Maybe not so much.

Of the three, Arnott looks like the best option from a hockey point of view; Horcoff or Reasoner easier to pry from their teams for lesser prices, although Horcoff has an unattractive contract. Looking at potential prices, Arnott was obtained by the Devils from Nashville last June for Matt Halischuk (who to date has played in 32 career NHL games) and a second round draft pick. Reasoner was traded twice last summer, the first time as part of the big Atlanta-Chicago deal that netted Dustin Byfuglien and others for the Thrashers (Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin, and a first and second round pick for Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Bean Eager, and Akim Aliu), the second time traded by the Blackhawks to the Panthers for Jeff Taffe. Horcoff has played for no other NHL team but Edmonton in his ten NHL seasons.

Procuring the services of Sergei Fedorov, even at the late stages of his career, was a one-time event. A legend with some gas in the tank who could mentor a couple of young countrymen of whom big things were expected. That coincidence of circumstances is not likely to be repeated this year, or any other year. You, dear reader, might quibble with who we settled on as a potential successor to that role, but keep in mind that was the object of this exercise – Sergei 2.0. If you are thinking of someone else to fill the second line center role (and the astute hockey fan reading this almost certainly will be).  You might have a point, but you are also talking about a player probably outside the parameters for the comparison we chose to undertake.

What it comes down to, and this is something we think all of us can agree on, is that there is no “Sergei 2.0” likely to be found out there. This year is a particularly thin year for finding someone who could assume that second line center role for the Caps. But finding a solution to that problem is why George McPhee makes the big bucks. Maybe he can pull a rabbit out of his hat.