Friday, July 01, 2011

Free Agent Signing Period Day One -- For the Caps, a Case of "Then and Now"

“All the holes are filled…”

That was George McPhee late today as the Caps closed Day One of the unrestricted free agency signing period with a whirlwind of activity. Level 5 hurricane is more like it. The Caps made four separate deals this afternoon – three free agency signings and an unexpected trade:

First, the trade. Twenty-four hours ago, the thinking in Caps Nation was that Semyon Varlamov was skating off to the KHL with no return for the Caps. By the middle of the afternoon, the Caps used a trade with the Colorado Avalanche to turn Varlamov into a first round pick (Colorado’s in 2012) and a second (either Boston’s 2012 second, held by the Avs, or Colorado’s own 2013 second). That’s spinning straw into gold…or at least something shiny (depending on who the Caps draft with those picks or obtain if traded). Even if the Avalanche climb in the standings from a 29th place finish, it would seem unlikely that they would climb so far as for that first round pick in 2012 not to be anything but a top-dozen or so pick. The deal might have had the effect of the Caps making the long-awaited “decision” on their three goalies sooner than they wanted, but it permits them to add draft picks and restock, which will be important, because…

The Caps got older. The swap-outs look like this:

Jeff Halpern (35 years old on opening night) for Boyd Gordon (27)
Joel Ward (30) for Marco Sturm (33)
Roman Hamrlik (37) for Scott Hannan (32)

Halpern and Gordon are similar players – primarily defensive players at this point in their respective careers, good on faceoffs. On the matter of faceoffs, Halpern and Gordon had very similar results in the defensive zone (155 wins/109 losses for Halpern, 158 wins/114 losses for Gordon at 5-on-5 according to But Halpern has provided more punch on the offensive end of the ice than has Gordon. Over the past five seasons, Halpern averaged 13-17-30 per 82 games, while Gordon averaged 7-14-21. Evening out the results somewhat is the fact that Halpern averaged about two more minutes in average ice time than did Gordon over those seasons, and last season Gordon generally faced tougher competition with weaker teammates. In their respective playoff careers, Halpern is 7-6-13, minus-6 in 34 games, while Gordon is 1-4-5, minus-2 in 36 games. There might be an advantage to Halpern with respect to durability. He appeared in at least 70 games in four of the last five years; Gordon, only once. But what might finally tip the scale in Halpern’s favor here is more an intangible. He is a former captain, with the Caps and with the Team USA in the 2008 World Championships (although in the latter he suffered a knee injury during the tournament that ended his participation) and alternate captain (with Tampa Bay).

Ward and Sturm are attached to two very different questions. In the case of Marco Sturm, the question was, "can he come back from a knee injury and contribute some scoring punch consistent with his career averages (22 goals per 82 games played)?" The answer was “no.” He had one goal in 18 regular season games for the Caps after being claimed on waivers from Los Angeles, and he had one goal in nine playoff games.

With Ward, the question is, “which Joel Ward is Washington getting?” Is it the one who scored seven goals in 12 playoff games this past spring with Nashville, or is it the one who has seen his goal scoring drop from 17 to 13 to 10 (the last including only five at even strength) over the past three regular seasons? At the age of 30, Ward is a late bloomer, not having signed his first NHL contract until signing as a free agent with Minnesota on the eve of the 2006-2007 season at age 25. He did not achieve full-time status in the NHL until the 2008-2009 season (at age 28) with Nashville. But last season with the Predators, no forward faced stiffer competition than did Ward at 5-on-5 during the regular season (, while only three forwards had worse quality of teammates. And as far as his offensive statistics go, only one Nashville forward had a lower percentage of offensive zone starts. Can’t help but think that was an influence on his numbers.

With Scott Hannan likely out and Roman Hamrlik in, the Caps are swapping experience for experience. If anything, the Caps are getting more of it with Hamrlik, who has appeared in more regular season games (1,311 to 830) and more NHL playoff games (97 to 82). We wonder, though, if the Caps are giving up something in plugging a hole. Hannan was a steady, own-zone defender who would eat up his share of minutes (20:16 a game for the Caps in the regular season/23:37 in the playoffs). He would not put up numbers that jumped off the page (1-4-5 in 55 games in the regular season, an assist in the playoffs), but wouldn’t be on the ice for much mischief, either (a “plus” player in 10 of his 12 seasons, even or better in seven of nine post seasons).

Hamrlik will likely provide a bit more offense (he has 153 goals and 624 points in 1,311 career games), but he does not seem to be in Hannan’s class as a defender. Especially worrisome is that in his last ten playoffs, he has been an even or worse player (minus-36 in 97 playoff games in his career), and only three of his 13 playoffs teams advanced past the first round. He does bring durability, having played in at least 70 games in 15 of his last 16 seasons, after playing in all 48 games of the abbreviated 1994-1995 season. 1994-1995 season? He’s got miles on him, that’s for sure. The two year deal for $7 million makes us wonder, though, whether the problem in bringing back Hannan was contract term. At 32, one would think Hannan would want to hold out for a longer term (it’s hard to see that Hannan would command much more, if any, that the $3.5 million cap hit Hamrlik’s contract bears). If term was an issue, signing Hamrlik on a two-year deal makes some sense.

In the end, the Caps have significantly retooled their lineup. Below, we compare the lineup that the Caps sent onto the ice in Game 4 of the second round series against Tampa Bay in the 2011 playoffs against what a lineup might look like tonight:

* Sean Collins played in Mike Green’s place in Game 4 against Tampa; we return him here for comparison’s sake.

Of the 20 players who took the ice in Game 4 against Tampa Bay, five of them are being replaced in the new lineup, four of the replacements new to the team (the three additions today, plus Troy Brouwer). For a team that was a contender last year, it is quite a bit of turnover, but disappointment in the playoffs will do that.

The Caps did two things over the past week. They locked up a player considered to be in their core – Brooks Laich – and they addressed a problem in the playoffs, the lack of contributions from the bottom two lines of forwards. It is a team with a different look about it. Brouwer, Halpern, and Ward might be their own line, and they have more size and might be harder to play against than Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, and Marco Sturm. Hamrlik provides (or perhaps more precisely, maintains) a sense of balance among the defensive pairs; there is no obvious soft spot, and with Dennis Wideman coming back from an injury that ended his season, the Caps defense might now be among the deepest blue lines in the league.

But here’s the thing. If you add in the $900,000 for Mattias Sjogren, and if you pencil in Karl Alzner and Troy Brouwer at, say, $2 million apiece, the Caps have to move more than $2.3 million off the payroll to get to the $64.3 million cap. The Caps are not done reengineering this roster. But it would seem that any further moves might not be made until the Caps settle things with their two restricted free agents – Brouwer and Alzner. The summer, it seems, has finally begun.

2010-2011 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth

Theme: “To win a race, the swiftness of a dart availeth not without a timely start.”
-- Jean de La Fontaine

Michal Neuvirth came into the 2010-2011 season in a battle with Semyon Varlamov to see which of the two graduates of the draft class of 2006 would emerge as the Caps’ number one goaltender (that is, when they weren’t wondering if the Caps would get a veteran that would bump one of them off the roster).

Fortunately for Neuvirth, Varlamov began the season on the injured reserve list. It was an opening that Neuvirth skated through, appearing in the Caps’ first 13 games. You could not call his numbers spectacular – a 2.41 GAA and a .914 save percentage – but he had an 8-3-0 record (two no decisions) with one shutout.

In a way, that start might have been his high point of the season. At the time, he was arguably the Caps most valuable player, backstopping the club effectively while the Caps had to contend with a lack of depth stemming from Varlamov’s injured status. But after that, his season had a peculiarly odd feel to it. A combination of the occasional absence to injury or illness (a four game absence to a lower body injury sandwiched between single game absences to illness), Varlamov’s return, and the emergence of Braden Holtby when both were out resulted in Neuvirth playing more than four consecutive games only once over the last 69 games of the season. His ten-game splits looked like this:

What Neuvirth did do, however, was finish strong overall. He appeared in 19 of the last 29 games, went 12-6-0, 2.31, .919, with three shutouts. But there was an ominous aspect in his finish that would end up biting him later. Consistency, or more precisely, perhaps not enough of it. In the 18 decisions he had, he allowed one or no goals six times, but he also allowed more than three goals three times, two of them coming in the last five games of the regular season.

What he did not do in the regular season is play well against playoff-caliber teams. Neuvirth appeared in 21 games against the 15 other teams making the post-season, posting a 9-6-2 record. That is respectable enough, but his GAA of 2.89 and save percentage of .901 were average at best. And those numbers include a record against the Pittsburgh Penguins of 2-0-1, 0.65, .977. Take away those results, and his record slips to 7-6-1, 3.36, .885.

But let’s not forget where Neuvirth was starting from, either. He was an injury fill-in in 2009-2010 who appeared in only 17 games, essentially a cup o’ coffee in the NHL. And although he experienced considerable success in lower levels of hockey, the NHL is several jumps in weight class in terms of competition. Overall, his year-to-year comparison looks like this:

Odd Neuvirth Fact… You didn’t want him playing on a Friday. A 3.22 GAA and a .891 save percentage.

Game to Remember… October 27, 2010. Neuvirth led the Caps into RBC Center to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the Hurricanes’ home opener. He and the Caps proved to be rude guests, spoiling the ‘Canes’ party with a 3-0 shutout. Neuvirth stopped all 29 shots he faced, including one spectacular post to post lunge to glove an Eric Staal drive off a cross-ice feed from Sergei Samsonov. It was Neuvirth’s first NHL shutout, one of four he would have for the season.

Game to Forget… February 25, 2011. The game would be remembered as the one in which Mike Green was lost on his second shift to a hit from Derek Stepan, but this game against the New York Rangers was certainly one to forget if you were Michal Neuvirth. The Rangers scored seven seconds after Green was crumpled to the ice, former Cap Steve Eminger beating Neuvirth to open the scoring. When Brian Boyle scored with 24 seconds left in the game, it left Neuvirth having allowed six goals on 28 shots.

Post Season… Neuvirth was given the keys to the car, being selected as the number one goalie for the playoffs. And for the first round, it seemed the right choice. Against the Rangers he was 4-1, 1.37, .946, with one shutout and two wins in overtime. He could not match that performance in the second round, though, losing all four games to Tampa Bay with a 3.74 GAA and .867 save percentage. Perhaps most important, he allowed the game’s first goal in each of the four games in the Lightning sweep.

In the end, it might be helpful to step back and realize that like his chief competitor, Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth came into this season at the age of 22, hardly at the top of his prime producing years. That he had not lost a playoff series through junior and the AHL made for a nice narrative, but was pretty much irrelevant to his performance in an NHL playoff setting. More than any Cap, he might win for losing here. Having experienced the difficulties of the Tampa Bay series, perhaps he can use that as a springboard for a much better, more resilient performance next season.

The regular season offered clues as to what sort of goaltender Neuvirth could be. His taking the team on his shoulders in the first six weeks of the season showed he could bear a significant load. Except for a five game stretch when he went 0-3-2 (four of the losses coming in the Caps’ eight game losing streak), he was 27-9-2, 2.37, .918, quite respectable for a rookie. And let’s not forget, Neuvirth was a rookie. Among his rookie class he finished third in wins (playing significantly fewer games than the two goalies ahead of him, Corey Crawford and Sergei Bobrovsky), third in goals against average, sixth in save percentage, and tied for the lead in shutouts.

However the drama surrounding the matter of where Semyon Varlamov will play finally ends, Neuvirth would be expected to be the number one goaltender heading into training camp in September. It will be new role for him to play at this level, and one hopes that in that role he has a finish to his 2011-2012 season at least as strong as his start to the 2010-2011 season. If he does, then the Caps might finally win that race to the Stanley Cup.

Grade: B

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)