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Looking at that table above, we can see that there is much more turnover within that group over time. No player shows up in more than two instances of the four time markers we identified. And if you look at the changes from the last game of the 2008 playoffs to today, every spot has been recycled to another player (although one – Brooks Laich – graduated to the core). And in that new group we find today, notice that three of the 13 players came by way of Hershey – Jay Beagle, Jeff Schultz, and Michal Neuvirth. The flip side of that is that nine arrived from other organizations, either by trade (Brouwer, Chimera, Wideman) or by free agency/waivers (Knuble, Ward, Halpern, Hendricks, Hamrlik, Vokoun). Only Marcus Johansson (who someday might be a “core” player) was drafted and did not spend time in North American minor pro leagues.
And it is that imported group that is the more interesting group. Because, in a perverse way, it further supports the notion that the core is built and finished. Over the past four years, the Caps have not done much by way of off-season dealing to fill in behind the core. If you look at that 2008 playoff roster, only Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and Donald Brashear were brought in during an off-season (Michael Nylander would be added to that list had he been healthy for that playoff series). Others – Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke – were trading deadline deals. They were rentals to whom little financial or time commitment was given (Fedorov would re-sign for another season; Cooke did not).
There is a subtle, but not trivial, theme in those signings and that approach. Why commit years and money to players via trade or free-agency signings when the core is still somewhat green? You might be wasting the first year or two of a free agent’s contract, and you might be relinquishing assets too soon for players that would be arriving with a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time core. The flip side of this is that once the core is – or is near – ready for prime time, you can productively add parts that carry longer commitments.
The first inkling that the core might have been near ready was perhaps the signing of Mike Knuble in 2009. He wasn’t a signing to serve as mentor as much as contributor (as might have been the case with Michael Nylander in 2007 for Nicklas Backstrom). He wasn’t a one-dimensional player of limited skill brought on as a protector of sorts (as was Donald Brashear in 2006). He wasn’t an overpayment for a free agent to demonstrate a level of seriousness after a difficult season (as Brian Pothier might have been in 2006). Signing Knuble for two years and $5.6 million represented a substantial commitment to fill a specific need (some offense and an ability to do the dirty work around the net) at the top of the forward lines.
Fast forward to this summer’s activity. The Caps traded for Troy Brouwer, a player with some production similarities to Caps’ forward Brooks Laich. But while Laich was a product of the 2004 selloff (he was obtained for Peter Bondra), Brouwer was obtained for a first round draft pick (essentially a future) to join a team with assets in place. And if Knuble was brought in as the first indication that the core elements were sufficiently ready so that more assets with bigger commitments could be taken on, then the signings of Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, and Joel Ward serve as stronger evidence that the core is at a point in development where Caps management can make full-year (or in the case of Ward, multi-year) commitments to players from outside, not merely rental bargains at the trading deadline with minimal commitments.
One line of thinking says that you draft for skill and add the other necessities via other means. Another says you build a core, commit to it, then add the pieces you need around it. Different ways of saying similar things. The Caps sold off aging and/or overpaid assets after the 2003 playoff debacle for picks and prospects. That, coupled with the poor performances of the team that remained (plus the luck of a ping-pong ball) allowed them gather up the assets that might make a core – Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, and later (when the club committed much more in terms of years and money for his services) Brooks Laich, who joined Alexander Semin already on board.
That core group had not developed enough early on – that 2006-2007 period – to merit the Caps investing much in terms of free agent signings, nor did it make much sense to trade off picks or prospects for established players. Fans might have wanted it, but it would have been a penny-wise and pound foolish approach. The young guys who would be counted on to make up the core hadn’t really learned anything yet, making those kinds of trades or signings largely a waste of time as the young core players matured.
But this summer, the Caps were very active in the free-agent market, suggesting a new phase in the “rebuild.” And add to that they trading a first round draft pick (even if you think the 2011 draft was comparatively weak) for an established player with a lot of tread left on his tires, and you have an another way of saying the same thing for the Caps – their time is now.