Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 6: "Free Agent Frenzy"

Although the calendar has flipped over to a new year, we still have some unfinished 2011 business to address…the sixth of the top ten stories of the Caps’ 2011.

Roster turnover is a way of life in professional team sports. It is not unusual for teams to turn over entire rosters in just a few years’ time if they are trying to drag themselves to respectability. Other clubs – ones with Stanley Cup aspirations – might not turn over their rosters so dramatically, but they do use trades, free agents, and waiver claims to either shake up a lethargic team or to fill in the blanks on a team that might have only a few missing parts.

With the Washington Capitals having gone the trade and waiver route the previous February to acquire Jason Arnott, Dennis Wideman, and Marco Sturm, the summer was time for exploring the free agent avenue to find the magic ingredients to finish the recipe for a championship.

Brad Richards was the prize of a relatively thin class of unrestricted free agents in July 2011, and he was widely thought of as next to a lock to sign with the New York Rangers (he did). While the Capitals could have used a center of Richards’ skill and experience to address a long standing problem – no center depth behind Nicklas Backstrom – the Caps had other problems. One of the most important, if infrequently spoken problems the club had was getting scoring support from the third and fourth lines of forwards. Eric Fehr, Matt Bradley, Matt Hendricks, and Boyd Gordon combined for one point (a goal by Fehr) in the nine games of the 2011 post-season. Marco Sturm, obtained on waivers from Los Angeles for the stretch run, had a goal and two assists in nine post-season games. Jason Arnott, acquired from New Jersey at the trading deadline, had a goal and five assists in the playoffs, but had only one assist in the first three games of the Caps’ series against Tampa Bay, all lost by Washington (two of them by one goal) to put the Caps in a 0-3 hole in the series. The Caps had 19 goals from forwards in the post season, but nine of them came off the sticks of Alex Ovechkin (five) and Alexander Semin (four). No other Capital forward had more than two.

Getting more punch on the third and fourth lines was on the to-do list for the summer, one in which the Caps gave little or no indication it would try to retain the services of Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, or Marco Sturm. The Caps still had rights to Eric Fehr, but it did not seem that he was in the team’s plans (he would be traded to Winnipeg for Danick Paquette and a fourth round draft pick).

That left some holes to fill, and without clear replacements to be found at Hershey (save perhaps for Cody Eakin), that left free agency as one means to address the vacancies. Jeff Halpern was signed on the first day of free agency in what had the appearance of filling the Boyd Gordon vacancy (Gordon signed with Phoenix that same day). That might have qualified as a minor surprise, but not inexplicable. Halpern could replace the faceoff talents of Gordon (both finished the 2010-2011 season above 55 percent) and could provide more offensive punch. Gordon did not record more than seven goals in any of his seven seasons in Washington and had one playoff goal in 36 post-season games. Halpern did not score fewer than seven goals in any full season of his career, save for the 2001-2002 season in which he had five goals but played in only 48 games due to a knee injury. And, Halpern was a former Capital captain who could provide a veteran presence.

The surprises came later on the first day of free agency, and they came in quick succession. Joel Ward was coming off a post-season with the Nashville Predators in which he had seven goals in 12 games and points in ten of those 12 games (including his last five contests). As much as that, there was his reputation as a hard-worker who persevered in striving for an NHL roster spot, finally getting one in Minnesota at age 26, being fundamentally sound at both ends of the ice, and being something of a playoff perfomer (9-8-17, plus-5 in 18 career playoff games). He signed with the Caps on that first day of the free agency signing period in what had the look of an upgrade to the Matt Bradley position (Bradley would sign as a free agent with Florida on July 2nd). Ward would not likely replace Bradley’s propensity for engaging opponents in fisticuffs, but whereas Bradley topped seven goals only once in six seasons with the Caps, Ward had at least ten in each of his three full NHL seasons.

If signing Ward was unexpected, the Caps’ signing of defenseman Roman Hamrlik was something out of left field. The Capitals already had seven roster defensemen and two who would open at Hershey (Sean Collins and Dmitry Orlov). But the Caps also had injury issues with defensemen. Mike Green lost 33 games of the 2010-2011 season to injury. Dennis Wideman was going to be coming back after a serious leg injury that cut short his season after being obtained at the trading deadline in February. It was not clear if Tom Poti would ever dress for the Caps again after repeated groin injuries.

Hamrlik could provide reliability (only once in 15 years did he dress for fewer than 70 games; only three times for fewer than 75), stability (he had more than 1,300 games of NHL experience), and a reputation as a mentor of defensemen in his four seasons in Montreal, a commodity that could serve the Caps in trying to bring along young defensemen such as Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Dmitry Orlov.

But the biggest surprise came last. The Capitals had a competition for the number one goaltender position that lasted almost for the duration of the 2010-2010 season between Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov would get the prized call as starter in the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on New Year’s night, and he seemed to have the advantages of more playoff experience and raw skill that would propel him to the number one spot and the call for the playoffs. But Varlamov also had injury issues with the Caps, missing a total of 38 games over two seasons (including 11 games to a knee injury late in 2010-2011). Neuvirth emerged as the winner of the competition, getting the call for the playoffs.

Whether Varlamov would want to re-sign with the Capitals as a restricted free agent or depart for Europe was not clear. In any case, to re-sign in the NHL he might have been due a hefty increase in compensation based on his potential and – when healthy – his performance with the Caps. In what was a minor bombshell in these parts, the Caps traded Varlamov to Colorado on July 1st for the Avalanche’s first-round draft pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in either 2012 or 2013.

The trade left a hole in the roster, or more precisely, a question. Would Braden Holtby be promoted from Hershey to back up Neuvirth, or would the Caps look to find an inexpensive back-up for the job? The next day, fans had their answer. On July 2nd, the Caps announced they signed Tomas Vokoun to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Vokoun, a veteran of more than 600 games in goal in the NHL, had seven times a season save percentage higher than .915, four times of at least .920, largely for bad-to-mediocre teams in Florida and Nashville. He complied total of 32 shutouts since the lockout and five times recorded more than 3,000 minutes of ice time in goal. That he would sign with the Caps was surprising enough, but to do it at a price roughly half of that which Varlamov received in a contract extension with Colorado ($2.833 million cap hit annually over three years) was even more surprising.

When teams go to trading camp, they and their fans are hopeful that they have found the last pieces over the summer to win a Stanley Cup. The Caps and their fans were no exception. On paper, Jeff Halpern was an upgrade over Boyd Gordon, Joel Ward was an upgrade over Matt Bradley, Roman Hamrlik was an upgrade over Tom Poti (merely by being in the lineup), and Tomas Vokoun was an upgrade over either Semyon Varlamov or Braden Holtby (or Michal Neuvirth, for that matter). If the Caps were a conference champion and reached the second round of the playoffs in 2010-2011, surely the team would be even better and go deeper in 2011-2012.

So far, the advantages to the Caps are not so clearly defined. Joel Ward has brought more offense overall than Matt Bradley (4-7-11, minus-5 for Ward versus 2-5-7, minus-3 for Bradley), but Ward has not had a goal in 24 games and spent time moved off the third line for fourth line minutes. Jeff Halpern and Boyd Gordon are almost indistinguishable (Halpern is 3-7-10, plus-5 in 36 games versus Gordon’s 3-9-12, plus-7 in 35 contests), although Halpern does have an edge in faceoff efficiency (60.5 percent to 56.4 percent). Hamrlik has provided reliability; he has dressed for 33 of 37 games. But his absences reflect performance issues. He has been on ice for 33 goals against in 33 games, even though he does not get the minutes of a John Carlson or a Karl Alzner. He has been better lately, though, with a plus-7 in his last eight games after going minus-11 in his first 25 contests.

Vokoun and Varlamov are perhaps the most interesting comparison so far. Both have had their moments, good and bad. Vokoun opened his season on the bench for opening night, but then he ran off six straight wins in which he had a 1.80 GAA, a .944 save percentage and one shutout. But in his next 16 appearances went 6-8-0, 3.27, .887 and was ultimately benched in favor of Neuvirth. In his last four appearances, though, he is 3-0-0, 1.32, .955.

Meanwhile, Varlamov has not yet been bitten with the injury bug, but it has not prevented a certain inconsistency from invading his game. Five times in 27 appearances he has allowed five or more goals, and except for a six-game stretch in late November and early December in which he was 4-2-0, 1.82, .939, he has been largely ordinary. However, he (like Vokoun) has won his last three starts, stopping 76 of 81 shots in the process (.938 save percentage).

On balance, the four players are performing better than the four players they replaced, but perhaps not as much as the Caps or their fans might have hoped. The object of the exercise is not, however, to win the race to January 1st, but rather the one to early June and a Stanley Cup. In that sense the story lacks an ending, but for the aggressiveness displayed by the Caps to manage their roster, the free agent signings of July 2011 deserve a place as one of the top stories of 2011.

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