Thursday, June 14, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- The Architect

"The first Matrix I designed was quite naturally perfect; it was a work of art, flawless, sublime. A triumph equaled only by its monumental failure. The inevitability of its doom is apparent to me now as a consequence of the imperfection inherent in every human being."

-- The “Architect”

George McPhee – the “architect” of the Capitals roster for the past 13 seasons – had a busy year in trying to design in his 14th version of the Capitals a work of art, flawless, sublime…one that was NOT a monumental failure in the end. Starting with the end of the 2010-2011 season he endeavored to retool and reshape the roster in ways great and small:

June 1, 2011; signed Mattias Sjogren.

June 2, 2011; acquired Taylor Stefishen from Nashville for a conditional draft pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

June 15, 2011; re-signed Patrick McNeill to a two-year contract.

June 16, 2011; re-signed Dany Sabourin to a one-year contract.

June 24, 2011; acquired Troy Brouwer from Chicago for a 1st round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft (Phillip Danault).

June 28, 2011; re-signed Brooks Laich to a six-year contract.

July 1, 2011; signed Jeff Halpern.

July 1, 2011; signed Ryan Potulny.

July 1, 2011; re-signed Sean Collins to a one-year contract.

July 1, 2011; re-signed Matt Ford to a one-year contract.

July 1, 2011; acquired a 1st round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft and a 2nd round pick in the 2012 or 2013 Entry Draft from Colorado for Semyon Varlamov.

July 1, 2011; signed Joel Ward.

July 1, 2011; signed Roman Hamrlik.

July 2, 2011; signed Tomas Vokoun.

July 2, 2011; signed Chris Bourque.

July 4, 2011; signed Danny Richmond.

July 6, 2011; re-signed Troy Brouwer to a two-year contract.

July 8, 2011; acquired Danick Paquette and 4th round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft from Winnipeg for Eric Fehr.

July 11, 2011; signed Christian Hanson.

July 14, 2011; signed Jacob Micflikier.

July 15, 2011; re-signed Francois Bouchard to a one-year contract.

July 15, 2011; re-signed Karl Alzner to a two-year contract

August 24, 2011; signed Stanislav Galiev to a three-year entry-level contract.

September 29, 2011; re-signed Jason Chimera to a two-year contract.

November 8, 2011; traded Francois Bouchard to the New York Rangers for Tomas Kundratek.

November 28, 2011; relieved Bruce Boudreau as head coach; hired Dale Hunter as head coach.

January 30, 2012; signed Joel Rechlicz to a one-year contract.

February 2, 2012; traded Matt Ford to the Philadelphia Flyers for Kevin Marshall.

February 2, 2012; traded Danny Richmond to the Colorado Avalanche for Mike Carman

March 27, 2012; signed Cam Schilling to a two-year entry-level contract.

Not all of these moves were with this season in mind; nor were all of them, strictly speaking, “Capitals” deals. Nevertheless, George McPhee was a busy man, a man to take action. But remember that choosing not to do something is an action, too. Hold onto that thought. We will get to it later. In the meantime, you can limit the discussion of these deals to impacts on the Capitals and distill this list of transactions into free-agent signings, trades, and one that is in a class of its own. First, the unrestricted free agent signings:

Jeff Halpern
Joel Ward
Roman Hamrlik
Tomas Vokoun

If you – a fan, like me – knew nothing else about these signings other than the names involved, you might think, “gee, this looks pretty good.” It looked pretty good to McPhee, too, as a matter of fact. At the time, he said, "All the holes are filled. I think we have a good, strong team."

An impartial observer (ok, a partial one) might have penciled this quartet in for 25 goals and 81 points for the skaters, and 32 wins for the goaltender (that’s what we prognosticated, anyway). More to the point, they would improve on the players they replaced through free agency or trade. Jeff Halpern would replace Boyd Gordon’s faceoff prowess, but do so with more offensive kick. Joel Ward would provide more points and sturdier play than Matt Bradley. Roman Hamrlik would replace Scott Hannan’s veteran edge, but do so with bit more balanced two-way play. Tomas Vokoun would be the stopper that Semyon Varlamov had the promise to be, but had yet to realize, at least on a consistent (or more accurately, on a consistently healthy) basis.

That’s on paper. Of course, hockey isn’t played on paper. What did the Caps actually get for all this hole-filling? They got 12 goals and 47 points – a career low in goals and points for Joel Ward, a career low in goals and points for Jeff Halpern, a career low in goals and points for Roman Hamrlik. The goalie had 25 wins, a career low for a season in which he played in more than 40 games and didn’t play for a bad team in south Florida. His save percentage for the season was his lowest since before the lockout. You seeing a pattern here?

More to the point, the players they replaced had comparable seasons. Boyd Gordon, Scott Hannan, and Matt Bradley were a combined 13-30-43, and Bradley missed almost the last two months of the season to injury. Semyon Varlamov had 26 wins for an inferior Colorado Avalanche team and a comparable save percentage and goals-against average (.913/2.53) to Vokoun’s (.917/2.51).

For this marching in place the Caps paid Ward $3 million (with three more years at that pay to go), Hamrlik $3.5 million (with another year on his contract), Halpern $825,000, and Vokoun $1.5 million. Vokoun’s contract was widely regarded as a deal when signed (yes, we thought so too – enthusiastically), but by the end? Debatable; it might have been a “$1.5 million” performance, although he was playing very well when injury cut his season short. In the context of the 2011-2012 season, how do you like those unrestricted free agent signings now?

Then there are the trades.

I said, “then there are the trades!”

With all due respect to Taylor Stefishen, Danick Paquettte, Tomas Kundratek, Kevin Marshall, and Mike Carman, the Caps made two trades of consequence for the 2011-2012 season. The first involved doing what the Caps have seemed loathe to do in recent years – trading a high draft pick. They traded their first round pick in the 2011 entry draft (26th overall) to the Chicago Blackhawks in a deal that netted forward Troy Brouwer, who was subsequently signed to a two-year, $4.7 million contract extension. Having failed to get any consistent production from Eric Fehr at right wing (largely a product of repeated shoulder injuries), Brouwer was that sturdy winger who could play with a physical edge, eat up minutes (he missed only five games over his previous two seasons), add some power play scoring (18 goals in three full seasons in Chicago), and play on the right side on any of the top three lines.  And, he had that Stanley Cup from his days in Chicago.

Brouwer certainly did eat up minutes, playing in all 82 games and averaging more than 17 minutes a game. He did play with a physical edge (seventh among all NHL forwards in hits, but with only 61 minutes in penalties), and he did chip in with goal scoring (18 goals, his 82-game average in Chicago over three full seasons). If there was a disturbing number, it was that he was on ice for more goals scored against than any Capital forward except Brooks Laich, who had tougher defensive assignments. But all told, it seems fair to conclude that the Caps got what they bargained for in Brouwer.

As for the other trade of consequence, it had no meaning to the Caps this year, at least in its return. The Caps traded Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first and a second round pick from the Avs. That might be a steal for the Caps in the longer run – two futures for a player that seemed disinclined to re-sign with the Caps without certain playing guarantees. It just does not mean a lot in terms of this season.

And that leaves a gaping hole. In the two weeks leading up to the February 27th trading deadline, 30 trades were made (source: “Trade Centre”). Of the 16 teams that were playoff-eligible on trading deadline day, 15 of them were involved on one trade or another. The only one that was not?... Pittsburgh (gotcha!).

OK, the Caps were not playoff eligible on that date; they were in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. But they did not make any deadline deals, either. Even the team that was sitting in tenth place in the Western Conference made a deal in that two-week period. That would be the Los Angeles Kings, who dealt defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for forward Jeff Carter. That worked out well for the Kings.

If the Caps were unlikely to be a “seller” at the deadline, owing to their being on the edge of the playoff mix, they still had assets if they chose to go in that direction. Five players would be unrestricted free agents at the conclusion of the season – Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, Jeff Halpern, Dennis Wideman, and Tomas Vokoun.

In the more likely event the Caps would be buyers, trying to add a piece or two for a playoff run, they had draft picks and prospects they could move. There were the two first round draft picks (their own and Colorado’s). At the time, they could have moved a prospect goaltender such as Braden Holtby (yeah, we know…). There were forwards Stanislav Galiev or Cody Eakin, defensemen Dmitry Orlov or Patrick Wey. Even Evgeny Kuznetsov might have been dangled. Not all of these prospects might have been desirable from other teams’ perspectives, and the Caps have been consistently averse to moving prospects. But the fact remains that the Caps were among a small number of playoff contenders that chose to make no moves at the trading deadline.

Given the record of the team at the time, it almost seemed like the Caps were seated at the poker table, were dealt a pair of sevens and chose not to draw any other cards. They chose to go with what brought them to ninth place at the trading deadline.

The lack of action at the trading deadline was a statement. The trouble is, the statement lacked a certain clarity. One could interpret it in different ways. On one hand (call it the “defiant” statement), it was the club saying, “this is the team we built, and we have confidence that we can win with it.” OK, does that comment make sense for a club that in February up to that trading deadline had a record of 5-7-1?

On the other hand (call it the “clear-eyed” statement), it was the club saying, “we cannot add enough assets to this team responsibly to make it a real Stanley Cup contender, so we will keep our powder dry, get another year of experience for the young kids, and see what the summer brings.” This might be closer to the truth, but it makes for a lousy marketing campaign. The best spin one can put on this, we suppose, is that the team did not make a bad situation worse.

The second statement, to the extent it is true, does reveal some inconvenient truths about this club. First, it is in regression. Regression is not a permanent state of nature, but the Caps are not as good a team – today – as the one that ended the 2009-2010 season, even with that team’s disastrous first round playoff loss to Montreal. Second, and this is a related point, it is shallow in skill. The Caps finished the season with arguably a viable first line (or at least three forwards of first line skill) in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin. And they had three third lines (or maybe a third and two fourths, depending on your inclination toward charitable interpretations). Third, the matter of a second-line center was and remains unsolved. This is not a new problem. The Caps tried patchwork in years past (Sergei Fedorov, Jason Arnott), but have been unable to find anything resembling a permanent solution. The Caps have not had two centers with more than 50 points on the same team since 2002-2003, when Robert Lang (69) and Michael Nylander (56) did it. And no, we do not consider Brooks Laich or Viktor Kozlov full-time centers in this comparison.

On the other hand, the club has outstanding depth in goal, evidenced by the emergence of Braden Holtby in the playoffs after both of the parent roster goalies went down to injury. The defense is a work in progress with John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov having only 461 regular season games of NHL experience among them. Although, the term “work in progress” applied to a club having made the playoffs for five straight years, yet not advancing past the second round is an uncomfortable one to contemplate.

As for the deal that was in a class of its own, that would be the coaching change in November. The Capitals were coming off two bitter disappointments in the playoffs, losing as a Presidents Trophy-winning team in 2010 and then being swept by a team they handled adequately in the regular season in the 2011 post season. One did not have to be especially intelligent to figure out that the head coach might be on the hot seat. We will not revisit the sequence of events that brought the Bruce Boudreau era to an end, but rather spend a moment on the successor. Hiring Dale Hunter was of a pattern, and we do not mean only George McPhee’s penchant for hiring coaches with no NHL head coaching experience (Hunter made four in a row). It was a display of the “out of the box” thinking that from time to time is expressed by McPhee. As with any “out of the box” thinking, there will be instances when it is successful (see: “Bruce Boudreau, 2008 playoff run”) and other times when it is not (see: “Pokulok, Sasha; 14th overall draft pick, 2005”).

But if you think outside the box on a draft pick, you have six other rounds of picks in that year, and the draft comes around in another year. Do it with a coach, and you might end up with a lot of turnover. The nature of tenure among hockey coaches is that it is Hobbesian – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A Lindy Ruff, who has been head coach of the Buffalo Sabres since July 21, 1997 (coincidentally, only about six weeks less than McPhee has been GM of the Capitals), is the exception. The Capitals, on the other hand, are about to select their sixth coach in that span of time. He will be their fourth coach since the beginning of the 2007-2008 season. Hopefully, this will be the charm.

In the end, the Caps won the off-season. The signings of Jeff Halpern, Tomas Vokoun, Joel Ward, and Roman Hamrlik; together with the trade for Troy Brouwer; looked good…on paper. In season, with the possible exception of Brouwer (or perhaps Hamrlik in terms of his late season performance), they underperformed expectations. None outperformed expectations. And in season, the Caps consummated no deals to improve on that roster. Given that “that roster” was as healthy as it was going to get in the playoffs it still managed only to hit the wall that has proved almost insurmountable for this franchise for decades – the second round. Couple that with having had to fire a coach in mid-season (rare is the instance in which that happens and the season is a success), and it suggests that there are many more holes on this team than we were led to believe existed last summer.

Grade: C-

Photo: Rod Lamkey, Jr./The Washingon Times