Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Work to Do -- Part II

“Does experience help? NO! Not if we are doing the wrong things.”
-- W. Edwards Deming

Building through the draft is a way to build a solid foundation, and re-signing known commodities – especially when they have performed up to and ahead of expectations – is a good thing. But it is not the only way or the only tool to build a roster. For instance, three of the six defensemen who dressed for the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings got their starts in other organizations. Matt Greene was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and joined the Kings in 2008-2009 with forward Jarret Stoll in a trade for Lubomir Visnovsky. Willie Mitchell was drafted by the New Jersey Devils and spent time in Minnesota and Vancouver before he was signed as a free agent by the Kings in 2010-2011. Rob Scuderi was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins and spent five seasons with the parent club before he went west as a free agent in 2009-2010.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the Caps still have holes and other ways to fill them than from within. The immediate concerns are for a scoring winger and a defenseman. There just does not happen to be a large supply of those types of players, either in free agency or via trade. There are names out there, though.

Zach Parise

With Alexander Semin likely to leave his number “28” behind next season, the Caps need a scoring winger. Zach Parise scored 30 goals in five of his last six seasons, the sixth cut short due to injury. In those six seasons he has averaged 35.1 goals per 82 games played.

The Caps could use a scoring winger with playoff experience. Parise has 61 games of playoff experience (21 goals) and has played in a Stanley Cup final as recently as, oh, less than a month ago.

The Caps could use a durable player. Parise had a knee injury in 2010-2011 that limited him to only 13 games, but in his other six NHL seasons he has not played in fewer than 81 games.

The Caps could use another solid citizen to provide a measure of leadership. Parise was an alternate captain for the 2010 Team USA men’s hockey team, and he was captain of the Devils this past season after spending two seasons as an alternate captain.

Parise will turn 28 before opening night of the 2012-2013 season. Given that he is coming off a one-year/$6.0 million contract with the Devils, it is not unreasonable to think he might go north of five years and/or $50 million as a free agent. He certainly does not lack for suitors, if the usual rumor mills are accurate. Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Detroit leading the mentions. But there seem to be two near certainties about which teams he will not be joining. He will not be signing with the New York Rangers.

And, he will not be signing with the Caps (even if former New Jersey assistant Adam Oates is taking over as head coach of the Capitals). The Caps do not do those kind of free agent deals, at least not with players from other teams (even Jaromir Jagr’s mega-contract was, technically, an extension for a player already under contract). Besides, with the long-term deals the team has with Alex Ovechkin (through 2021) and Nicklas Backstrom (through 2020), a third deal going out to the 2020’s seems a bit much to take on.

Probability of Acquisition: 5 percent

Ryan Suter

The Capitals could use a defenseman. Ryan Suter needs a home. The similarities pretty much end there. Suter is, if not the prize of this free agent class, the best defenseman available. Coming off a four-year/$14 million contract with the Nashville Predators, he could double both term and salary in the deal he signs on or shortly after July 1st. He will not lack for suitors, either. He is a “30-team” free agent, meaning that each of the 30 teams in the league will make at least due-diligence inquiries as to his inclination to sign a contract. But the leaders coming into the home stretch for his services appear to be Nashville, Detroit, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh.

Why? As Josh Cooper writes in The Tennessean, “Suter is a midwest guy, who likes the anonymity of playing in Nashville. The laid-back nature of playing a majority of games in Western Conference markets — many of which aren’t nearly as rabid as Eastern Conference teams — fits his personality.”

Cooper discounts Pittsburgh, noting that “even with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin there to take pressure off Suter, he would still have to produce, and produce at a high level — especially for the money he is likely seeking.” But while Pittsburgh might be an “eastern” team that gets a lot of attention, it might resemble more the Midwest feeling Suter with which Suter seems comfortable.

As a player, Suter brings the numbers. First, he isn’t just a minute-eater, he gobbles them up by the bushel. In three of the past four seasons Suter has averaged more than 24 minutes of ice time a night, and in the fourth season he averaged 23:59. He missed only 15 games over those four years. Despite all this ice time (only two defensemen averaged more than the 26:30 in ice time Suter logged per game last season), 57 defensemen were on the ice for more goals against than Suter.

Among defensemen that played in at least 60 games and averaged more than 15 minutes of five-on-five ice time per 50 minutes, Suter ranked 16th in Corsi relative to quality of competition. He tied for 16th in quality of competition faced. He was tenth in PDO. He did all this while receiving unfavorable offensive zone starts (45.7 percent).

But here is the catch. Shea Weber’s numbers were better. Is there a complementary effect here, an influence of one on the other’s numbers? And that begs the question of how Suter will fare as the number one defenseman, the position he will occupy on whatever team he signs with (with perhaps the notable exception of Nashville).

Suter is 27 years old, and this contract is likely to be his big career payday. But money, while important, is not the only variable here. Suter seems to recognize that: "Wherever I sign, I want to be there for the rest of my career and that affects my family, my wife, my kid [and] if we have more kids... everything plays into it."

It all seems part of a larger narrative. Suter was born in Madison, Wisconsin; played a year at the University of Wisconsin; even played a year with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL before joining Nashville in the NHL. It certainly argues for a team in a Midwestern city that fits his work and life style. In fact, the more one reads about Suter, the more one gets the feeling he really does not want to leave Nashville. If he does, it seems likely he will do so for a town that resembles it in many respects. That town won’t be Washington.

Probability of Acquisition: 2 percent

Bobby Ryan

Forever the answer to a trivia question (“who was drafted second after Sidney Crosby in 2005?”), Bobby Ryan has become as reliable a goal scorer as there is in the NHL. He is one of only four players who scored more than 30 goals in each of the last four seasons (Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Jarome Iginla being the others). In 2011-2012 Ryan had 31 goals (tied for 20th overall, tied for eighth among right wings) and did it with relatively unfavorable offensive zone starts. Among 77 right wingers playing in at least 60 games, Ryan ranked 49th in offensive zone starts (49.2 percent). Ryan is also an efficient shooter, never finishing with a shooting percentage lower than 12.6 percent in four years (14.4 percent over his 332-game career).

Ryan’s contract is certainly favorable in relation to his comparables, performance-wise (source for comparables: Only Corey Perry and Phil Kessel are more productive goal scorers among contract comparables, and both have heavier cap burdens. Ryan's contract carries a $5.1 million cap burden for three more seasons.

Of course, that contract also means that a team wanting to relieve Anaheim of Ryan’s services will have to pony up assets in trade. What might that look like? Well, compare Ryan to his contract comparables who were themselves traded. Phil Kessel commanded two first round draft picks and a second round draft pick from Toronto. Jeff Carter was traded from Philadelphia to Columbus for a top-six forward (Jakub Voracek) as well as a first and third round draft pick. James Neal was traded with a defenseman (Matt Niskanen) by Dallas to Pittsburgh for a defenseman (Alex Goligoski).

A first-round pick and a top-six forward/top-four defenseman (or players having clear potential for becoming one) would seem to be where the negotiations for such a player would start. As far as who might be in the running for such a player as Ryan, the Philadelphia Flyers would seem to be at the head of the list. Ryan is a native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. And the Flyers certainly are not averse to trading. The thing is, though; forwards seem to be an exchange commodity in Philly. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and James van Riemsdyk all have been traded away over the past 12 months. Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and Jakub Voracek were the forwards in return (and Schenn has been mentioned as a player going to Anaheim in return).

Could the Caps be a contender for Ryan’s services? Well, they do have a hole on right wing into which Ryan could fit. So, need is covered. As for trading, well, this is where things get interesting. Since the lockout, who have the Caps traded away that could be considered a current or potential top-six forward or top-four defenseman? If we want to stretch the point…

  • The Caps dealt defenseman Brendan Witt to Nashville for Kris Beech and a 1st round pick in 2006. But in that deal, Witt had already expressed having no interest in being part of a rebuild.
  • In 2007 the Caps sent forward Richard Zednik to the New York Islanders for a second round pick. They later sent Dainius Zubrus (and Timo Helbling) to Buffalo for Jiri Novotny and a first round pick.
  • In 2008 they sent Steve Eminger and a draft pick to Philadelphia for a first-round draft pick (that became John Carlson).
  • In 2010 they rented Joe Corvo from Carolina for Brian Pothier (and Oskar Osala and a draft pick).
  • In 2012 they traded Cody Eakin and a draft pick to Dallas for Mike Ribeiro.

With one exception (the last one), it is mostly rentals or sale items as the last parts of the post-lockout rebuild. The Caps simply haven’t done a trade on the scale of what it would take to get Ryan. As practitioners of a draft-centric personnel management philosophy, trading away young talent and/or draft picks is not in the manual. We have seen on some message boards and other outlets the idea of cobbling together a package along the lines of defenseman Dmitry Orlov, forward Marcus Johansson, and a first round pick. That would be in the ballpark of trades among Ryan’s comparables mentioned above (but given Ryan’s age and likely productive years ahead, probably on the low side). And while that’s all well and good, we’re betting the Flyers could top that offer because, well, they’re the Flyers. Trading is what they do. Even if they would not, there is still the matter of the Caps’ disinclination do such “blockbuster” deals that involve futures on their end. With that in mind, we think the idea of a trade for Ryan intriguing, but unlikely.

Probability of Acquisition: 15 percent

Shane Doan

Shane Doan’s roots are so deep in Phoenix, they go all the way back to Manitoba. He was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1995 and played for the Jets in their last season in Winnipeg before moving to Phoenix for the 1996-1997 season. Over almost 1,200 regular season games (1,198 in fact) he has seen it all – the interesting uniform choices, the Gretzky years, “The Goal,” team bankruptcy, rumors of moving to another city. What he has not seen is a lot of playoff games. In 16 seasons Doan has tasted the playoffs nine times, only once advancing past the first round (the Coyotes reached the Western Conference final this past season).

Now, Doan is a free agent. He is not as productive as he once was, and he will turn 36 years of age in the first week of next season. But he has this going for him – nine consecutive seasons of posting at least 50 points. He has recorded 20 or more goals in 11 of the last 12 seasons. He has been the Coyotes’ captain since the 2003-2004 season. He is big and ornery. He is as durable as granite, not playing in fewer than 73 games in any of the past 13 seasons (a total of 38 games missed in those 13 seasons).

If Doan is looking for something completely different, what would be more different than trading the Southwest for the Mid-Atlantic? Phoenix has expressed confidence in its ability to re-sign Doan, but there is still the unsettled situation concerning the Coyotes franchise. Doan is Coyote Hockey, to the extent such a tradition exists. And having spent 15 seasons in the Southwest, 16 with the same franchise, it is hard to see him playing for another club. But if the Caps wanted to re-fill the “Mike Knuble” seat, Doan is head of the class to do so.

Probability of Acquisition: 10 percent

Justin Schultz

We add this name because there seems to be a lot of buzz surrounding him recently. Justin Schultz was a second-round pick (43rd overall) of the Anaheim Ducks in 2008. He has spent the past three seasons as a defenseman for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. That number “three” is important here. In late May, Schultz “de-registerd” from the University, upon which the Ducks had a 30-day window with exclusive rights to sign him or to trade his rights. They have done neither, and he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. Here we are, four years removed from Schultz’ selection as a second-round pick. Why the buzz? Well, scoring 34 goals in 78 games over his last two seasons as a defenseman for a major NCAA hockey program will get one’s attention.

Would he be ready to fill a hole on the Caps’ blue line right away? We would not think so, but a player who has already spent three years honing his skills in a respected college program who could come relatively cheap on an entry level contract (performance bonuses could up that amount substantially) should be attractive to any team. As far as who seems attractive to Schultz, speculation on where he will sign appears to focus on Toronto, Detroit, and Vancouver; but Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers have been mentioned. It is hard to find a team that is not interested. We assume the Caps are interested, but is Schultz interested in the Caps? The Caps are never in anyone’s sights until the team announces something, but he would fit nicely with Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Dmitry Orlov and up-and-comers on defense. He might even be the best “Schultz” on the team.

Probability of Acquisition: 10 percent (just for interest’s sake)

So, how might the Caps fill their remaining holes at right wing and defense? Answering that question requires acknowledgment of an uncomfortable truth. The Caps could open next season with no rookie skaters on the parent roster. Dmitry Orlov just completed his rookie season; Cody Eakin did likewise and has been traded. Evgeni Kuznetsov is not coming to America, at least not now. Filip Forsberg will spend at least another year in Sweden. Stanislav Galiev will spend this year in Hershey. It would be a reach to think anyone from last season’s Hershey roster will be on the Caps’ opening night roster or would get any significant time with the big club over the course of the season.

If you start from there, then the holes can be filled only from outside the organization (unless certain players are going to be asked to play above their comfort level). And if the Caps follow their recent path, mid-level/bargain-priced FA’s would seem to be the way they would go. This is not the deepest free agent class in high end talent, but there could be targets here for the Caps in familiar places. Look at players such as P-A Parenteau (18-49-67 last season; 29 years old/$1.25M cap hit last season) or Mikael Samuelsson (14-17-31; 35/$2.5M), among forwards. To add depth on defense, targets might include the likes of a Jason Garrison (16-17-33; 27/$675K) or a Francis Bouillon (4-7-11; 36/$1.35M). Not that those are necessarily the players the Caps would target, but they fit a certain profile – mid-priced free agents. It’s not unlike last year with Joel Ward (overpayment premium notwithstanding) or Roman Hamrlik.

In any event, the Caps will almost certainly test the free agent waters; they just are not likely to be swimming in the deep blue sea. We’ll see if they are the right things to do or not.