Sunday, July 08, 2012

We've Only Just Begun...But

The Los Angeles Kings built a Stanley Cup-winning team this past season. For 29 other franchises, the construction proceeds. By appearances, some – like the Minnesota Wild, having signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter – will try to do it with splashy free contracts; others – the Philadelphia Flyers come to mind – will try to do it by moving chess pieces around in trade.

What are the Capitals up to? One could say that the latest installment of construction began with the trading deadline – an opportunity to trade assets for futures, continued through the first days of the free agent signing period, and then will continue through the summer until the Caps take the ice on opening night.

So, what have they to show for this year’s version of the process? Well…

In the two weeks ending with the February 27th trading deadline, the Capitals were one of four teams that did not execute any trades (Pittsburgh, Calgary, and Carolina being the others). One might have argued that with unrestricted free agents-to-be Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Tomas Vokoun, and Dennis Wideman, that the Caps had assets to move to stock up of draft picks and/or prospects. Then again, on deadline day the Caps were one point out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference and three out of the lead in the Southeast Division. One could have made the counter-argument that the Caps were hardly out of the playoff race, and to sell off assets would have been tantamount to conceding the season. The Caps were left with two plausible arguments – one to sell in preparation for seasons to come, the other to buy to gird themselves for a playoff push. What they did was stand pat.

The Capitals made a number of minor transactions after the season ended that looked more like faint aftershocks of deals that might have been made at the February trading deadline. After the Caps dealt forward Chris Bourque to Boston for forward Zach Hamill, they traded two of those free agents to be. Tomas Vokoun was traded to Pittsburgh for a 2012 seventh-round draft pick, and Dennis Wideman was traded to Calgary for the rights to defenseman Jordan Henry and a 2012 fifth-round draft pick.

Those deals left the Caps with a total of 11 draft picks for the next big mile marker in the NHL calendar, the 2012 entry draft in June. One of those draft picks would be used as part of a package to fill perhaps the biggest hole in the roster, a second line center. The well-traveled 54th overall pick (from Boston to Toronto to Colorado to Washington) was packaged with prospect forward Cody Eakin for Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro. That would be the only deal the Caps would swing involving 2012 draft picks, using their remaining ten picks to re-stock its prospect pool.

And that brings us to the free agent signing period that started on July 1st. The Capitals have not generally been swimmers in the deep end of the pool of free agents, so any thought of the club signing either of the prizes of this free agent class – New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter – was at best idle speculation or summertime dreaming. What the Caps did do, however, was add some depth. Forward Joey Crabb, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was signed on July 2nd. Ditto defenseman Garrett Stafford out of the Montreal Canadiens organization on July 2nd, defenseman Jack Hillen out of the Nashville Predators organization on July 3rd, and center Ryan Stoa on July 7th out of the Colorado Avalanche organization.

To that add the re-signings of Capitals’ properties Kevin Marshall, Jay Beagle, and Mathieu Perreault, plus the earlier re-signing of forward Mike Carman on June 29th and goaltender Dany Sabourin on May 30th, and it made for a relatively quiet beginning of the summer for the Capitals. The ins-and outs so far…

Taken individually, one could argue that at the trading deadline the Caps were in the midst of a playoff fight and did not have a compelling reason to effectively concede the 2011-2012 season by selling off assets such as Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun, Mike Knuble, or Jeff Halpern (or Alexander Semin, for that matter). One could argue that the 2012 draft class being not especially noteworthy, the Capitals did not have a compelling reason to bundle draft picks or prospects with the aim of jumping into the top-five from their position at 11th or 16th overall in the first round. One could argue that as a rule, unrestricted free agents are overpriced relative to production. Minnesota had its reasons for signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year/$98 million contracts, but unless the Wild are contending for a Stanley Cup – and soon – those contracts are not going to look nearly as good on, say, July 4, 2014 than they looked on this past July 4th when they were signed.

There are 95 days from July 9th to opening night on October 12th. The Caps have added an important piece and filled a persistent hole with the acquisition of Mike Ribeiro. But it is not as if their immediate competition in the Southeast Division have been idle. Tampa Bay filled a hole at goaltender with the acquisition of Anders Lindback from Nashville, signed a top-four defenseman in Matt Carle from Philadelphia, and added depth with Benoit Pouliot from Boston. Carolina doubled their complement of Staals by obtaining Jordan from Pittsburgh to play with brother Eric. Winnipeg added some scoring depth with forwards Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky, and added depth at goaltender with Jonas Gustavsson acquired from Toronto (edit: no they didn' a reader helpfully points out, The Monster is in Motown with the Red Wings).

In the end, we are still at the beginning of the summer. But while taken individually one could argue for the lack of action taken by the Caps since February to upgrade the parent roster, the club is now left with “trades” as the remaining tool to improve the roster (unless you are holding out hope that Phoenix’ Shane Doan will exchange one shade of red for another and sign a contract with the Capitals). And one has to think that the Caps will do something in trade, because if they do not, the roster they have at the moment (the biggest change being Mike Ribeiro in and Alexander Semin out) is not likely to be considered a favorite to win the Southeast Division, let alone be considered a favorite to go deep into the 2013 playoffs. Don’t think the rest of the summer won’t be interesting.