Friday, August 23, 2013

Washington Capitals -- Mikhail Grabovski: The Virtues of Patience and Our Next Contestant

“Marry’d in haste, we may repent at leisure.”

-- William Congreve, “The Old Bachelor”

Today’s signing of center Mikhail Grabovski by the Washington Capitals serves as an example of the virtues resisting the temptation to “marry in haste.”  Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal had this question yesterday about a potential Grabovski signing…
“If it’s true as a radio report in Belarus says that the much-maligned ex Maple Leafs’ centre Mikail Grabovski is signing a one-year $3 million deal with the Washington Capitals…what took the Caps so long to jump on this guy after losing Mike Ribeiro to Dallas as a free-agent with Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle as the No.  2 and No. 3 centres behind Nicklas Backstrom?”

In his Dump and Chase post earlier today on what was, in fact, Grabovski’s signing by the club, Mike Vogel had the information that serves as the answer…
“Teams went hard after top tier centers in free agency; the likes of Mike Ribeiro (four years at $5.5 million per), Stephen Weiss (five years, $4.9 million annually), Tyler Bozak (five years at $4.2 million annually) and Valtteri Filppula (five years, $5 million per season) were all signed within the first few hours of free agency and Derek Roy (one year at $4 million) signed with the Blues a few days later.”

Ribeiro, Weiss, Bozak, Filppula, and Roy are all fine players.  You might debate whether Grabovski is on a par with them (we think at the very least he compares favorably).  Nevertheless, Grabovski fills a perennial urgent need for the Caps – someone to provide reliable and productive minutes as the second line center.  One would think that he will assume the role of Mike Ribeiro at both even strength and, perhaps, in Ribeiro’s role as the trigger man on the power play from the goal line-extended in head coach Adam Oates’ scheme.  He is sturdier and better defensively; he is likely to be a more effective five-on-five player.

That is the obvious benefit of Grabovski’s signing.  The less obvious one has to do with patience.  In a salary cap world, teams cannot just go out a buy up talent (the New York Rangers’ apparent operating plan of a decade or so ago).  Dollars have to be stretched, and if a club can save a million or two dollars in cap room by evaluating the contours of the market, recognize the potential in waiting, and then still fill a need with a player who might have gone for that million or two more in July, that has to be a good thing. 

Why?  It’s not just getting a bargain signing in Grabovski.  It is what that bargain allows the club to do.  That extra million dollars (or two) can be put to productive use – fitting Marcus Johansson comfortably under the salary cap on his new deal (whenever that happens), obtaining the services of a depth forward, holding the cap room in reserve for the time when a trade might have to be made later in the season to fill a need or find a missing piece to the playoff puzzle.  The team has options on the ice in how Grabovski's signing affects the rest of the lineup; the club has options on how to address needs as they might arise as the season unfolds.

Grabovski is a fine player who looks even better under the cold light of possession data.  Signing him will make the Caps better.  But it is that extra cap room found by waiting that might be a valuable asset down the road, too.  Keep that in mind in the weeks and months ahead.

There is a “but,” however.  If you look at this deal in the here and now, it looks like a clear win for the Caps.  Grabovski has talent, and the team has saved cap room while plugging the second line center hole with a real second line center.   As we suggested, the signing opens up many more options among the forward lines that head coach Adam Oates can ponder and evaluate.  In 2013-2014, the Caps suddenly look much more capable of competing in the Metropolitan Division.

If one looks at the front office in the light of this deal, one has to conclude that it not only was the right move to make, but that the timing was impeccable.  It makes one wonder, how is it that deals such as this (and it is not an isolated circumstance) look so good – make the front office look so good – yet the Caps still struggle in the spring?

Part of it might be that we have been here before.  Just last year, in fact.  Cody Eakin and a draft pick were sent to Dallas in June 2012 for Mike Ribeiro, making Ribeiro (who had one more year on his contract) the solution du jour for the second line center position.  Before that, it was giving the kids a try – Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault.  Before that, it was Jason Arnott as a rental.  Before that, Brendan Morrison on a one-year deal.  Before that, it was Sergei Fedorov in the twilight of his career (made necessary when Michael Nylander went down to injury).  After he was obtained at the trading deadline in 2008, Fedeorov was signed…to a one-year deal.

The position has been one cobbled together with the hockey equivalent of spit and baling wire for the last half dozen years, a series of experiments, rentals, and one-year deals.  In that context, Grabovski is the latest wad of spit or loop of baling wire.  His signing is already being framed as a chance to secure a bigger payday (presumably with another team) if he performs well for the Caps.  Well, that’s what Mike Ribeiro did, too.  In the end, what good did it do for the Caps last spring?

In this context, the theme might be less the musings of a 17th century playright on marriage but the opening to that old panel game show of the 1950's and 1960's, "What's My Line?"...

"...Will the next contestant enter and sign in, please?"

We do not mean to splash cold water on the good time Caps fans are having at the moment.  This deal on its own merits has no apparent down side, and Grabovski will make this club better.  Adding to this era of good feeling is the role of Adam Oates in the signing, described in some detail in Mike Vogel's post.  Oates knows what he wants to do and has a plan for Grabovski's role in it.  One has to admire and take as a good sign this kind of organized thinking.

However, when we (or anyone else) says that Grabovski will make this club better, the operative phrase there is "this club" -- the 2013-2014 edition.  There is never a permanent (meaning: more than one year) solution to this problem the club seems to face every year.  We have seen this movie before.  The earlier releases of it did not have happy endings.  Perhaps this sequel will have that happy ending.  It is a happy beginning.


mostholy2 said...

While I can understand the concern around the continuing revolving door for the Caps 2C position based on the club's past years. I have a sense that if Grabovski plays well it may be different by the end of this season.

All the previous players the Caps have used at 2C did not demonstrate sufficient ability (Morrison, Flash, Laich, MarJo, MattyP) or were at an age where signing the player for significant $ and term was a clear risk for the club (Ribs, Federov, Arnott). Grabosvski is still young enough that the latter is a problem and this one year trial will tell if he can fulfill the role.

Hopefully, if Grabovski excels at his role during the course of this year, the Caps sign him to an extension before the start of Free Agency to solve the problem for a longer timeframe than just this year. Given that the Salary Cap is expected to go up next year, this also affords them the $ to be able to offer what Grabovski will be asking for if he does well.

I for one am quite happy with this signing. I think the signing brings the Caps from potential bubble playoff team (3/4/5 in Metro division) to solid playoff team with (hopefully) contender status this year (and for years to come).

Todd G said...

You are correct, but for some reason, this one feels different. As in, yes, it is only one year, but, for a change, I think that it could be extended if they want.

I haven't had a similar belief about any 2C since Fedorov.

Anonymous said...

I thought Ribs had gone to Phoenix. Curse you Lindy Ruff!