Saturday, July 04, 2015

Washington Capitals: After a Week of Change, Time to Take a Breath

If you are a member of the Washington Capitals community, it has been quite a week.  It started with a controversial entry draft in which the Caps selected a goaltender with their first round pick and traded two draft picks to move into the second round to take a defenseman.  That was followed up with an opening to the unrestricted free agent signing period in which they signed a winger, then traded for another.  It was for the Caps as busy a week as one could imagine.

It’s time to take a breath and look at what they’ve got.

First, the departures.  The Capitals lost three of their top eight point-getters of the 2014-2015 season.  Mike Green (70 games, 10-35-45, plus-15) signed a three-year/$18 million deal with the Detroit Red Wings on the first day of the unrestricted free agent signing period.  Joel Ward (82 games, 19-15-34, minus-4) signed a three-year/$9.825 million contract with the San Jose Sharks on Friday.  Troy Brouwer (82 games, 21-22-43, plus-11) was sent to the St. Louis Blues with prospect goaltender Pheonix Copley and a 2016 third round draft pick for forward T.J. Oshie.  Another departure might be imminent; Eric Fehr has not yet signed a new contract with a new team, but neither has he signed one with the Caps.

That is a sizable chunk of the Capitals’ offense from last season – 69 of the team’s 237 total goals scored (29.1 percent) and 16 of the team’s 60 power play goals (26.7 percent).  And let’s not downplay the durability aspect, either.  Ward and Brouwer appeared in all 82 games last season and between them missed only one game over the past two seasons.  Green appeared in 72 games, his highest total since he skated in 75 games in 2009-2010.  Fehr appeared in 75 games, the most for which he dressed in a season in his ten-year career.

On the other hand, neither Green nor Brouwer recorded a goal in 14 postseason games this year and combined for only five points.  Ward tied for the team lead in points (9) and got a fair amount of first line duty, which might not have been the role one envisioned for him when the playoffs started.  Fehr was limited by injury to four games in which he did not record a point.

Retention of all four posed problems for the Caps.  For Ward it was not so much his production – he was a productive player in a third-line role – as it was his expiring contract.  Ward will turn 35 years of age in December, and a longer term deal (he was said to be seeking a four-year contract) almost certainly would have raised value questions in the last years of the agreement.  In a league where younger and faster seems to be the rule of the day, an aging forward might not have been the way to go.  And let’s face it, this is where a Brooks Orpik contract comes into play…did the Caps want another player who might have issues on the back end of a contract encumbering cap room? 

For Brouwer, the confounding part of his play was his postseason production.  The absence of goals in 2015 was not an aberration.  In 35 post season games with Washington he recorded a total of three goals and managed a total of only nine points.  In his last 47 postseason games dating back to his time with the Chicago Blackhawks he has only those three goals.  In his role as a top-six forward, that kind of production was not conducive to team success.

Green was the prototypical offensive defenseman for much of his career.  Injuries and circumstance ate into his production until he found himself as a third-pair defenseman for last year’s edition of the Caps and had ceded much of his first unit power play duty to John Carlson over the past two seasons.  Green will turn 30 just after the start of the 2015-2016 season and should be considered still in his prime.  However, with the Caps set among their top four defenders (John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen), Green would have continued in a more limited role and thus could not justify the large contract he could – and did – obtain in free agency.

For Fehr, the matter was his health, despite his setting a career high in games played in a season.  Sustaining another shoulder injury in the postseason was the latest in a series of injuries to the joint.  It was the last straw with respect to a shoulder that had given Fehr difficulty for much of the season.

There is another departure worth noting, and that is Pheonix Copley.  Part of the trade that sent Troy Brouwer to St. Louis on Friday, Copley was arguably number three on the team’s goaltending depth chart, behind Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer (depending on how you feel about Justin Peters these days).  Copley was ticketed for the number one goaltender role with the Hershey Bears this coming season after a surprising season in which he went 17-4-3, 2.17, .925, with three shutouts for the Bears.  He was the latest in a string of unheralded goaltenders who rocketed up the depth chart.  As an undrafted free agent, he followed Holtby (a fourth round draft pick in 2008) and Grubauer (a fourth rounder in 2010) in staking a claim as a future number one netminder.

Now, the additions.  Those draft picks last Friday have sparked quite a bit of conversation.  After realizing the aforementioned success in finding promising goaltenders in later rounds of the draft or as undrafted free agents, the Caps selected a goaltender with the 22nd overall pick – Ilya Samsonov.  Complicating the pick is the fact that Samsonov is expected to play in the KHL for the next three seasons.  He is the first netminder taken in the first round by the Caps since they took Semyon Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick in 2006.  There are more questions than answers with any draft pick, even a first rounder, but the questions about Samsonov are obvious.  Why a goalie in the first round when: a) the Caps have found value at the position in later rounds, and b) when elite goaltenders are at least as often taken later in the draft (Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Ryan Miller) as they are in the first round (Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Roberto Luongo)?  Why take a goalie that is not expected to play a game in North America until the 2018-2019 season?  Why not a skater in that spot, given the recent success the Caps have had drafting in the lower third of the first round

Then there is the defenseman the Caps burned two draft picks to get in the second round – Jonas Siegenthaler.  He is variously described as “smooth skating with…size and mobility,”  strong and responsible…without much in the way of an offensive game,” “not flashy, but solid and steady (Red Line Report).”  If that sounds to you like Karl Alzner, it does to us, too.  In that sense, drafting such a defenseman at 57th overall seems like a bargain, but then again in the 15 drafts before this one the Caps selected a total of 12 players in the 51-70 overall range.  Know how many of them played in at least 100 games for the Caps?  One (Dmitry Orlov: 119).

It was the first week of the unrestricted free agent signing period that was eventful – though let’s hold off on calling it “monumental” – for the Caps.  The Capitals addressed a clear need, a scoring line right winger, late on Day 1 of the signing period.  Justin Williams inked a two-year/$6.5 million deal that works on multiple levels.  First, he is a winner.  By now, every Caps fan knows that he is 7-0 in Games 7 in the postseason, and he has an NHL record seven goals in those games (shared with hall of famer Glenn Anderson) and 14 points.  At the moment, there are only four Capitals with at least seven goals and 14 points in all playoff games played with the team – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera.

Williams also takes some pressure off the sophomores in the forward ranks – Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov.  Based on their performance last season and a reasonably productive postseason (particularly Kuznetsov in the postseason), the club was likely to lean on them considerably in the upcoming season, particularly if Ward and Eric Fehr were to depart in free agency.  Williams’ arrival gives them a bit of room to grow into a more important role over the next two seasons.  Think of Williams as being a “bridge” to that possibility.

Then there is the cost.  There was a lot of conversation about the Capitals being in the market for Chicago Blackhawk forward Patrick Sharp.  The 33-year old winger has two more years on his current contract with a $5.9 million average annual value attached to it.  Procuring the services of a three-time Stanley Cup winner who had three 30-plus goal seasons among his last four full seasons (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) might well have cost the Caps a heavy price.  Chicago’s asking price was reported to be a first-round pick, an A-level prospect, and a top-six forward on an entry level contract.  A first, Madison Bowey, and Andre Burakovsky for a 30-plus year old winger on an expensive contract?  Surely the actual price would have been lower, but it still would have been substantial.  Signing Williams cost the Caps nothing in terms of players, and his cap hit will be $2.65 million lower.

Signing Williams might have made for a pretty good week, but the Caps were not finished.  Late Thursday they executed a trade, sending forward Troy Brouwer, goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley, and a third round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues for forward T.J. Oshie.  At first blush this is an exchange of forwards of vaguely similar profiles.  In his four seasons with the Capitals, Brouwer scored at a 23-19-43, minus-4 pace per 82 games.  Oshie had a pace of 20-37-57, plus-13 in seven seasons with the Blues.  That is not where the similarities are, though.  Brouwer was 3-6-9, minus-5, in 35 postseason games with Washington, while Oshie was 5-4-9, minus-12, in 30 postseason games with the Blues.  It is a similarity many will not want to see continued, at least on the Washington side of the trade.

There is a cost consideration here, too.  In terms of current cap management, the effect of Oshie’s arrival and Brouwer’s departure is a net $750,000 increase in Washington’s cap number.  But think of this in the larger context.  The Caps added two forwards to address the right wing weakness (Oshie and Williams), lost one (Brouwer), with a net increase of $4.0 million in the team’s cap number, $1.9 million less than the hit Patrick Sharp would have had on the cap, and Washington did not have to part with an A-level prospect or a top-six forward on an entry-level deal.

This brings us to the notion of winners and losers, which is something one always thinks about in trades, and that is where Copley comes into play.  The glow of the acquisition of Oshie aside (and we suspect that his impact will not be quite what Caps fans might think of it this weekend), the winner of this trade might rest on how Copley progresses down the road.  In one respect, the Caps did not give up a lot here, owing to their organizational depth at the position.  Not knowing how long this trade was in the works, if it was being discussed with the Blues over the last few weeks, it might explain the Caps taking a goalie in the first round (you might disagree with the execution of that strategy; we only offer it as a strategic scenario).  The Caps remain deep at goaltender and are still in a position to think in terms of a five-year succession plan for their goalies (one can envision the Caps losing Braden Holtby as an unrestricted free agent in 4-5 years and having Samsonov take over, for example).

For the Blues, they get a prospect from a club that has a track record of finding talent at the position in later rounds or, as Copley was, an undrafted free agent.  What they will not know is whether that track record can add another name for another three or four years.  Even though he will turn 24 this season, Copley is still very green (one season as a backup in Hershey) with much left to prove before he can assume the reins of a number one goaltending position in the NHL.

Overall, the Caps have made a rather substantial change to their roster in an important respect.  The 2014-2015 team was characterized as playing a “heavy” style of game that ground down opponents physically.  The flip side of that is that the Caps were vulnerable to teams that relied more on speed – the New York Rangers (who beat the Caps in the second round of the postseason), New York Islanders (who took the Caps to seven games in the first round), and the Tampa Bay Lightning (a Cup finalist) come to mind.  Subtracting Brouwer and Ward (and perhaps Fehr), and adding Williams and Oshie adds a bit of speed and more than a bit of skill among the top nine-forwards.  The Caps could ice a top six of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie on the top line, and a second line of Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams that would be among the most skilled top-six groups in the league by the end of the regular season, assuming Burakovsky and Kuznetsov continue their progress.

If anything, this week was one in which general manager Brian MacLellan firmly imprinted his stamp on the team.  For the second consecutive year, MacLellan identified a need and addressed it aggressively.  Last summer it was defense and the addition of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.  This week it was addressing a weakness at right wing by adding Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie.  All four acquisitions can be thought of as a piece.  The Caps are no longer marketing futures.  Sure, the draft is and will remain the foundation of personnel management.  However, everyone recognizes by now that Alex Ovechkin (30 years old this September) and Nicklas Backstrom (28 in November) do not have long shelf lives left as elite players.  There is an emerging window of perhaps 4-5 years in which the Caps will have both players still at an elite level and a good pool of prospects growing into responsible roles.  Adding veterans with a record of performance and success who can step into top-four defense or top-six forward roles and be productive becomes a bigger part of roster management than it was in the years immediately following the rebuild.  For the Caps, there is still work to be done before the roster is set for Opening Night.  However, the days of the Young Guns are over.  The future is now.

Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images

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