Tuesday, June 29, 2010

It's almost July, and that means...

In the United States, Independence Day is July 4th. In the NHL, it is July 1st, the day on which a lot of players will have the freedom to sign with whomever they choose among the 30 teams in the NHL. What might the Capitals do when it strikes noon Eastern time on July 1st? Will they bid for Ilya Kovalchuk? Well, of course not – the salary cap does have its limitations. But there are a lot of potential free agents out there that might fit the Caps’ budget. Will they fit the Caps’ grand design, though?

You might get a feeling for what the Caps might do by looking at their history. Specifically, their history in signing unrestricted free agents in the early-signing period, which for our purposes means July. Beginning with 2000, the Caps have signed 31 free agents in the month of July, as follows…

shaded: currently on Caps roster (OK...so is Nylander, but he's not going to be playing any games at Verizon Center with the Caps)

See any patterns in here?  The 2000-2009 period breaks into three distinct periods. The first looks an awful lot like a “marking time” signing group associated with the three signings in 2000. Both Sylvain Cote and Craig Berube were returning for their second tours with the Caps; both were 34 years old when signed this time around. In that first year after signing, Cote finished third in scoring among defensemen, but far behind Sergei Gonchar (57 points) and Calle Johansson (36) in that department. It’s more than Berube accomplished, as the burly winger was traded to the New York Islanders at mid-season to Vancouver for a ninth-round draft pick. Berube dressed for only 22 games before moving on. Todd Rohloff spent that entire year following his signing in Portland of the AHL, then had a difficult 2001-2002 season, one limited to 16 games with the Caps due to an ankle injury. It was not a memorable free agency class.

The second major group might be called, “The Jagr Group” covering the next two seasons. After trading for Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr in July 2001, then signing him to a long-term contract extension, the first group of free agency signings that followed appeared to have been with surrounding him with help in mind. Robert Lang was signed as a scoring center; Kip Miller was inked as more or less Jagr’s designated linemate. Both Lang and Miller played reasonably well in that first year, but the 2002-2003 season was an excruciatingly disappointing one, ending with a six-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the playoffs.

The second part of that “Jagr” era of free agent signings – those of July 2003 – was as clear an indicator one could imagine that the Caps knew this whole Jagr thing wasn’t working. Andrej Podkonicky, Garret Stroshien, and John Gruden are not names that any but the most obsessed Caps fan will recognize (at least not without prodding such as our just having typed their names). Their combined 16 games, one point, and minus-3 are a stark reminder that the Caps were: a) in the process of being reduced to the functional equivalent of an expansion team, and b) were beginning to act on that (they would blow up the parent roster over the course of the 2003-2004 season). If the first group of free agency signings was not memorable, this group might be noteworthy, not necessarily for the names, but for the turbulent history in which the signings were executed.

The third group – the post lockout group – gives an inkling of what one might expect when the clock starts on 2010 free agency on Thursday. Eight signings in 2006 had the look of a two-pronged strategy. First, signing Brian Pothier wasn’t especially newsworthy in the larger context of the league’s big signings (it was the summer of Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, to name two bigger signings). But it provided at least a measure of credibility after the rookie season of Alex Ovechkin that the Capitals were serious about building a competitive roster.

Caps fans will no doubt argue that Pothier was not an impact signing, but it helps to look at this as a process. The Caps just introduced Alex Ovechkin to the NHL, but the team on which he was playing was a weak one. A high-end signing, if it ever makes sense, would not make sense here. There were simply too many holes in the lineup for the Caps to invest top money to a free agent. It might be the difference between 70 standings points (their finish in 2005-2006, arguably a pleasantly overachieving one at the time) and 80 points in that next season. Better, but not enough to make the playoffs. The Brashear signing had the look of having Ovechkin – and his protection – in mind. In that respect, Brashear was as advertised in terms of his pugnaciousness, but given the changes in the game coming out of the lockout, the role of the enforcer was being called into question.

It is in the other six signings that the other part of the strategy was revealed. The Caps came out of the lockout with a newly minted number one overall draft pick on the parent roster, and they were also going forth with a new relationship with an AHL farm club. The Caps switched their affiliation from that with the Portland Pirates to one with the Hershey Bears in 2005. Alexandre Giroux, Chad Wiseman, and Quintin Laing all would be top-ten scorers for the Bears in the 2006-2007 season, and Dean Arsene would return to the Bears (where he played since 2004) and become such a fixture with the Bears that he earned the nickname “Mayor of Chocolatetown.” These signings served to cement a relationship between the NHL and AHL ends of a partnership.

2007 – crank things up a notch in terms of the quality of free agency signings and the objective in doing it. The outlook for the 2007-2008 Caps team was one of, well, they might challenge for a playoff spot, but they are probably at least a year away from that. One of the reasons for that was that they had some rather serious holes remaining both up front and on the blue line. Among the forwards, they had a known (if still green) commodity in Alex Ovechkin, but then a rookie (Nicklas Backstrom), a player still something of an unknown (Alexander Semin), and a young guys in roles of growing responsibility (Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann). Viktor Kozlov was not a high end signing (this was the Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Daniel Briere summer), but he filled a role – providing a measure of stability on the scoring lines. Ditto Michael Nylander, who could also provide something of a mentoring role for Backstrom.

On the back line, the Caps were even greener than at forward. Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Milan Jurcina. These three, with Brian Pothier, might have been thrown into top-four roles on a 70-point team of the sort the Caps were coming out of the lockout, but the club had progressed past that point. Even Brian Pothier had only two full seasons as an NHL starter. The signing of a free agent to fill a role and provide some veteran perspective made sense here. That defenseman would be Tom Poti. He was not the top-end sort of free agent that was available (like, say, Brian Rafalski), but he had eight full years of experience and could provide solid minutes for a blue-line corps that needed experience as much as anything else.

Having made the playoffs in 2007-2008, expectations were raised for the next edition of the Caps. Add to that the fact that the clock was running on the contracts of Alex Ovechkin and other youngsters, and one might have felt a bit more pressure in the 2008 off-season to fill what holes remained on the roster – and there still were holes. None, perhaps, were bigger than the hole at goaltender. The Caps had a somewhat messy divorce with long-time netminder Olaf Kolzig the previous spring, and Cristobal Huet – the hero of the 2008 stretch run – ended up taking an offer with the Chicago Blackhawks shortly after the free agency signing period began. That necessitated a “Plan B,” and that plan was executed in the signing of Jose Theodore. The former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner had a resume, but also something of a damaged reputation. His performance with the Montreal Canadiens after winning his pair of trophies was disappointing, and he was shipped to Colorado, where he was quite inconsistent. His role in signing with Washington was to win games, sure. But it also was to hold the number one goaltending job until such time as the pair of 2006 draft picks – Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth – were ready to take over. Theodore provided largely solid goaltending in both of his years in Washington. Unfortunately, he also displayed some of the inconsistency he displayed in his later tenure in Montreal and in Colorado and the playoff problems he had with the Avalanche.

Which brings us to the 2009 signings – Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. Again, there were top end free agents available (such as Marian Hossa), but each of Knuble and Morrison addressed a specific weakness. Knuble would address the lack of ability on the part of the Caps to score goals from in close. He built a solid resume as being just the sort of large-frame, hard-working player who would go into traffic, plant himself in front of the net, and score the ugliest goals imaginable. He could host hockey’s version of “Dirty Jobs.” Morrison was taken as a “low-risk/high-reward” sort of signing, a player with a recent history of injuries that depressed his value, but who did have a history of being able to center a first or second line. With Nicklas Backstrom solidly entrenched as the Caps number one center, Morrison would fill the void created by Sergei Fedorov, who signed with the KHL after his contract expired with the Caps.

Especially in the post-lockout period, you can see a pattern to the Caps’ free agency signings. They do not sign (make offers?... that’s another issue) high-end free agents. If a club is going to rely on the draft and draft players with the expectation that they be cornerstones for a decade or more, then that team cannot sign the high end free agent. They could never fill a roster that way. Having Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green all on their second contracts next season and in the fold for the rest of the decade in the case of Ovechkin and Backstrom makes “value” free agents signed to play a role on comparatively short contracts the pattern that has emerged.

And, the Caps will take risks in their signings. Morrison was signed with injury issues. Theodore was signed with consistency issues. Kozlov had the label of “underachiever.” And here is where a blemish appears in the Caps recent free agency signing history. Kozlov had one good season and one poor one, and then left for Russia. Morrison started hot, faded badly, and was almost an afterthought by the end of his one season in Washington. Theodore never really did shake either his penchant for inconsistency or his playoff problems (pulled as number one goaltender twice in two playoff seasons).

The Caps might very well go after a player of mid-range value with some risk attached – a Willie Mitchell, for instance, to shore up the blue line. They could go for a player to fill a specific role – a Matthew Lombardi, perhaps, to assume the number two center duties. But if Caps fans are thinking, hoping, praying that they will sign an Ilya Kovalchuk? Far beyond the Caps’ ability to pay. An Anton Volchenkov? Perhaps too much money to commit to a single free agent? A Dan Hamhuis? Given how the Caps approach free agency, we have doubts Hamhuis would be in the market for a three-year deal.

According to capgeek.com, the Caps have about $15.5 million in cap room and nine roster spots to fill. Some of those spots will be filled by re-signing their own restricted free agents (some of whom, such as Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, and Tomas Fleischmann, could get substantial raises). As a practical matter, one might expect that between those re-signings and some promotions from Hershey, there are three or four roster spots available (a second line center, a defenseman or two, perhaps a backup goaltender). There simply isn’t enough money available, or inclination for that matter, for the Caps to sign a high-end free agent in this class. They seem once more likely to go after the role player on a short-term (three years or fewer) contract that is consistent with building from the core out with players that are more or less interchangeable in those roles.

It might not be exciting, but if it ends in a Stanley Cup, no one will be complaining. However, that rumble of thunder in the background is that the Caps have implemented this strategy over the past several years with rather mixed results. Stay tuned.