Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar... Brooks Laich Edition

We might have harbored a thought that Brooks Laich would be re-signed by the Washington Capitals, but we thought that: a) he would have to give the home team a pretty deep discount relative to what other teams might pay on the unrestricted free agency market, and b) that the chances of that were pretty dim.

A lot we knew. Laich agreed to a six-year/$27 million contract that will keep him in Capitals red through the 2016-2017 season. He can now be considered among the “core” Capitals – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin. The “Young Guns” have become the “Five Card Studs.” If you add in John Carlson and Karl Alzner (Alzner still having to be signed), they might be “The Magnificent Seven.”

But for the moment, what does that do to the salary chart with the unrestricted free agent signing period due to begin at noon on Friday? Well, based on our take of who is signed and who encumbers a roster spot at the moment, it might look like this:

There would still be some signings to accommodate…

If Troy Brouwer should end up with, say, Brooks Laich’s old contract (a $2.067 million cap hit), the Caps would look to have three roster spots and about $8.9 million in cap room.

Add in Karl Alzner at about the same hit, and we’re down to two roster spots and about $6.8 million in cap room.

Boyd Gordon? Maybe he gets Matt Bradley’s old contract at a million per. Now it’s one roster spot and about $5.8 million.

Which brings us to three remaining question marks. First, whither Semyon Varlamov? Does he take the KHL money and run? Do the Caps pony up $3 million or so to keep him? Let’s pencil that in. Net of Braden Holtby’s reduction as he is assigned to Hershey, the Caps would have one roster spot and about $3.4 million in cap room. If Varlamov does not re-sign, the Caps are going to find themselves with considerable cap room to sign a veteran backup (if the idea is to give Holtby a lot of work in Hershey).

The second question mark is whether any roster players are going to be traded. The big ticket players that have been the subject of some discussion (the credibility of which we leave to you, dear reader) are Alexander Semin and Mike Green. One line of thinking would be that moving either of them for picks and/or prospects would free up cap space to pursue a high-end free agent (at this point, that population is probably down to one – Brad Richards; it’s a thin free agent class). Another line of thinking is that the Caps might move either of them to adjust the personality of the team, bringing back equal value (or as equal as they can obtain) but a different type of player. Supposedly lending credence to this view is the timing of the announcement of the Laich deal, coming after the trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter from Philadelphia. The logic here is that the Caps were pursuing either of these players, but having failed to complete a deal (Richards going to Los Angeles, Carter to Columbus), they could sign Laich to a $4.5 million cap hit.

We are not convinced as to the latter logic, because the arithmetic didn’t demand that the former (a trade) preclude the latter (Laich’s signing). Even with Laich back in the mix, the Caps are still more than $3 million under the cap after all our machinations. If Semin or Green was to be traded for a $5 million a year player, it would be more or less a wash in terms of salary cap burden. Not even if one is worried about locking up John Carlson after the 2011-2012 season (when he becomes a restricted free agent) does the arithmetic look all that bad. Dennis Wideman could come off the books at that point, Mike Knuble’s contract will have expired, as would Eric Fehr’s and Jason Chimera’s (although all would have to be replaced, but presumably at lower cost). The point being that the Caps would have flexibility under the cap in 2012-2013 so as not to unduly hamstring the 2011-2012 cap.

But we are left with the third question, and that is the future of Tom Poti. In its own way, the money associated with his contract is perhaps more important than the deal Laich just agreed to. Poti carries a $2.875 million cap hit over the next two seasons. He also played in only 21 games last season, none after January 12th due to recurring groin problems. Whether he returns to the ice at all is a question mark, and whether he does or does not poses different problems.

If Poti does return, but is either a diminished player or still subject to intermittent absence due to recurrence of injuries, it is a $2.875 million cap hit without perhaps the level of performance hoped for when that contract was signed. If he does not return to the ice, the cap relief provided (and reflected in our scribbling) presents the problem of trying to shore up the lack of depth on the blue line that would result. Having Mike Green, John Carlson, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz, and (presumably) Karl Alzner is nice, but would John Erskine really be the permanent answer in that sixth spot on defense? And after that, who are those 7-8-9 defensemen that might see games for the Caps over the course of the season? That could mean a re-signing of Scott Hannan, but even if Hannan takes a pay cut from the $4.5 million cap hit he had on his previous deal, it seems unlikely it would come down by $1.6 million to play with the Caps.

In the end, it might be Poti’s situation more than Laich’s that governs the Caps strategy this summer, the logic here being that Laich was in the Caps plans, and Poti is and will remain an uncertainty. That the Caps would sign Laich to such a big number and long term suggests that they were focused on him not going to free agency and probably had him in their planning as a result. Poti is more of a wild card, a player for whom meaningful planning seems difficult at the moment, at least from the fan’s chair. It is really because of this uncertainty that we think another trade is in the works. The Caps might want to offload salary to make room for a Scott Hannan re-sign or to accommodate Poti’s cap hit with some flexibility remaining under the cap, because either the Hannan (or other defenseman) or Poti option does put pressure on the salary cap that the Caps would have to deal with.

Just goes to show, with this many moving parts, so many contracts, deals, and such that have to be managed over time, it ain’t easy being a general manager these days.

2010-2011 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Semyon Varlamov

Semyon Varlamov

Theme: “Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved away.”
-- Donald Judd

Donald Judd was an artist described as a “minimalist,” but that particular style is one that cannot be applied to Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov. And therein might be the problem. The adjectives that attach to Varlamov might more appropriately be: “athletic,” “acrobatic,” “dazzling,” or “explosive.” Whatever adjective you choose, Varlamov’s style in goal and the achievements he has attained as a result have come at a price. In the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons Varlamov played in 26 and 27 games, respectively. Twenty goaltenders played in more minutes this past season than Varlamov played in the last two (3,087). The problem takes the form of a list (from

10/16/2010: Missed 4 games (undisclosed).
11/10/2010: Missed 13 games (groin).
01/22/2011: Missed 1 game (lower body injury).
03/22/2011: Missed 11 games (knee injury).

It has become an unfortunate recurring theme in the early stages of Varlamov’s career – a susceptibility to groin and leg injuries. It is hard for him, or any goaltender, to achieve a sense of rhythm and continuity when he is in the lineup briefly, then out of the lineup for significant stretches. And it is especially unfortunate in the case of Varlamov, given that he rarely fails to perform at a high level in those instances in which he is in the lineup.

Varlamov missed the opening of the 2010-2011 season, then appeared in two games (both against Boston); in neither of which did he play well, perhaps an artifact of his early season injury. That he had lingering effects when he came back was evident when he missed 13 games after his second game appearance, not seeing his third game of action until Game 23 of the season. It would end up being a continuing theme all season. Varlamov had five instances in which he appeared in consecutive games in the 2010-2011 season: a four-game stretch from November 24 through December 1st, two games on December 12th and 15th, five games from December 26th through January 8th, two games on January 12th and 15th, and three games from January 26th through February 4th (that one broken up by the All-Star Game break).

But when he performed, he did so quite well. If you discount those first two appearances, when he might have still be suffering an injury, in none of his other five ten-game splits in which he played at least one game did he have a goals against average above 2.41, nor did he have a save percentage lower than .912. Those “worst” numbers are important in this respect; they are approximately the season averages for the Caps’ other primary goaltender, Michal Neuvirth (2.45, .914).

We spoke of rhythm and continuity above. Here is an example of the problem Varlamov had in establishing it. In baseball, one speaks often of a pitcher being a “stopper,” of being able to take the mound after a loss and “stopping” a losing streak or preventing a streak from getting started. The rough analogy here is the goaltender who appears after sitting out in a loss. Varlamov did that on ten occasions in 2010-2011, compiling a record of 3-6-0 (one “no decision”), 3.12, .896. Take away those “first games back” after losses, and his record was 8-3-5, 1.73, .939. If Varlamov had been able to establish any continuity by playing in, say, the 57 games that Tim Thomas played in, it is not impossible to think that Varlamov might have been a Vezina finalist. As it is, his ten-game splits look like this:

While his numbers improved in 2010-2011, we are left with the fact that Varlamov appeared in only one more game in 2010-2011 than he did in 2009-2010. In the former, he had to split time with Jose Theodore, although he did have his bouts with injury. In 2010-2011, the Caps held what amounted to a season-long audition to find out who their number one netminder would be heading into the playoffs, and Varlamov’s health became an issue, if not a determinant in that decision. His 2010-2011 numbers compare to his 2009-2010 numbers as follows:

Odd Varlamov Fact… Varlamov’s GAA in losses of 2.74 was still better than the total GAA of Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson, and Steve Mason. His save percentage of .907 in losses was still better than Miikka Kiprusoff’s total save percentage (.906), Martin Brodeur (.903), and Steve Mason (.901).

Game to Remember… January 1, 2011. In the league’s marquee regular season game -- the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh against the Penguins -- Varlamov was named the game’s first star for stopping 32 of 33 shots, including all 16 that he faced in a first period that featured a lot of back and forth action. Despite an intermittent rain that played havoc with the puck, Varlamov reminded a national television audience of his remarkable skills that were first put on display in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Game to Forget… December 12, 2010. It started harmlessly enough – one goal allowed on eight shots faced in the first period at the hands of the New York Rangers. But Artem Anisimov scored for the Blueshirts 59 seconds into the second period. Marian Gaborik scored barely two minutes later, and the rout was on. By the time the Rangers finished their scoring at the 13:31 mark of the third period, Varlamov had allowed seven goals on 20 shots (the Rangers would not have another shot on goal in the last 6:29). The save percentage of .650 for the game was, by far, the worst of his brief career to date.

Post Season… He did not have a chance to change his baseball cap for a mask, recording no minutes in any of the nine Caps playoff games.

In the end, there really isn’t much mystery to Varlamov’s season or his career to date, for that matter. He is a remarkable talent who simply hasn’t been able to stay in the lineup long enough to cement his status as the go-to number one goaltender. His absence in the second round of the playoffs against Tampa Bay (despite a season mark of 2-1-1, 1.49, .949, and one shutout) was testimony to a lack of confidence – however misplaced it might have been, given the nature of a playoff series – in his ability to play at a high level for a sustained period of time.

And now Varlamov’s career in Washington is at a crossroads. There are persistent rumors of his having an offer to jump to the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for the opportunity to be that number one goaltender at a salary far above what he made with the Caps in 2010-2011. Whether that offer is for the rumored $4 million or not, one can only assume that the offer is substantial – Varlamov is a goalie of considerable gifts who has not yet reached his prime. Whether the Caps would be willing to push his compensation past, say, $3 million or so (especially in light of: a) Michal Neuvirth's $1.150 million cap hit, and b) the Caps’ re-signing of Brooks Laich for $4.5 million per year in salary cap hit) is uncertain, to say the least.

For Varlamov to justify such a bump in compensation, he has to prove something that he hasn’t yet proved and that has little to do with his skill. It is whether he can shake the idea that he is fragile, so that he can be placed as the number one goaltender and never moved away to the end of the bench in a baseball cap.

Grade: B