Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Rebuild...Renovation, Part III

Well, we covered the roster in the first two installments of the “renovation” phase of the rebuild, but there is also the matter of the architects and overseers of this phase of the rebuild. And since the rebuild began in earnest in 2004, the one thing that characterizes this element of the club is “continuity.” Draw a line from ownership to the general manager to scouting to the bench, and there isn’t much in the way of turnover.

Looking at hockey operations, the men in charge have been the men in charge, almost without exception, since the selloff.  George McPhee and Ross Mahoney have been in their respective positions since well before the selloff – McPhee having finished his 14th year as general manager and Mahoney his 13th as director of amateur scouting. And drilling a bit further, Brian MacLellan just finished his 10th season as Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel, and Don Fishman just finished his sixth season as AssistantGM/Director of Legal Affairs and the club’s “capologist.” Team ownership cannot be accused of capriciousness with respect to front office personnel.

It hasn’t been all that much different behind the bench. After Bruce Cassidy was relieved of his duties as head coach in December 2003 in favor of Glen Hanlon, the Caps would go another four years before making another change – Bruce Boudreau replacing Hanlon – the only head coaching change since the selloff began in earnest. Even down the line, the Caps have had four bench assistant coaches over the seven years since the tail end of the 2003-2004 season. Just as continuity has characterized front office operations, the same might be said of the on-ice management of the club.

So what do we have for this stability? Well, looking at the transaction listing in the 2010-2011 Caps Media Guide and the transaction listing at ESPN for the 2010-2011 season, the Caps have made approximately 120 transactions involving acquisition of players since the trade that sent Steve Konowalchuk and a draft pick to the Colorado Avalanche for Bates Battaglia and Jonas Johansson in October 2003 that might serve as the starting point for the selloff.* In all, 42 trades, nine waiver claims, and 70 or so other deals involving free agents or signing draft picks to entry contracts. A total of 128 players wore a Caps uniform from the 2003-2004 season through the 2010-2011 season. Some of those players were those who were sold off when the Caps embarked on their rebuild – Konowalchuk, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, for example. Others were, for lack of a more delicate term, fodder to feed the schedule – players who filled out the roster in the woebegone 2003-2004 season or those who encumbered a roster spot as the stars-to-be were learning their craft, but whose modest skill levels ensured that they would not be around when those young stars were ready for prime time.

In that sense, the Caps tore out the walls, the wiring, the plumbing… everything down to the studs in the 2003-2004 season. Then they lived modestly while the parts were assembled over the first three seasons after the lockout (even the 2007-2008 playoff run might be thought of as a pleasant surprise, given where the Caps started that season).

The constant was management, the only big change being when it became evident that Glen Hanlon was not the right fit for where the Caps were on their development curve and for the talent the Caps had developing for the core of their roster, which leaned more heavily toward the skill aspects of the game. The stability in the front office became reflected on the roster in terms of a slightly lower frequency of transactions. Until the Caps made a series trading deadline deals in 2008 to bolster the roster for their first playoff run since the lockout, the Caps made 68 transactions by our count (according to the Caps Media Guide) involving the acquisition of players over the 50 months since the Konowalchuk-to-Colorado trade in December of 2003. Since then, however, the Caps have had only 54 transactions over the 41 months since those February 2008 trading deadline deals.

The trades since the 2008 deadline deals are especially interesting:

June 20, 2008 Caps acquired a 1st round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft (John Carlson) from Philadelphia for Steve Eminger and a 3rd round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft (Jacob Deserres).

June 27, 2009 Caps acquired a 5th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft for Sami Lepisto.

July 17, 2009 Caps traded Keith Seabrook to Calgary for future considerations.

Dec. 28, 2009 Caps acquired Jason Chimera from Columbus for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina.

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Scott Walker from Carolina for a 7th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (later traded to Philadelphia, Ricard Blidstrand).

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Eric Belanger from Minnesota for a 2nd round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (Johan Larsson).

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Milan Jurcina from Columbus for a conditional draft pick.

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Joe Corvo from Carolina for Brian Pothier, Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.

July 28, 2010 Caps acquired D.J. King from St. Louis for Stefan Della Rovere

November 30, 2010 Traded F Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado for D Scott Hannan

February 26, 2011 Acquired D Dennis Wideman from Florida for C Jake Hauswirth and a 2011 third-round pick.

February 26, 2011 Acquired Jason Arnott from New Jersey for David Steckel and a 2012 second round draft pick

June 2, 2011 Acquired LW Taylor Stefishen from the Nashville Predators for a conditional pick in the 2013 draft.

June 24, 2011 Acquired Troy Brouwer from the Chicago Blackhawks for a 2011 first round draft pick

July 1, 2011 Traded G Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a 2012 first-round draft pick and a 2012 or 2013 second-round draft pick.

In all, 15 trades on this list, none of which can be seen as of the “blockbuster” variety. Which is not to say that there are not some real bargains in that list. The 2008 trade that netted a draft pick that would become John Carlson might not have looked like a lot at the time, but given that Carlson might be an anchor defenseman for a decade, and Philadelphia would eventually trade Eminger with Steve Downie and a draft pick for Matt Carle and a draft pick, and it seems like a real bargain (we’ll leave it to you to decide if John Carlson or Matt Carle is going to have the better career).  What is telling here is that while the trades were not of the "blockbuster" variety, it would be hard to argue that the Caps came out on the low end of any of them.  Some might not have worked out as intended (the Corvo trade or the King trade, for example), but you can't say the Caps were "taken" in any of them.

On the other hand, getting Dennis Wideman for a prospect and a pick solidified the Caps’ blue line and helped the power play some until Wideman’s season was ended by injury. And, he will be back for the 2011-2012 season.  Trading an oft-injured goaltender for a first and second round draft pick provides no guarantees, but given how the Caps have drafted since the lockout, provides some cause for optimism about futures.

But the trades, for the most part, were for players to fill roles in the support group. They were not trades to establish core players. The Caps chose a different path to fill those core roles, and it has been adhered to patiently. So, for fans wishing and hoping for the Caps to make that “really big deal”… keep waiting. It just is not how the architects of the roster do business.

And this paints a bigger picture. The “rebuild,” such as it was, was limited to the ice – players and to a limited extent behind the bench. The architects and overseers have been firmly in place to manage the effort since its inception. As far as the on-ice product is concerned, the Caps have parlayed this strategy into reliable contention for a playoff spot. Four consecutive years of post-season play, and since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench a regular season record of 189-79-39 in 307 games.

But that success has not carried over into the post-season, where the Caps are 2-4 in six playoff series and a games record of 17-20. The frustration at this level is merely the latest instance of frustration that dates back to the first Caps playoff appearance in 1983 – 36 seasons, 22 playoff appearances, and only twice advancing past the second round. And a fan might reasonably wonder if making the playoffs is good enough for this administration.

Getting to that level – playoff qualifier – has had a considerable element of luck involved in it (the bounce of a ping pong ball allowing the Caps to draft Alex Ovechkin) and acceptance of failure (a selloff that produced picks and prospects, but also a bad team that resulted in high picks that netted Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner). There has been some astute personnel management, to be sure – late first round picks such as Mike Green or Jeff Schultz, savvy horse trading that netted a pick that turned into John Carlson. Taken together though, if “playoffs” is the summit of achievement for this team, they would be little different from the 1979-2004 St. Louis Blues (25 consecutive years in the playoffs, twice advancing past the second round) or the 1983-1996 Capitals (14 consecutive playoff appearances, once advancing past the second round) -- very good teams, but not memorable. And then the question will not be whether The Plan was “right,” but whether it was done “well.”

* This does not include transactions involving re-signing of roster players to new contracts.