Friday, July 04, 2014

Washington Capitals: Taking a Deep Breath After Week One of Free Agency

For the second time in less than a week the National Hockey League reached a milestone on its annual calendar. Last weekend was the nod to hopes and dreams, the annual entry draft. At noon on Tuesday the NHL embarked on its equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, the opening of the signing period for unrestricted free agents.

This year’s edition had a twist, variously referred to as a “meeting” period, or a “courting” period,” or a “let’s chat” period that began on June 25th, during which teams could meet with prospective free agents but could not offer a contract.

Just like the Land Rush of 1889 that started at high noon and produced settlements before the day was out, free agents were signed in a flurry of activity over the first six hours of the signing period. The Washington Capitals staked their claim with the signing of three unrestricted free agents – goaltender Justin Peters, defenseman Brooks Orpik, and defenseman Matt Niskanen.

The Capitwittisphere was hardly without opinion on the deals as they unfolded, but now, with a few days having passed, if you are looking for a more reasoned, measured, thoughtful take on the signings, stop reading now and go somewhere else.

No, really… the cousins have had time to digest what transpired and have their own unique views on the new Capitals.

First, let’s look at Justin Peters. He has only 68 games of NHL experience on his resume, about half of that of Braden Holtby (126 games, including playoffs). Given that there were more experienced goalies available – Al Montoya (91 games), Ray Emery (295 games), Scott Clemmensen (192 games), Jason LaBarbera (182 games), and Tomas Vokoun (722 games) – was going for a young goalie the right move here?

Fearless… Two things argue for a young goalie in this spot. First, and what appears to be the Capitals’ thinking, the team “wanted to send a message to Holtby that he’s [the] number one guy.”  This has been in doubt over the past few seasons. Look back. In his first season, 2010-2001, Holtby got a taste of action (14 games’ worth), but he was third man in, behind Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. The following season he had less regular season action (seven games), but was a playoff warrior after both Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth went down to injury late in the season.

That might have been the signal that he was the number one guy, and in 2012-2013 he seemed to cement that role, appearing in 36 of 48 regular season games and all seven post-season contests. In 2013-2014, though, a combination of tinkering with his style and iffy play on his part reduced his workload to 48 of 82 games. Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer were that “number one guy” for a while, and the team even brought in Jaroslav Halak via trade to take over that spot. Holtby’ status was murky, to say the least, especially when you consider that in each year in the NHL his goals against average and save percentage got progressively worse.

With Peters signed, there is no Vokoun or Halak peering over his shoulder. Roles are clear. But what of Peters himself? That brings us to the second thing that argues in his favor. With those 68 games on his resume and about to turn 28 years old (August 30th), he has enough experience that the club might find him dependable in his role (a .919 save percentage last year on a poor Carolina team would seem to support that view). Also, he might be at that “hungry” stage of his career where he can prove himself capable of taking on a bigger role if circumstances dictate he plays more minutes, without posing a threat to Holtby as the number one goalie early.

Cheerless… OK, I ain’t no math whiz, and I broke a couple o’ pencils figgerin’ this stuff out, but here goes. Peters is 4-3-0, with a 1.67 goals against average and a .938 save percentage with two shutouts against the Caps in his career. Against everybody else?  18-28-8, 3.21, .900.  Shoot, he’s 2-4-2, 4.18, .880 against Pittsburgh.  One way to look at this is his performance compared to his partner.  He’s the backup, so you might expect his performance would be worse than the number one guy in front of him.  And so, Caps fans might be left wondering what they’ve got here.  Two years ago, Peters had a 3.46 GAA/.891 save percentage for Carolina compared to 2.84/.908 for Cam Ward.  OK, that Hurricane team was hit hard by injuries, not least to Ward himself in early March when his season ended.  Last year, Peters was 2.50/.919 compared to Ward’s 3.06/.898, which looks pretty good.  That is, until you compare it to the goalie who played the most games for Carolina, Anton Khudobin.  He was 2.30/.926.  Maybe Khudobin was that good.  Or maybe Peters is an average backup.  With only 68 games of experience, it’s hard to tell.

Peerless… Peters is cheap, young, has performed passably well, is in position to make a statement that would enable him to seek a bigger payday when he approaches his 30th birthday in two years.  If you look at a backup with the idea that he can step in on a moment’s notice and assume the number one responsibilities for a length of time, Peters might not be your guy.  At least there is not much on his resume to indicate that; it’s too thin.  The flip side of that is that his signing is a statement of the club’s confidence in Braden Holtby to be the uncontested number one goaltender, and that is something the club really has not had since before the Caps traded for Cristobal Huet late in the 2007-2008 season to take over for long-time number one goalie Olaf Kolzig.  And remember when Kolzig, himself a victim of some goalie jockeying early in his career, assumed the number one duties for good as a 27-year old in 1997-1998.  The Caps went to the Stanley Cup final.

Justin Peters was pretty much the warm-up act for the drama that played out later on Day One of the free agent signing period.  The Caps’ next move was to sign Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Brooks Orpik.  The deal was for five years and $27.5 million.  Good deal or bad one, guys?

Cheerless… It would be one thing to pay that much for that long to that defenseman if you were getting this…

The Caps are not getting that defenseman.  They are getting a guy who will be 34 years old on opening night and have his services until he is 38 years old (or is traded or bought out before that).  Since the 2005-2006 lockout, 42 defensemen have played 60 or more games having reached the age of 36, which would be the third year of Orpik’s deal in this case.  Know how many defensemen went on to play three seasons of at least 60 games after reaching that age?  Eight: Adrian Aucoin, Rob Blake, Chris Chelios, Sergei Gonchar, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sean O’Donnell, Mathieu Schneider, and Glen Wesley.  A few others could do it in next year or the years to come – Zdeno Chara, Dan Boyle, Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell among them.  Who knows, perhaps Orpik will be one of them.  But he has played hard minutes, and the guys on that list are not generally of the “hard minute” kind of defenseman (although you might include Blake or Chelios, for example, in that category).  The back end of that contract does not look promising.

Fearless… Consider this list…

  • Steve Oleksy
  • Nate Schmidt
  • Connor Carrick
  • Patrick Wey
  • Julien Brouillette
  • Cameron Schilling

That’s probably not a bad defense for the Hershey Bears.  Last year, however, they combined to play 119 games on defense for the Caps.  As a group they have 145 games of NHL experience in total.  It was a lot to think that any two of them would make a third defensive pair for the Caps that was anything but vulnerable.  Ah, but what about John Erskine and Jack Hillen, two guys with experience?  Erskine played in 37 games last year, only 95 of a possible 212 games over the last three seasons.  Hillen dressed for 13 games, the second straight season in which he lost more than half the season to injury.  Whatever you think of Orpik’s ability to sustain a level of play over the life of his new contract, he has never played less than 75 percent of a season’s games in his ten full seasons in the NHL.

Peerless…  You might sleep better about the Orpik deal if you treat it as two separate issues.  There is the matter of the contract.  It is hard to put lipstick on that pig and call it a prom queen.  Five years at $5.5 million for a defenseman in his mid-30’s is probably generous (ok, it is...very) and will probably look pretty bad over the last half of the deal.  Then there is the player piece.  Here the trade-off is durability and experience with performance.  Orpik is no longer that player in what might be described as “The Shift” in Game 3 of the 2008 Stanley Cup final.  He does, however, have a wealth of experience that is a product of 703 games of NHL experience.  Think of it this way.  Fearless compared him to the youngsters who played for the Caps last season.  With 795 games of regular season and playoff experience Orpik has more than 200 more games of experience than Mike Green (560) and almost as many as John Carlson (353), Karl Alzner (376) and Dmitry Orlov (119) combined.  Brooks Orpik, in a purely “hockey” sense, could be the defense’s version of Mike Knuble, when the latter was brought in as a 37-year old in 2009 to provide experience, stability, and production for the young forwards.

The Caps ended the first day of the free agent signing period by getting another Pittsburgh defenseman, Matt Niskanen, to put his signature on a seven-year, $40.25 million contract.  Good deal or not, guys?

Fearless… Looking at “comparables” can be a bit dicey given that players of different ages are signed at different points on the calendar and often under different circumstances.  That said, Niskanen’s $5.75 million salary is nestled between Tobias Enstrom and Matt Carle (thank you,, players of comparable ages (both 29 years old).  His cap hit isn’t quite as attractive, settling in between Enstrom and Andrei Markov on the high side (equal, actually) and Duncan Keith on the low side ($5.54 million).  It is worth noting that Keith signed his deal to start with the 2010-2011 season; he would certainly command more today had he been a new free agent. 

There is the contract, and there is the player.  With the Penguins the past three seasons he put up good possession numbers – each regular season with a 5-on-5 Corsi-for surpassing 50 percent.  This for a team with declining Corsi-for numbers at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons (54.2 percent in 2011-2012, 49.0 on 2012-2013, and 48.6 last season).   His Corsi-for relative has been on the plus side in each of those three regular seasons.  The goals-for percentages he put up were substantially higher than his Corsi values in the regular season, which would appear to be the product of the skill set the rest of the team (one with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) provides.   

Still, he has been an efficient player.  As far as effectiveness goes, let’s start with the 2008-2009 season.  That was Niskanen’s sophomore season in the league, and he put up 35 points in 80 games for the Dallas Stars.  Things looked good.  Then he saw his points cut more than half the following season (15 in 74 games; 0.20 points per game) followed by another drop in 2010-2011 (10 points in 63 games; 0.16 points per game).  Since then, however, his points per game have been on a constant upward trend: 0.28 in 2011-2012, 0.35 in 2012-2013, and 0.57 in 2013-2014.  That might be playing with better offensive players in Pittsburgh than he played with in Dallas, but then again, the Caps will have talented players with whom Niskanen will play, too.

Cheerless… You’re thinking Niskanen is a deal, aren’t you, cuz?  Well, that might be a bit premature.  He has one 40-point season over seven years and had more points last season (46 in 81 games) than in his previous three seasons combined (45 in 178 games).  It’s those “three seasons combined” that sticks a bit in my throat.  Just remember, only three players so far in this free agent signing period have signed for bigger cap hits than Niskanen’s $5.75 million hit – goalie Ryan Miller ($6.0 million), and forwards Thomas Vanek ($6.5 million) and Paul Stastny ($7.0 million), players with more robust resumes.  No player has yet been signed to as long a term (seven years).  He is one of only seven free agents so far (out of the latest 150 current as of the morning of July 4, according to to have been signed to terms longer than four years. 

It has been a while since the Caps committed this kind of dollars and term to an unrestricted free agent from another organization.  In the salary cap era, never.  The closest might be Michael Nylander, who was signed to a contract with a $4.875 million cap hit in 2007 (and it was his second tour with Washington).  Guess they really like this guy.

Peerless… Of the under-30 years of age defensemen in this years unrestricted free agent class, Niskanen and Anton Stralman might have been at the top of the most-wanted list (although the analytics-inclined might have included New Jersey’s Mark Fayne in that group).  Niskanen came in at a cap hit $1.25 million more than what Stralman signed for with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Whether that is a deal or not might hinge on whether Niskanen is that defenseman who had fine years in his rookie and sophomore seasons, and revisited that level of production last year, or if he is the defenseman that struggled somewhat over a four-year period in the middle of his still young career. 

What his career suggests so far is that with good teams he has rather good results.  With teams less successful (as was the case in his last year and change in Dallas) his numbers were not as good.  He is not, yet anyway, a defenseman who can dominate with his presence, but he is a contributor and appears to be on an improving arc in his career development.  He would be an improvement over what the Caps have had as their “4” in a top-four defense.  Whether he is an improvement to the point of being as, or more productive than others in his salary cap neighborhood – Matt Carle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Andrei Markov, Brent Burns, among others  -- the Caps will have seven years to figure that out.

In the end…

Week 1 in the 2014 unrestricted free agent signing period was something of a roller-coaster for Caps fans.  The Justin Peters signing was reasonable.  He is a decent young goalie who will have a clear role with this club, keeping the seat warm for a year or two (or so the play goes) until Philipp Grubauer is ready to move up.  The Brooks Orpik signing looked bad at first examination, given the length and value of the deal.  A few days having passed does not change that view, at least as to length and value of the contract.  As it is, Orpik’s is the second largest cap hit deal so far among free agent defensemen (to Niskanen) and the second longest term (to Niskanen, tied with Stralman).  But the tradeoff here is value and performance in the long term (it will not likely be good) for experience and leadership in the near term.  He has those 700-plus games of experience, and he has played for two Stanley Cup finalists, winning one in 2009 with the Penguins.  Keep the hockey and contract pieces separate in your mind (not to mention for whom he played), and Orpik has the potential to be a net positive in the short term.

Niskanen, despite being arguably the gem of this free agent class among defensemen, is something of a mystery.  He does not have a long or sustained history of superior performance, and what he does have is largely based on last season’s results with an offensively-talented team. 

Orpik and Niskanen are two pieces of a set here.  Looking at last season, each had roughly the same even strength ice time per game (Orpik: 18:08, Niskanen: 17:35, the difference being about one shift per game).  One can anticipate the Orpik will get (and hopefully provide more effective) penalty killing time, having skated 2:56 a game to lead the Penguins’ fifth-rated penalty killing squad last season.  Niskanen, on the other hand, has more influence on the power play.  He skated 2:59 a game last year with Pittsburgh and logged more time in the absence of Kris Letang after Letang suffered a stroke.  Niskanen is not likely to get that kind of power play time with Washington, what with Mike Green still on the roster and John Carlson having emerged as a power play quarterback last season, but it is an attribute that will be available.

The signings on defense are the noteworthy ones here.  Signing Orpik and Niskanen gives the Caps what might be their best top-six of the post-2004-2005 lockout era and arguably their best since the 2000-2001 season when their top-six in average ice time included Calle Johansson, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Joe Reekie, Sylvain Cote, and Ken Klee.  It will be balanced, too.  A top six of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov, with Orpik and Niskanen added, would have three lefties (Alzner, Orlov, and Orpik) with three righties (Green, Carlson, and Niskanen).  They could pair offensive defensemen (Green, Orlov) with defensive defensemen (Orpik, Alzner), or mix and match with two-way defensemen (Carlson, Niskanen).  Head coach Barry Trotz will have options to the point of pairing defensemen with certain opponents in mind, if he so chooses.  These are luxuries no Capitals coach has had in quite some time.  But it could have a short shelf life if Orpik goes into decline swiftly.

And that brings us to evaluating the week.  Playing in the market for unrestricted free agents means overpaying for uncertain success.  The Caps have not been in the deep end of this pool in some time, and from that perspective the signings of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen (especially Orpik) to big dollars and long term looks iffy at best, poor at worst (again, especially Orpik).  But from a purely hockey point of view, the Caps’ defense is better than it has been, on paper at least, in years.  It is, as Rob Parker so deftly laid it out here, “a deep and talented D corps, one that you could actually see playing for a team in the Stanley Cup finals.”  

In that respect, the dollar impacts will fade among fans in short order, or at least until next spring and the Caps are trying to fit a trade under the limited cap room they might have as a result of these signings.  That is no small consideration here, especially since the Caps overpaid for a defenseman who might be on the third pair when the season is winding down.  As for the long term ramifications of the signings, they might be pushed off in the minds of fans into that long term (and yes, they could be grim).  If you look at the span of five years in which Orpik and Niskanen are committed to the Caps, the grade might be at best an incomplete and at worst a “C-minus” or a “D.”  In the here and now, though, the grade is not so bad as that.  Perhaps give it a “B-minus.” Of course, if there is a Stanley Cup at the end of this...


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Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images