Sunday, July 12, 2015

Washington Capitals -- That Was The Week That Was: Week 2 of "Hockey Summer"

A week ago, we took time to take a breath after the Washington Capitals made some noise in the first week of the unrestricted free agent signing period.  The signing of Justin Williams and the trade for T.J. Oshie were big moves to start the summer, but the Caps were not quiet in Week 2.

While the Caps were holding their annual development camp for prospects, there were some things going on behind the scenes, too.  On July 4th, the club announced that they signed veteran goaltender Dan Ellis to a one-year/two-way ($575K/$250K) contract.  The signing had the appearance of being entirely a trade to bolster the goaltending situation at Hershey, made a bit thinner when the Caps sent Pheonix Copley to St. Louis as part of the trade for T.J. Oshie.

Washington is Ellis’ seventh NHL team.  He was the fifth goalie taken in the 2000 entry draft, selected by the Dallas Stars with the 60th overall pick in the second round.  That happened to be one of the stranger drafts at the position in recent memory.  First, there were a total of 32 goalies taken (by way of comparison, the two most recent drafts yielded a total of 45 goalies).  Only 12 of those goalies appeared in at least one NHL game, and only six have appeared in more than 100 NHL contests, including Ellis.

Ellis is tied for fourth in his draft class in games played (212, with the retired Roman Cechmanek, who last played in the NHL in 2004).  He is fifth in wins (87), fourth in goals against (2.79; minimum: 100 games), and fourth in save percentage (.906; minimum: 100 games).  It is not an especially deep draft class.  It does include Henrik Lundqvist, Rick DiPietro, and Ilya Bryzgalov, but the accomplishments drop off rather rapidly after that trio.

Ellis has not played in more than 20 games in an NHL season since he appeared in 44 games in 2010-2011 for Tampa Bay and Anaheim.  He appeared in only one game for the team that drafted him – Dallas – before he was signed as a free agent by Nashville in July 2007.  He played in 110 games for the Predators over three seasons, but over the last five seasons he has appeared in only 111 games for five teams, including a return stay in Dallas in 2013-2014.  After appearing in only 28 games over the past two seasons, the chances of his getting any time in Washington appear slim.

The bigger news was the signing of restricted free agent Evgeny Kunzetsov to a two-year/$6 million contract.  The Caps are buying what amounts to an extended test drive; Kuznetsov will be a restricted free agent once more at the end of the new deal.  Caps fans will no doubt be excited at the prospect of having Kuznetsov in the fold for two more seasons.  He was one of six rookie forwards who this past season appeared in at least 60 games, recorded at least ten goals and at least 35 points, and finished at plus-10 or better.  He was third in total postseason scoring among rookie forwards (seven points in 14 games) and led all rookie forwards in playoff goals scored (five).  He also displayed a willingness to shoot that rookies in a pressure cooker situation like the playoffs might avoid.  Even having played in only 14 games, he led all rookie forwards in shots on goal, and by a wide margin (42, compared to 26 for Teuvo Teravainen).

However, nothing is guaranteed.  Kuznetsov is more of a known quantity with his give seasons with Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL.  Nevertheless, parts of two seasons and 97 NHL games worth of experience is an uncertain predictor of future success.  Consider that his 14-32-46, plus-8, scoring line in those games looks a lot like the scoring line of a Cody Hodgson over 91 games in his first two NHL seasons (20-23-43) or Erik Christensen in 94 games over his first two NHL seasons (24-22-46), to note two forwards in this situation since the 2004-2005 lockout (and who did not build much on that performance).  Two years from now, three big forward contracts will come off the books (Brooks Laich, Williams, and Oshie), and if Kuznetsov is the number two center the club hopes he will be, he will get paid in a commensurate manner.

The Caps recorded three lesser signings as well (two of which we did not cover last week).  A pair of forwards – Paul Carey and Chris Bourque – were signed to provide depth and a veteran presence in Hershey.  Carey was a fifth-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2007 and played all 22 games on the NHL portion of his resume with the Avs.  What he does have is 188 regular season games of experience in the AHL with Lake Erie and Providence (42-54-96, minus-10).  On a team that could feature a number of young forwards (Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Stanislav Galiev), his experience will provide balance.

The same might be said of Chris Bourque, who returns for his third tour in the Capitals organization.  Signed to a two-year contract ($575K in NHL salary per year), he brings more than 500 games of regular season and playoff experience in the AHL to the Bears.  Once a 33rd overall draft pick of the Caps, his days as a potential NHL regular are almost certainly behind him (he will turn 30 in January).  He has not appeared in an NHL game since March 2013 with the Boston Bruins and has only two goals and eight points in 51 career NHL games.

What Bourque brings to Hershey is having played in almost 400 regular season games with the organization and more than 70 postseason games.  He was a member of two Calder Cup championship teams (2009, 2010; and he played in one game of the 2006 Calder Cup championship postseason), and with the sort of season one might expect of him in Hershey he could find himself in the top ten all-time career regular season point-getters in franchise history (he has 393 points, Ralph Keller is tenth with 408).

The third signing was defensemen Taylor Chorney, previously of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL.  With Mike Green having signed with the Detroit Red Wings, Chorney became the Caps’ seventh defenseman on paper.  It is a stretch to think that the club prefers this situation, given that Chorney has appeared in just 24 NHL games over the last three seasons and has just 68 games in a five-year career.  He does have 400 games of AHL experience and 142 career points with five teams in the American Hockey League.  Circumstance might require him to serve as a seventh defenseman (we will get to that), but one thinks that there is another deal for a defenseman that will be made over the next two months leading up to Opening Night.

There are a couple of dark clouds that appear on the horizon this week.  Marcus Johansson and Braden Holtby filed for arbitration.  Both are restricted free agents looking for substantial raises (Johansson had a $2.0 million cap hit on his just expired deal; Holtby’s hit was $1.85 million).  It is entirely possible that the combined cap hit on the new deals for the pair will exceed $10 million.  If one assumes that Justin Peters will start the season in Hershey and that Taylor Chorney is that seventh defenseman for the Caps, devoting $10 million in cap room to Johansson and Holtby would leave about $1.8 million in cap room with 21 contracts on the parent roster (12 forwards, seven defensemen, two goaltenders; source:

The contract situation is a distant early warning of things to come.  Two years from now, in the summer of 2017, four contracts come off the books entirely (Brooks Laich, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, and Karl Alzner), and another four players will be restricted free agents (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Nate Schmidt, and Philipp Grubauer).  That, however, is a matter for a different day.  The Caps have done quite a bit in the first two weeks of hockey “summer,” but there is much work to do before the curtain rises on the 2015-2016 season.