Who Needs A Bonafide Clear Cut Second Line Center Anyway?
Well here we are basically 6 days from the opening of rookie camp and the Washington Capitals still have no clear path to answering the question "Who will be the Second Line Center?" It's truly baffling that a team with so, so much offensive fire power and so many dynamic forwards, some would argue the best group of forwards in the NHL, doesn't have a clear consensus choice that everyone (management, players and fans) all recognize as the Center for their second line, so close to the start of the season. Following the Capitals unceremonious and early exit from the 2010 playoffs after capturing the 2009 - 2010 President's Cup, the buzz around them was the two weaknesses were the lack of a second line center to act as a catalyst for scoring the second half of the season and the inexperience and lack of a bonafide physical, stay at home anchor on defense.
On Saturday I explored the events surrounding UFA Defensemen this past summer and explained my basic agreement with the way that the Capitals management have handled the situation. Today I decided I'd take a look at the UFA market this past summer for Centers to see if I could understand the situation and course of action - or more specifically, lack there of, by the Capitals with regard to the acquisition of a second line Center. First though let's all understand the basic constraints on the Capitals when it comes to picking up another top six forward - that basically being that they really do not have the salary Cap space to pick up another clear cut top six forward this year and ensure they have the required Cap space to keep all four of Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr past next off season as well. postulate that if Fehr continues to develop, mature and stays healthy this season, he's the replacement for Mike Knuble should the 38 year old retire after this season which I think will be a 50/50 bet. Then assuming that Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann all go into the next off season and become Unrestricted Free Agents on July 1, 2011 coming off good years, that would mean that it's entirely conceivable that those three players could warrant offers that would amount to a total salary cap hit of $12 - 14M just in and of themselves. If you add a "bonafide" second line center with a cap hit of $3.5 - $4M, then you have $16M for the Capitals second line, along with the $18.4M for the first line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr/Knuble for a total of $34.4M which assuming the salary cap stays relatively stable would be well over 50% for the team's top six forwards alone. That number is not, IMO, sustainable as I just don't see where it leaves enough room for signing a sound and reliable blue line corps as well as the fact that at least one, if not both of the Capitals goaltenders will be due for a reasonable raise from their current $822K cap hits this after this season. So what's all this mean relative to that second line center beyond this season? Well it means that if the Capitals want to try and take long term planning into account, they'll need to sign a second line center who is a bargain and therefore a bit of a gamble. That's basically what they tried to do last season with Brendan Morrison and whether you believe it or not, that almost worked out. For the first half of the season it was working out and then B-Mo just sort of ran out of gas. The Capitals then went out and tried to bring in Eric Belanger at the trade deadline to pick up the pace again and that too, IMO, 'almost" worked out. As you can see by this article by Red Line Station looking at Belanger's Corsi numbers with second liners Semin and Laich, and occasional second liner Fleischmann there is the potential for some positive chemistry there.
Over the course of this summer I've been lobbying for the Caps to go out and try and pick up Patrick Sharp from the Blackhawks and even now a Flieschmann for Sharp trade would still save Chicago $1.3M of salary cap space and be within the available Cap space for Washington. However, unlike the beginning of this off-season Chicago has made a number of moves and is now no longer over the salary cap, at least according to the numbers at CapGeek.com. The teams with salary Cap issue right now are: Vancouver, Boston, Calgary, Toronto and the New York Rangers. Others at or near (within $1.5M) the Cap include: Detroit, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal. Of those 10 teams, the following players on their rosters might be worth considering as someone the Capitals could/should look at trading for as a second line center:
1) Boston has a pretty solid set of centers in Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron. I think either Marc Savard or Patrice Bergeron would credibly compliment Laich and Semin on the Capital's second line. Since the 3 year old Savard is signed through the age 39 on his current contract while the 25 year old Bergeron is only signed through the end of this season, Bergeron of course is the more attractive of the two and I regard Savard's contract as making him undesirable. Given the Bruins salary cap situation won't be all that much better next season and their anchor - Zdeno Chara will also be a UFA after this season, Bergeron could be a possibility. The Bruins certainly could use the offense that Fleischmann would bring them and the $2.1M Cap space that a Fleischmann for Bergeron deal would bring them would put them within striking distance (just 987K over) of the 2010-2011 salary cap.
2) In Calgary you're looking at either 33 year old Daymond Langkow or 26 year old Matt Stajan. Assuming the Flames aren't crazy they'd be willing to talk about is the past/present - Daymond Langkow vice the future - Matt Stajan. Langkow is under contract for another two years at a Cap hit of $4.5M/season. Stajan is under contract through the end of the 2013-2014 season with a $3.5M cap hit in each of those four seasons. I'd be more than happy to see Stajan in a Caps Sweater as a second line center and given his current contract only runs through age 30 and at $3.5M is indeed affordable and I'd project him as a 20+ goal scorer and a 70+ point player for the Caps as a second line center. However, like I say, I just don't see the Flames making him available for anything the Capitals would be willing to give up since even though Tomas Fleischmann would project as a clear top six forward for them, possibly their first line left winger, with Jerome Iginla and Rene Bourque on the roster already, they'll be looking for a lot moire than an even swap of Flassh for Stajan and I don't see GMGM biting on that, even with the wealth of riches the Caps have in their current pipeline. Again though if I were him I'd probably consider it, since in his current contract and form Stajan would likely fill this role/hole for four+ seasons. Moving over to the more likely offering of the 33 year old Langkow. He's coming off what for him is basically an "off" year - he totaled only 14 goals and 23 assists in 72 games. His numbers aren't really any better than current UFA Eric Belanger and it sure seems like Belanger is likely available for between $2.5 - 3M LESS than Langkow, so I don't think that deal works for the Capitals at all.
3) Detroit's 26 year old Valterri Filppula might be an option, he's signed for another three seasons with a Cap Hit of $3M/season. He's got a ton of upside and he appears to be a guy that Detroit is looking at with an eye towards their future. However, with Datsuyk, Zetterberg, Franzen, and Rafelski likely to be the four guys continuing to serve as the anchors for the franchise in "Hockeytown" up to and beyond the end of the young Finn's contract, a move to DC might not be a bad one for him to make. Of course what do the Capitals have that the Red Wings might want AND that they might be willing to part with? That remains to be seen as it's not something that's intuitively obvious to me. Oh yeah, and Filppula's numbers aren't any better than Belanger's numbers were last season either... though he is indeed younger and seems to have a much better "upside" though he will cost at least $1M/season more.
4)In Pittsburgh, we could consider Jordan Staal. The 21 year old from the prolific hockey band of brothers would indeed make a great pickup for the Capitals. He'd no doubt be a solid pivot between Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich during 5 on 5 situations and he would also be a solid citizen on special teams when those situations arise. His current contract is a Cap Friendly on with a Cap Hit of $4M for each of the next three seasons. The issue here is again what would/could the Capitals offer Ray Shero to get him to part with the promising young Mr. Stall. So while his salary and contract would work, especially if the Capitals included someone of value in the deal like either Fleischmann or Fehr, the issue would be what else they'd need to throw in. The good news here is that with the off season moves by Pittsburgh that included strengthening an already formidable Blue Line Corps, the things that Shero and Coach Dan Blysma would be interested in would likely NOT include any of the Capitals prospects at defense.
Of the others, Vancouver's Ryan Kessler is just too expensive and signed to too long term a deal ($30M over the next 6 years) to make sense for the Capitals as he's not affordable in their current team construct. Toronto really has no one that is likely to help the Capitals offense on a regular basis other than Phil Kessel and I don't think he's going anywhere. As for the Rangers with Olli Jokenen back in Calgary that leaves the first and second line centers as Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky, there's no way the Capitals could or would go for Drury's $7+M cap hiot and there's really no way the Rangers could swap Dubinsky for a higher priced guy like Fleischmann so a deal involving the Caps and Rangers isn't going to happen unless somehow Geln Sather can figure out how to convince George McPhee that a deal that includes Dubinsky and either Michal Rozsival or Wade Redden for Fleischmann and one of the Capitals younger defensive prospects make sense could happen. Since so far in his career McPhee hasn't shown himself to be prone to the total lapses of intelligence that Sather has occasionally exhibited, it doesn't appear that the Rangers hold the key, or really any key for that matter to the Capitals needs. In Ottawa, Mike Fisher is the number 2 pivot, he's signed to another three years at a Cap Hit of $4.2M/season; Fisher would be a good pickup for the Capitals though his salary is almost too much for them to bear, the real issue is that the Senators really aren't likely to make him available now that they lost Matt Cullen to the Minnesota Wild in Free Agency this past summer. As for Philadelphia, I just don't think any of their three top Centers - Mike Richards, Jeff Carter or Danny Briere are are affordable and at numer 4 on the depth chart I have Darroll Powe, who though interesting and a developing player, is clearly not a guy the Capitals would use as a second line center. In Montreal, there is indeed Scott Gomez, along with Tomas Plekanec, two solid centers, both of whom have price tags and contracts that warrant and require first line minutes to justify so thye aren't what the Capitals need. There was Dominic Moore who left this summer and went to Tampa Bay for a two year, $1.1M/year deal that seems fair, but again Moore is a guy whose numbers aren't as good as Eric Belanger's or for that matter Brendan Morrison's numbers this past season were.
So as far as trades go for that second line center, there really aren't any that jump out as obvious and easy for GMGM to make right now. As far as the available UFA's let me say that first off, of the ones already signed the only one that jumps out at me as one the Capitals probably should have looked at and tried to sign Matt Cullen as that needed second line center though on July 1st, with everything else swirling around the league and the Capitals situation with their RFAs that wasn't something that was likely obvious. Ironically, the only other UFA center signed that might have been a good deal for the Capitals as also signed by the WIld - 37 year old John Madden. I'm old school though and I worry about the influence a guy like Madden might have on a young locker room, however that's probably stupid, I mean the guy does have three (3) Stanley Cup Rings and a Selke Trophy so how bad an influence could he be anyway? In any case I can easily see myself content having either of these two guys in Capitals' sweaters under the terms and at the prices the Wild will be paying them.
There were a few others that might have been worth a look but nothing that makes me lick my chops at the prospect of acquiring them, so that leaves us to what is left on the UFA market to look at and discuss. First according to James Mirtle, the Caps and Eric Belanger have already reached a deal, to me that's good news since the way I see it of the available UFA Centers the two best choices are Eric Belanger and Brendan Morrison, given B-Mo didn't, at least as far as I can tell, prove durable enough for a full season and the playoffs playing second line minutes, that leads us to Eric Belanger. Will he be "the guy" for the second line center role? I don't have a clue, but I do know I believe he's a better choice for that spot than the other rumour circulating - Tomas Fleischmann. I won't rehash my thoughts on Flash as seond line center again, though I will say to me assuming the rumour relative to Belanger's resigning are true my preferences in order of desirablity for second line center are:
1) Eric Belanger
2) Brooks Laich
3) David Steckel
4) Mathieu Perrault
5) Another reasonable available UFA including Brendan Morrison or Jeff Halpren
6) Tomas Fleischmann...
So I hope if the Capitals and Belanger are already agreed, as was leaked on 8/13, to giving it another year or two, the announcement will come soon.
Well just one week until rookie camp opens, more and more guys getting back into town this week and next, all good signs that the off season is coming to a close. Despite the three worries I have - the first two being a) the lack of a clear choice for second line center who has chemistry with Laich and Semin; and b) the inexperience on defense and in goal; and my third worry c) the season hasn't started and already folks are talking about how they can't wait to get to the playoffs - remember folks you have to make the playoffs first and while I know everyone thinks the Southeast Division is a cakewalk, you still have to play 82 games and hopefully win the division to get into the playoffs.
LETS GO CAPS!!!