Saturday, September 4, 2010

Well It's Been 12 More Days And The Capitals Still Don't Have a Clear, Easy To See Choice for 2nd Line Center....

Well let's see in my life since my last post the Company I work for agreed to be acquired by another really cool company; my wife and I went on our first real vacation as "empty nesters", the NHL & NHLPA figured out how to settle things with the whole long term contract issue and the "epic" Ilya Kovalchuck saga, and over the period there were 23+ transactions around the NHL - none of them involving the Washington Capitals... I've been sitting here this summer wondering about a lot of things - a real lot of things - but I try and confine this blog to be about the lighter things and the diversions in my life so I'll continue to confine these public/"aloud" musings to be primarily about hockey - NHL Hockey and the Washington Capitals in particular.

First I got my letter and purchased my two seats for the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh - I'm psych'ed and wingman seemed to be into the idea. However it was hard to tell. The cell phone reception wasn't all that great - he's working on a cable layer off the California coast right now, he'll go back to school for the 5 trimester marathon to graduation on October 31st so he'll be ready for some Hockey in the 'burgh come Christmas break. Personally, I'll be curious to see how our vantage point for the game actually works out. Our regular season tickets are in the corner, lower level and our Winter Classic tickets have a similar perspective though I figure we'll be a lot further away from the actual ice surface and I'm truly wondering if that will be better or worse. Actually what I'm wondering is how cold and windy will it be that day and will I even notice the game or will my attention be spent on avoiding frostbite. All that said, I have absolutely NO INTENTION of missing the game and am very excited about it. I'll wait at least until the season opener to make our hotel reservations though.

So since my last post on August 23rd there have been 23 UFA/RFA signings in the NHL. Like I mentioned in my headline, not a single one of them have been by the Washington Capitals, who apparently continue to believe very strongly in their "build from within" approach. In fact apparently the Capitals believe so strongly in staying the course, they are still without a clear easy to see choice for 2nd line center, and they have not made been able to close any deals/make any moves to improve their defense so far this season. Given Willie Mitchell's visit to KCI before he was signed by the Los Angeles Kings, I don't think that means the Capitals aren't looking or trying to improve the team, far from it. I do think it means the Capitals management doesn't see anything readily available out there that warrants the prices being paid at this juncture. I hope that changes and I think it probably will soon, as there seem to be signs indicating that the prices are dropping, vice rising, as the start of training camp approaches. As regular readers know I though Willie Mitchell was worth a look, though clearly I didn't "like" him as much as I did/do Dan Hamhuis, who as you know signed with Vancouver as with as a UFA earlier this off season. However, I don't think either Mitchell or Hamhuis with a deal in the form of what they signed would have been what the Capitals needed/wanted. Though perhaps in retrospect the Hamhuis deal will be one the Capitals regret trying to make happen. Of course there are really no indications the Capitals ever even though that Hamhuis was somebody they wanted and that's just my speculation/dreaming talking. The subject of Willie Mitchell is easier to address and explain - Willie Mitchell is a 33 year old, 10th year pro, with a an injury history as long as my arm. Signing the 33 year old Mitchell to a two year deal with a $3.5M/year cap hit would likely have accomplished a little bit this season and next, though not much and in the long term would have inhibited/delayed the Capitals from upgrading from Tom Poti at the end of this season. Mind you I'm not starting any sort of campaign to say this should be Tom Poti's last season here in DC, though I will say this, I'll be surprised if the Capitals resign or extend Poti at the end of this season for a Cap Hit that is over $3M/season.

Now let's look at the other nine biggest Cap Hit UFA/RFA signings this off season. Starting with the biggest Cap Hit deal for a defenseman this off season we have - Sergei Gonchar; the cagey Ottawa Senator's management team stole the xx year old "Gonch" away from Pittsburgh for the amazingly low (NOT, IMHO) price of $16.5M for 3 years. At the end of his current deal, the 6'-1", 211" Gonchar will be 39 years old. Like it or not Gonchar's play this past season and post season would seem to indicate that, while he can still munch minutes and quarterback the power play, he has lost at least a step if not a step and a half. Gonchar is good but the deal the Senators signed is IMO a year too long and $500 - $1,000K/year too rich.

The number two, in terms of Cap Hit, off season RFA/UFA blueliner deal went to Paul Martin. Martin is the guy the Penguins picked up to make Gonchar "redundant" as the Brits say. The Penguins signed the 29 year old UFA from St. Paul, MN away from the New Jersey Devils for a $25M/5 year ($5M/year cap hit) deal. Martin is coming off an injury shortened season; he broke his left arm in December and missed 59 games before returning to the roster and playing in the Devils first playoff round loss. While the deal isn't too bad, and Martin knows how to make plays and get the the puck up ice , as his 163 points in 400 NHL regular season games show, he certainly isn't the "stay at home" powerhouse defender that folks pointing to the Capitals blueline corps as their Achilles heel think of as a natural foil to/for Mike Green.

Coming in at number three (3) for defenseman paydays in this off season's Free Agent sweepstakes was Dan Hamhuis who I've already spent a lot of time typing about, both this morning and earlier this off season. Hamhuis could be that stay at home guy and he certainly has size and brings it to the ice when he plays. However, is he the right answer as that foil for Mike Green for the next six years? I don't really know, nor do I think does anyone who handicaps those sorts of thing for a living. I suspect that's why the Capitals Management likely didn't even entertain talking to he and his agent for a deal that was/is longer than 4 or seasons. So that brings us to the number 4 deal on the list - Anton Volchenkov signed a 6 year deal for $25.5M - a $4.25M/year cap hit. According to the rumour mill, Alexander Ovechkin tried to get the 28 year old Muscovite to come to DC and the Caps Management to make it happen. I suspect the reasons such a deal didn't/couldn't happen, were the ripples it would likely have caused. For the Capitals to sign a deal similar to what New Jersey gave Volchenkov, which I feel is a fair deal for all, the ripple would likely have affected at least two other Capitals, if not three. Certain John Erskine would have had to have been be dealt ot put on waivers. It's hard to see the Capitals reaching a solid deal with Jeff Schultz similar to what they signed him for (4 years, $11M) if they had signed Volchenkov to anything like his current 6 years $25.5M contract. Also the ripples would likely have not left the Capitals with room to sign Alexander Semin beyond the end of this season, and other options seem to me to just get uglier. That said, if you think the Caps need a true, mature, ready now "stay at home", physical D-Man, I look at Volchenkov as "Chara - lite" or better. The better being that in three to five years it may be possible for Volchenkov to be nearly as good as either Chara or even Chris Pronger, I mean who knows, after all he has two elbows the same as Pronger... The only issue I see with Volchenkov that must have been why he ended up getting less than Hamhuis is his average games played in each of his 7 seasons, though none of his injuries approach anything like the 52 games that Paul Martin missed last season. Suffice it to say, I look at Volchenkov's current 6 year deal as at the high end of fair but fair. However, with what the Capitals already have in the pipeline, if I were GMGM it's a costly enough deal and it's term is two years longer than I'd like so I too would have passed on it.

The fifth highest cap hit given to sign a blueliner this off season was a 5 year, $20M deal that Pittsburgh gave to 27 year old Zybnek Michalek. The Penguins pick up the rugged Czech defenseman for a $4M/year cap hit. As far as rugged, durable, stay at home defenseman, Michalek might prove to be the best blueliner deal of this off season, in each of the past 5 seasons he's played an average of 78.6 games per season and appeared in all 82 games in three of those seasons for his prior club - Phoenix. This year he proved he is able to amp up his game during the playoffs where he had 11 hits in 7 playoff games for the upstart Coyotes.

The 6th most costly deal for a defenseman this summer so far as given to another Czech - 33 year old Pavel Kubina - by that new Tampa Bay Lightning GM, Stevie "Y". The Lightning signed the 6'-4", 250# veteran away from Division Rival, Atlanta for $7.7M for 2 years ($3.85M/year). Kubina is a solid pickup for the Lightning, but again despite his size, he's not the obvious foil to Mike Green, that those hollering for a strengthening of the defense typically think of. Also at 33 and looking at a two year $3.5M+ deal, he's also not a likely long term answer to replace Tom Poti should the Capitals look to do that at the end of this season.

The number 7 guy on this list is Willie Mitchell who I've already discussed.

Coming in at number 8 we have 23 year old RFA Niklas Hjalmarsson. Hjalmarsson was given an offer sheet for a $14M/4 year deal by the San Jose Sharks which forced the salary cap strapped Chicago Blackhawks to match it. The Blackhawks opted to match the offer and keep the promising young Swedish defender, but they are still dealing with the repercussions and ripples through their roster. Given all the Salary Cap issues in Chicago this off season, one has to wonder if the Chicago front office doesn't now think and hope the now 4th year pro has the potential to match another veteran Swedish defensman who currently Captains one of the Blackhawk's traditional rivals career numbers and accomplishments. In any case as I look at the deal, along with the fact that right now Chicago has over $21M of salary cap space tied up in their blue line, including Bryan Campbell at a cap hit of $7.14M; Duncan Kieth at a Cap Hit of $5.53M, Brent Seabrook with a cap hit of $3.5M and Hjamarsson with his cap hit of $3.5M, I wonder why Chicago matched this offer sheet. I surmise that yes indeed Hjalmarsson is good, but I also conjecture that they wanted to send a message to others licking their chops and looking at the defending Stanley Cup champions roster.... In any case, this is a good deal for the 23 year old Swede though of course now he has to continue to mature and develop on at least the same trajectory he was previously on.

The number 9 richest free agent deal for blue liners this summer has been the 4 year, $13.5M deal that another Swede, Henrik Tallinder, signed with the New Jersey Devils. The 31 year old came to NJ from Buffalo with a $3.375M Cap hit. I look at Tallinder as a slightly younger and bigger version of Tom Poti but once again not the obvious answer as to the guy who would/should be Mike Green's defensive partner 5 on 5; also it's not altogether clear to me that Tallinder at 32 years of age is any better than Poti at 34 years of age and I'm thinking the cost difference will be neglegible.

Finally rounding out this list in the number 10 spot is 26 year old RFA Dan Giradi who was resigned by the New York Rangers to a 4 year, $13.3M deal. Over the last 4 seasons, since joining the Rangers when he came up from the AHL in the 2006 - 2007 regular season Giradi has been a rock for the Blueshirts. In each of the past three seasons he hasn't missed wither a regular season or a playoff game. He has continued to improve and last season he averaged 16.88 minutes TOI/60, behind only Marc Staal who led the team with 17.98 and ahead of Michal Roszival who had 16.80 and who has a cap hit of an even $5.0M (we won't bother to talk about Wade Redden - cap hit $6.5M, 14.52 TOI/60, and owner of one of the biggest albatrosses of current NHL contracts in the league today.)

The Washington Capitals biggest off season deal for a defender this summer, you ask. Well the winner would be one, Jeff "Sarge" Schultz, who inked a 4 year, $11M, $2.75M/ year salary cap hit contract. If this list continued on down, that deal would put the 24 year old, 6'6", 230#, Calgary native in the number 18 slot. Given that Schultz is now a 6th year pro with 4 NHL Seasons under his belt and had a stellar year this past season, his deal was something that he had totally earned and that is well deserved. In fact if you look at the statistics, Jeff Schultz may well end up being the guy that want for Mike Green's defensive partner. Actually, last season made me a believer of Schultz, and I had been down on him the prior three seasons. So while I still wish he'd come back from Western Canada with a little more muscle in his upper body, and look to judiciously use the physical presence that a 6'-6", 230# (hopefully 240#)guy could use, when he decides to plaster say some annoying 5'-11", 200# guy, wearing a hockey sweater with a flightless bird logo on it, against the boards behind a net guarded by either Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby, I'm still taking a wait and see attitude about the Capitals defense this coming season. I think that it is better out of the gates this October, even without any external pickups, than it was last October. No, I'm saving my "fretting time" at least that portion of it I use for the Washington Capitals fretting about the second line center. I'll muse about that tommorrow.

For now I just have one question is it time for Rookie Camp to open yet?


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