Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ranking Washington's Top Potential July 1st Targets

Tomorrow is July 1st, the first day of free agency. Last year the Caps made a huge splash, signing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to huge contracts. Both signings worked wonders this year, as the Caps' defense was the best it had been in years.

This year the Caps have more holes to fill due to the likely departures of Eric Fehr and Joel Ward. Jay Beagle was re-signed yesterday to a 3 year, 5.25 million dollar contract, keeping the Caps' center depth relatively solid.

Where the Caps need more depth is on the wings. After Alex Ovechkin, there are no real difference-makers on the Caps. What the Caps need most is a first-line right wing or a good second-liner who can push Andre Burakovsky to the first line.

Once the Caps extend Braden Holtby (who I hope won't receive any offer-sheets) they should be set on both D and in goal. Here is my take on Washington's forward lines right now:

Ovechkin - Backstrom - xxxxxxx
Burakovsky - Kuznetsov - Brouwer
Johansson (assuming he re-signs) - Beagle - Wilson
Laich - Latta - Chimera
xxxxxxx - trade/signing

The Caps really need to fill one roster spot, but that (1RW) is an extremely tough hole. The Caps need an elite 1RW, and whether that can be found via a free agent signing or a trade, the Caps really need a dynamic player in that spot.

The Caps currently have $52,878,459 paid in the cap right now, assuming Phillipp Grubauer is Holtby's backup and Justin Peters is in Hershey. That means the Caps have $18,521,541 in cap space.

Assuming the Caps sign their RFA's to the following contracts:
Braden Holtby: 6 years @ 6.5 million per
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 3 years @ 3 million per
Marcus Johansson: 3 years @ 3.5 million per

That will leave $5,521,541 in cap space for the Caps to go after their 1RW. That being said, that isn't a hard and fast number, as the Caps could gain cap space by getting rid of Troy Brouwer or Brooks Laich and replacing one of them in the roster with Stan Galiev or Chris Brown.

With that said, here is my personal ranking of potential targets for the 1RW spot:

11. Martin St. Louis - UFA, 40 yo. Starting the list is the oldest player on it. St. Louis has been the bane of Washington's existence for most of his career, and after an underwhelming season last year he seems to be finally slowing down. Working in his favor are the facts that he'll be relatively cheap and has lots of experience. However, he's now on the wrong side of 40 and is unable to play top line or even top six minutes, which means Burakovsky will need to play on the first line.

10. Justin Williams - UFA, 33 yo. Many analysts see Williams as a great fit for the Caps, but personally I don't see it. The last time he scored 30 goals was 2006, and he hasn't hit 50 points since 2012. He would bring some good playoff experience, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and would command at least $4.5 mil, which I don't think he's worth.

9. T.J. Oshie - Trade, 28 yo. Oshie's name has been linked to the Caps as well, and while he's one of the younger players on this list and has a decent cap hit, just over $4 mil a year, he's only hit 20 goals and 60 points once in his career, so he wouldn't be a good fit on the top line. In addition, he's still under contract, which means we'd need to pry him out of St. Louis and may need to overpay. Not really worth it, in my opinion.

8. Michael Frolik - UFA, 27 yo. Frolik has really intrigued me as a potential signing. His offensive numbers leave something to be desired, but he shouldn't command a huge contract, something around 3.5-4 million AAV. In addition he is very strong defensively and would be fabulous on the PK. However, his lack of high-end potential knocks him down a bit on the list.

7. Patrick Sharp - Trade, 33 yo. Sharp has been the most discussed player on the list, and is probably the most likely target on the list. With the Blackhawks' cap crunch they really need to cut some salary, which means the Caps should be able to get him for pretty cheap in spite of his insanely high asking price. He is also one of the best players offensively on this list, but knocking him down is the fact that he will be 34 by the end of the year and has a cap hit of $5.9 million, meaning the Caps would need to trim salary elsewhere.

6. James van Riemsdyk - Trade, 26 yo. JVR is a personal favorite of mine because of his age and his scoring potential. He can be depended on to pot 20-30 goals and 50-60 points when he's healthy and he's on a very good contract, just a 4.25 million cap hit. However, the price required to get him would be astronomical considering how young he is and how important he is as a center of Toronto's rebuild. Although he would be a great fit on the first line, the high trade price may not make it worth it anyway.

5. Eric Fehr - UFA, 29 yo. Yes, you're reading the name right. I think Fehr would be an excellent fit on the first line if the Caps are able to re-sign him. He was very good in that spot at the beginning of last season, in my opinion. Working in his favor are the facts that he would not cost all that much and he would bring a Mike Knuble-esque net presence that would really help OV and Backy on the first line. Unfortunately, according to his agent he will not be returning to the Caps, but one can dream.

4. Brandon Saad - RFA, 22 yo. Before today, Saad would have been even higher on my list, but after being traded today to Columbus, the chances of him signing an offer sheet are highly unlikely. That being said, it may be worth it to offer something anyways, maybe around the lines of 5 x 5.5 mil, given his already strong scoring talent and his extremely young age. However, the extreme likelihood that Columbus will probably match anything within reason drops him down a little.

3. Radim Vrbata - Trade, 34 yo. Yes, Vrbata is on the wrong side of 30, and yes he comes with an expensive cap hit. However, unlike most of the other players on this list, Vrbata is a proven 30 goal scorer and is coming off a year where he was Vancouver's only all-star representative. Playing with Backstrom and Ovechkin could allow him to put up a career year, and he only has one year left on his contract, so it may be worth the risk.

2. Alex Semin - UFA (bought out), 31 yo. I nearly published this post at noon, and if I had Semin would not have been on this list at all. His being bought out by Carolina completely changes the outlook on him. Right now he has the lowest value possible, meaning that he could be had cheap. Plus, he may look as a DC homecoming as the perfect way to resurrect his career, and I don't see why he wouldn't love to play with OV and Backy again. Signing him to a short term deal in the $2-2.5 mil range could be worth it in the end.

1. Vladimir Tarasenko - RFA, 23 yo. At the top of the list is perhaps the most unattainable player on it. Tarasenko is coming off a season where he cemented himself as one of the top players in the NHL and was voted to the league's second all-star team. I fully expect St. Louis to match any and all offer sheets he signs, but if I'm the Caps I'd be more than willing to overpay for him. Plus, I think he'd relish the opportunity to play with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov in DC. I would be content offer sheeting him at somewhere around $7.5 mil AAV and trying to shed salary elsewhere if he signs and St. Louis doesn't match. If I'm the Caps, Tarasenko is my number one target for the 1RW spot.

These are my top potential targets for the Caps' open roster spot at 1RW. Here's hoping that the Caps can find themselves a difference maker at 1RW this offseason, or at the very least don't go Sweeney themselves like Boston. Enjoy Free Agency tomorrow, and as always, Go Caps!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Guns Moving On

peerlessprognosticator.blogspot.com

Today's tale starts in the 2002 NHL Draft, when the Washington Capitals drafted Alexander Semin out of Russia. The Caps were a playoff-capable team led by stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig. After a disappointing 2001-02 season where they missed the playoffs, the Caps were ready to make it back into the playoffs. While the aging core was being knocked out of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Semin was playing in the KHL at the same time NHL scouts were discovering a 16 year old Russian kid named Alex Ovechkin.

Fast-forward two years, to the 2004 NHL Draft, after the firesale and beginning of the rebuild. After magically winning the lottery, the Caps drafted one of the most exciting prospects in recent memory in Ovechkin. It was the first of three first-round picks the Caps had. With the last of those, the Caps drafted defenseman Mike Green out of Saskatoon.

Two years later these three, Ovechkin, Semin, and Green, formed one of the most exciting young cores in the league. After another disappointing year, the Caps had the 3rd overall pick in the 2007 draft and picked Nicklas Backstrom out of Sweden as the franchise center.

These four: Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nick Backstrom, and Mike Green. A generational superstar, all-star winger, elite first-line center, and Norris-capable defenseman made up the new core for the Caps, and the future seemed brighter for Washington than it had ever been before.

****

Fast-forward five more years. It's now the summer of 2012, and after five straight disappointing playoff exits, the first member of the core leaves the team. Semin signs a contract with division rival Carolina leaving the Caps without a capable scoring winger outside of the struggling Ovechkin. To make matters worse, Green has missed much of the previous two seasons due to injuries, leaving the Caps void of defensive depth. True, they have talent in John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov, but the rest of the D-corps is full of AHL plugs and struggling veterans.

That season is the lockout-shortened one, and there is a resurgence. Ovechkin goes back to his goal-scoring ways and wins the Richard trophy for the first time since 2009. As the Caps make yet another trip to the playoffs, they're clicking as they never have, and after taking the first two games from the New York Rangers, the second thanks to an OTGWG by Green, it looks like this may be the year.

Of course, the Caps lost that series in 7, but it seems like the future is still bright for the team, and with the remaining members of the core playing as well as they have in the past few years, it only seems a matter of time until Adam Oates leads the team to the Stanley Cup.

The 2013-14 season is an unmitigated disaster, as the Caps miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the first time since Backstrom joined the core. There are sweeping changes as the general manager and coach are replaced, but the general perception of the team is that the core is rotten, and the Caps would be better off ditching OV and Green and going into a semi-rebuild.

The next season, spurred by the growth of the next young guns in Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Braden Holtby, Barry Trotz leads the Caps back to the playoffs on the backs of one of the best seasons of Ovechkin's career. Backstrom emerges as one of the best and most underrated centers in the league, and Green has a resurgence with more sheltered minutes. Together, the team gets as close as it has to success, losing in overtime of Game 7 of Round 2 after leading the series 3-1. It is likely the most heartbreaking loss of the Young Guns era.

****

That brings us to today, and the news that Mike Green will not be back to the Caps. It's a move that most of us expected, especially after Green took a parade of penalties allowed the Rangers to tie up Game 7. Beyond just that, Green's years of steady decline from being a Norris Trophy candidate to an overpaid third-pairing defenseman effectively killed any chance of the Caps re-signing him.

On July 1, Green will be signed by another team, likely a team that needs an offensive D-man capable of playing Top 4 or even top-pairing minutes. Given what he's capable of, he's simply not a good fit for the Caps anymore.

That being said, the fact that Green is leaving this particular year seems symbolic of something else. For one, today's draft will see Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the next generation of superstars, get drafted, thus filling the mold of Ovechkin and Crosby ten years ago. Within the next few years, we'll likely see a passing of the torch to the next crop of generational talent.

But even more symbolic, perhaps, is a milestone coming up later this year, right before the 2015-16 season starts up. It's a milestone I don't think any of us fans saw coming, and it's a milestone I don't think any of us fans want to come.

Yet, this September, Alex Ovechkin is turning 30 years old.

It speaks to OV's longevity and strength that he's played at such a high level for ten years and has the potential to do so for even longer. I don't think his production is going to suffer any time soon.

Still, if eight years ago, after Backstrom's drafting finalizing the core, someone told you that OV would turn 30 before the Caps won a Stanley Cup, what would you have done? Called that guy crazy? I would have. Eight years ago that core, the young guns, seemed capable of so much, of a decade of dominance that would create a dynasty and bring DC multiple Stanley Cups.

It hasn't happened, and now, the young guns are young no more.

Today the Caps are perhaps the closest they have ever been to Stanley Cup success. This is a deep team with great coaching and high-end talent. Next season we may see the Caps come the closest they ever have to winning the cup, and within the next few years, I hope, the Caps may have won a cup.

Despite this, it's hard not to feel disappointed and sad at what has happened to such an exciting and talented core. OV is still here, and will be for the rest of his career. Backstrom is still here, and will be here as long as OV is.

Alex Semin isn't here. He's failing to live up to a 7 million dollars a year contract in Carolina, who is looking to dump his contract and enter a rebuild.

Mike Green isn't here. He's going to sign a big-time contract with some team that needs a skilled veteran defenseman to take them to the next level.

Today, we look at the draft and the future, and we see high potential and a bright future. We see years of success with OV and Backstrom, Kuzy and Bura, Carlson and Alzner, Holtby and the rest of the crew.

But we also see failed opportunity, the ghosts of Alex Semin and Mike Green. We see Nick Backstrom entering his eighth season in the league, halfway through his mega-contract from 2010. We see Alex Ovechkin turning 30 this September.

We see Young Guns moving on.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What's Next?

100 seconds. That's how far away the Caps were from extending their season into the third week of May for the first time since 1998.

100 seconds and 5 days later, the season is over after what may be the worst of the numerous collapses in Caps history. We all know what happened yesterday, and I see no reason to harp upon it. What I do want to do, however, is examine where the Caps are and what happens next.

First, though, let's get one thing straight: the Caps did not choke.

The Caps choked against Montreal in 2010. They choked in 2012 against the Rangers. They choked again against the Rangers in 2013. In all of those series, the Caps were overachievers who had gotten to where they were in spite of themselves, not because of themselves.

This year was not those years, and this team was not those teams.

Oh, the media will definitely add this to the narrative about OV and the Caps being chokers. And lets be honest, the Caps deserve it, having been so close to the next round and watching it slip away.

But we, the Caps fans, should know better, as we always do. This team, our team, went toe-to-toe with the heavily favored defending Eastern Conference champs and Presidents Trophy winners in easily the best series of the playoffs so far. It hurts now, but we fans should realize how well this team played and we should be proud of the strides they have taken since missing the playoffs last year.

Let's start with OV. He will undoubtedly be the most scrutinized player in the aftermath of this loss. After Game 6, OV made his 'guarantee' that the Caps would come out strong and win Game 7. Well, OV and the Caps definitely came out strong. OV made his presence felt early and often. He was third on the team in individual even strength Corsi-for behind only Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle, both of whom were on another level yesterday. When you add in the power play, which was absolutely abysmal again, OV is tied with Kuzya for first on the team. OV definitely backed up his words yesterday, and he is not to blame for this loss.

Let's be honest, however, the Caps are still responsible for their own loss. Yes, the bounces stopped going their way. Yes, they played very well at the end of Game 6 and in Game 7. But no team that blows a 3 games to 1 series lead can only blame luck. There were definitely other factors at play.

For one, the production from the Caps was consistently inconsistent in the series. OV led the Caps with 3 goals, two of them in Games 1 and 2. After him, three players (Joel Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andre Burakovsky) had 2 goals, and 3 players (Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Curtis Glencross) had 1 goal. The Caps only scored 12 goals in the series, 3 of which were in the Game 6 loss. If the Caps had gotten one more goal somewhere in Games 5-7, the series would have gone the other way.

Building off of that, the power play was absolutely horrendous. The Caps had the best power play in the regular season, but was only able to score once in the Rangers series, the first goal of the entire series. Considering that we blew three power plays in Game 7, that hurts, to say the least.

Building off of that, the penalty kill had to spend way too much time on the ice. Don't get me wrong, the penalty kill was phenomenal; however, the Caps were shorthanded way too many times, especially in Game 7 when it mattered most, with Mike Green sent to the box twice in a row thanks to dumb penalties, allowing the Rags to capitalize on the second one.

And that brings me to the last point about why the Caps lost: the defense. The Caps have one of the strongest defenses in team history, but when it mattered most, it faltered. John Carlson was not good yesterday, Tim Gleason was slow, and Mike Green was absolutely abysmal. It would be a real shame if this was Green's last game in a Caps sweater.

That's a perfect way to transition into the next part of this post: what should the Caps do moving forward?

It's clear that the Caps are still a piece or two away from being a legit Stanley Cup contender. However, the huge strides the Caps made this year compared to the previous season's disOatester are a source of pride and hope for next year.

I'm going to start with the back end for the Caps. Goaltending? Caps are sitting pretty with top-10 goalie Braden Holtby who I hope will sign a long-term deal in the 6 x 6 range.

Next, the defense. The Top 4 is all but set in stone, with Brooks Orpik, Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner anchoring a very talented, physical and dangerous D corps. That leaves two everyday playing spots and a plethora of options to choose from. With Tim Gleason obviously gone, the only thing left is to address the elephant in the room.

Should the Caps re-sign Mike Green? I'm going to say no, and it's not just a knee-jerk reaction to his horrible performance yesterday. The Caps have a plethora of talented defensemen in Hershey to choose from, with Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick and soon Madison Bowey ready to claim their spot with the big club. I love Green and he has been awesome with the Caps for nearly a decade. Still, I don't think the Caps are willing to shell out $5 mil + for a 5D especially with so much talent waiting in the wings.

That leaves the following as our defense entering next year:
Orpik - Carlson
Alzner - Niskanen
Schmidt - Orlov
Carrick

That is a very talented group capable of rolling three solid lines with enough depth to withstand the inevitable injuries we'll suffer next year.

And now, the forwards.

It's clear that the Caps do not have enough Top 6 talent to compete with the best of the NHL. The top priority for the Caps this offseason should be to find a first line Right Wing capable of playing a Mike Knuble role. The first line was best when OV and Backstrom were playing with Joel Ward who fits into that hard-nosed go-to-the-net role but does not have top-line talent. In my opinion, the best option there would be Tom Wilson. There is nobody in free agency who is capable of playing that role effectively. I truly believe he will thrive on the top line, and I was extremely impressed with how well he played in the regular season.

Here's how the Top 6 should look next year:
Ovechkin - Backstrom - Wilson
Burakovsky - Kuznetsov - Johansson

That leaves the bottom six, where the Caps need more depth. If there is one player the Caps have to re-sign this year, it's Eric Fehr, who was awesome last year. I also can't see Jay Beagle going anywhere, and Joel Ward has the Barry Trotz connection, and I'm OK with the Caps re-signing him as long as it's not 3 mil a year.

That leaves Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Michael Latta and Brooks Laich fighting for the fourth line spot. Personally, I would like to trade away two or three of the guys not named Latta in that list, possibly for a better player or first round pick.

Here is how the bottom 6 could look next year:
Beagle - Fehr - Ward
xxx - Latta - xxx
*xxx is Brouwer, Chimera, Laich, someone from Hersey, or someone acquired from a trade

Hopefully, this will allow the Caps to build more forward depth.

Overall, the Caps are in a much better shape entering this offseason than they were entering last offseason, and once we fans get over our disappointment, I think we will all see that as well. I have been a Caps fan for all my life, but I must say that I have never been prouder of this team, to the point where I am willing to say the following:

The Washington Capitals will win the Stanley Cup in 2016.

I know we Caps fans say this every year, but I honestly feel that this is the best Caps team since the 80's. Better than any OV team, and better than any team in the 90's glory days.

Before I sign off, I just want to thank you, the people who read my rants and views over the course of this season. From the Winter Classic to an amazing playoff run, this was one of my most enjoyable seasons as a Caps fan, and I look forward to sharing the ride with you guys when next October rolls around.

Enjoy the offseason. Let's Go Caps.