It's no secret the Caps' lineup is in pretty bad shape right now. One injury on the blueline and AHL-caliber players are getting 12 minutes a night. One injury at center and Matt Hendricks is playing the half-wall on the second power play unit. The lineup is also similar to the one that's lost "early" three years in a row, the one that has seen declining performance from the depth relative to the top line and whose Corsi% has been dropping from (roughly) 56 to 54 to 51.
Something needs to change. If it's not the coach (or, by extension, system) it will have to be on the roster.
I documented in the link above how the Caps may need more depth in terms of "puck possession" forwards (PPFs), since Bruce Boudreau isn't a coach to line-match much (and with the way the top line has been performing as of late, power-versus-power isn't working too great).
My hypothesis is a reliable line needs two PPFs, with a third player either a two-way forward, a "grinder" or other energy player, or simply another PPF. This is simply based on observation, no regressions or anything to back me up.
I marked PPFs with an asterisk below, and a suitable third player with a single quote.
Alex Ovechkin*-Nicklas Backstrom*-Mike Knuble'
Brooks Laich'-Tomas Fleischmann-Alexander Semin*
Jason Chimera'-Marcus Johansson*-Eric Fehr*
Marcus Johansson I give the benefit of the doubt here, but in actuality his sample size is too small to know with any certainty. The fourth line I didn't bother with--they're not looking to score.
What we see is that the second line could use another guy. So I have been and will continue to look around the league this season to find potential fits.
It struck me over the past week that Ales Hemsky might be one guy worth looking at.
The Oilers are pretty much building for the future, and should be one squad willing to trade away veterans. Honestly, I would prefer shutdown center Horcoff, but the length and price of his contract ($4 million for four more seasons) are too much.
Looking at his Behind the Net stats, Hemsky is most certainly a PPF. He can work his magic playing tough Zonestart with great zone shift, even if only playing middling competition, and he drives offense at even strength like few others (and on the power play, too). He's close to a point-per-game player and has Stanley Cup Finals experience, all the way until Game 7 (2006). That is just one playoff season, but a long one in which the Oilers arguably upset three favorites (including Detroit, who were heavily favored by all metrics and analysts) and then got upset themselves by a hot goalie in Cam Ward.
What does Hemsky bring to the Capitals? He puts Alexander Semin back on his preferred left wing and lets Semin be the scorer instead of the do-it-all guy on the second line. He brings another consistent puck possession player on that second line to improve consistency (as the second line no longer rides on whether Semin is hot or cold) and helps to mask the absence of a good second line center in the lineup. He bumps Tomas Fleischmann into a lesser role in all situations. He probably makes the second power play unit more appealing a threat to Boudreau to use more frequently, bringing vision and playmaking ability to complement Tomas Fleischmann's.
Hemsky isn't great defensively. He doesn't kill penalties (well, prior to this season), but that shouldn't really make a difference to the Caps. It seems pretty obvious the Caps needed a system change more than anything, and their PK still isn't that flattering, believe it or not (Neuvirth's save percentage on the PK is about 0.07 higher than it probably should be, which equates to about 3 fewer goals against and around 84% PK on 9 PPGA/55 times SH, which is pretty good but not stellar). There are other guys to do that. As for his defense, well, it must be better than Tomas Fleischmann's, even if simply in the "playing offense means you're not playing defense" sense.
What else does Hemsky bring? Twenty-seven years of age, a contract that runs through this season and next ($4.5 million and $5 million in salary respectively), and a cap hit of $4.1 million. Hemsky at this point would become an unrestricted free agent at the same time as Jason Chimera, DJ King, and Tyler Sloan go UFA, but more importantly, as Eric Fehr, Mike Green, and John Carlson go RFA. Between now and the end of Hemsky's current deal Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, John Erskine, and Brian Fahey go UFA, while Mathieu Perreault, Karl Alzner, and Semyon Varlamov go RFA.
I've already outlined what Hemsky brings to the Caps. The questions, then, are what he will cost in terms of assets and whether the long-term benefit is good enough. If the Caps could keep Hemsky, for example, they'd be in good shape, having another RW and being able to keep a player that's comparably good to Semin at 5-on-5 for less money. Of course, on the flip side, Hemsky + Semin + Backstrom + Ovechkin + Green = roughly $32 million in cap hit tied up in just five players, and at least $26 million for 2011-2012 with Semin unsigned. That's a lot of money.
Then again, the Caps' window to boast a really loaded, home-grown roster is coming to an end, most likely. Their crop of top-notch prospects (Alzner, Carlson, Varlamov, Neuvirth) are coming to the end of their ELCs and will require a big pay raise, meaning some of the other depth will have to go away, unfortunately. While promising, the replacement batch--Perreault, Andrew Gordon, Jay Beagle, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitri Orlov, and others--don't look like they can contribute at as high a level on ELCs as Ovechkin, Green, Schultz, Backstrom, and the four listed above thus far have. So it makes some sense to invest some money right now.
What might the Oilers want? Well, they need a PPF left wing, or at least a left wing that can move the puck up the ice. Also, in terms of prospects they could use dynamic puck-moving defensemen and/or goalies. Considering Hockey's Future has Edmonton as having the third best group of prospects in the league, I don't think draft picks would be as appealing to them, especially since top prospects Magnus Paajarvi and Taylor Hall joined the team and should be peaking offensively in around 4 years. The Oilers might want a veteran forward capable of playing tougher minutes as well, given that since their Cup Finals run, they've successively let go of defensive forward after defensive forward, leaving Shawn Horcoff and an RFA-signaway Dustin Penner.
Who could the Caps trade, then? Immediately jumping to my mind are Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, any fourth liner, Dmitri Orlov, Patrick McNeill, and Braden Holtby. Fleischmann is not a PPF, and it's probably best for the Caps to maintain their trio of goalies for the time being. That leaves Laich, the fourth liners, McNeill, and Orlov.
I wouldn't be heartbroken about losing any of those players (save Matt Bradley, but I could swallow that one up too). Laich doesn't control the play, but complements it. I think Fehr could take his role and do better. None of the fourth liners play that many minutes. McNeill may be an NHLer next season, but he's not going to be anything more than 3rd pair with good puck moving skills and the ability to quarterback a second-unit power play, it looks like. Orlov is very much uncertain, and looks like a poor man's Dion Phaneuf in the future--good offensive ability, takes himself out of the play to make a big hit, some defensive issues, good skater.
If you're GM Steve Tambellini, would you bite on Brooks Laich, Patrick McNeill, and David Steckel for Ales Hemsky? Maybe to sweeten the deal, while throwing in Sheldon Souray and Michal Nylander to save the Oilers some cash? I realize Hemsky isn't the ideal fit, but there don't appear to be very many 2Cs available (Brad Richards and...?).
This trade would keep both teams between the floor and the cap, and push the Oilers up to 48 contracts (50 is the limit) and down to about $43.5 million in contracts (just $100k above the floor, although since this is mid-season they will actually have a slightly higher cap number). Is it fair? Would you pull the trigger? Any pros or cons that I missed?