Friday, May 18, 2012

Offseason choices

The Capitals are probably in their most precarious state as a franchise since...well, it's been awhile, and I may have not even been a fan at the time. The team overall was flat in a Game 7 for the third time (I'm not sure the performances against either Boston or New York in 2009 were ideal, so add two halves and call it one) in five tries, there is no coach after the most recent coach tried to completely overhaul the team's philosophy, the team's prized prospect apparently will stay abroad for at least two more years...I could go on.

Here's the checklist I would make as the team's GM.

Who will be the new coach? There are many possibilities out there. Ideally you find the coach before free agency to try and nab players who will fit his system, but at least one Canadian outlet has reported McPhee may wait until August to name Hunter's successor.

Possession. If you don't find a coach, best bet is to find players who will keep the puck in the offensive zone, regardless of system. Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward are two easy examples of players who were able to move the puck up the ice under both Boudreau and Hunter.

As far as UFA names go, the following players scored at a top six rate (top-180 among F, min 40 GP, which was Derek Roy's 1.58) and had a positive on-ice Corsi: Alexander Semin, Zach Parise, Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, Jiri Hudler, Jamie Langenbrunner, Chris Kelly, Lee Stempniak, Steve Sullivan, PA Parenteau, Kyle Wellwood, Petr Sykora. Limit it to top liners (top-90 in points per 60, Ilya Kovalchuk's 2.00) and you have Kelly, Sykora, Wellwood, Parise, Hudler, Parenteau, and Semin.

While that is a fairly long list of names, it'll get shorter since some will re-sign with their current teams over the next six weeks, and so you'll have 30 teams looking at maybe five or six top-six forwards.

A better bet might be looking to add top-end depth via trade but adding real punch to the bottom of the lineup in free agency. That opens up more options--in addition to the aforementioned names, guys like Alexei Ponikarovsky, Scott Gomez (if Montreal buys him out), Brandon Prust, Blair Betts (if he can play and was not merely LTIR'd indefinitely for cap and roster space), Mikael Samuelsson, Daniel Winnik, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jay McClement, Marco Sturm, Paul Gaustad, Jochen Hecht, Dustin Penner, Jarret Stoll, Jason Blake, Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius, and David Moss pop up after a quick look as guys who can do a decent job keeping the puck on the attack (several of whom are trusted to take heavy defensive zone start ratios as well, like Betts, McClement, and Stoll).

We're up to around one UFA forward per team, and landing even one of these players should add punch to third and (especially) fourth lines that looked helpless at times during the postseason (the fourth line for all but the ends of both series, the third during the Rangers series). I don't know how versatile all of these players are--that's up to management and scouting--but I'm sure there are several fits. There are definitely the components of a top-end checking line that will score about as much as most top lines, and throw in outscoring from Backstrom's line and the fourth line and I think the team is in a pretty good spot.

Go hard after undervalued players. This is related to the previous section, but also encompasses some possibilities of its own. Take Paul Martin. No one criticized his signing last season, but this season he's come under a lot of fire. Like John Carlson, Martin's behindthenet profile is solid, but both he and Zbynek Michalek got sub-.900 goaltending. As far as I know, after playing in New Jersey and then for a defensive-minded Pittsburgh team last season, this season was the most wide-open hockey his team had ever played, and I think shifting back to a more defensive-minded system as well as another year of acclimation will have him due for a rebound next year. Even if Pittsburgh is savvy enough to demand fair value, at the very least it's not above fair value, like we see at the deadline due, to bidding wars.

There are other players that were forced into tougher roles than they're used to playing and saw a drop in production and undeserved criticism as a result: Ales Hemsky (former Edmonton coaches Craig MacTavish and Tom Renney have gotten plenty out of Hemsky, especially MacTavish), Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Nikolai Kulemin come to mind quickly.

There are also the risky players coming off major injury. Andy McDonald has one year left on his deal with St. Louis, at just over $4 million in cap hit, and last time he was healthy he was roughly a point-per-game player. Alexander Steen was brilliant for St. Louis this season when he was healthy, but missed half the season due to a concussion (like Backstrom did). UFA defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo played most of the year with Alex Pietrangelo, who put in a Norris-worthy performance this season, but as such his contributions to the pair's effectiveness may be undervalued (or he may be overvalued, too). Simon Gagne is also risky, but a solid two-way player.

Get a coach whose system will fit the players. Please, minimal adjustments needed. No system is inherently wrong, but it sure could be wrong for the personnel you have. I think the puck-moving ability and offensive savvy on the blueline is a real strength, and something integrating that would sure be nice, but if I knew anything about the game I'd be in it.

Don't be afraid to go after young players. I can understand the desire for an established top-six forward after experiments with Tomas Fleischmann, Brendan Morrison, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson haven't really panned out (though I maintain if a coach were to lock Perreault into the 2C spot and give him more ice time, especially on the power play, he's put up solid numbers). The team doesn't have a ton of valuable assets at the moment, though, so it's hard to find that guy via trade unless his current team really wants him off its hands (Stastny and Getzlaf, maybe) because the Caps don't have the assets to pony up.

Young players, though, aren't as valuable. We see established players going at the deadline for  prospects and developing players every year. In that vein, there are several young centers who might be able to play in a top-six role next year (and if not, they'll be close). Marcus Kruger in Chicago, Andrei Loktionov in Los Angeles, Sam Gagner in Edmonton (he's only turns 23 in August, folks), and Brayden Schenn in Philadelphia are four such names. I'm sure there are more. All of them are currently buried on the depth chart, and it doesn't look like Loktionov and Kruger will be able to get up anytime soon.

If you extend your search for wing depth, Oiler Linus Omark has tweeted that he'd like a chance somewhere else and he and fellow undervalued forward Magnus Paajarvi were solid together in '10-'11.

St. Louis also has plenty of young players, but may not have the money to keep its team together. TJ Oshie, David Perron, and captain David Backes were Ken Hitchcock's go-to defensive line, taking the three top quality of competition ratings and bottom three offensive zone start ratios among Blues forwards, and all outshot and outscored their competition. Oshie and Perron are both restricted free agents and are each due a nice raise from the slightly-over-$2 million they each earned this past season. New ownership may be coming into play here. We'll see, but this is a terrific opportunity to pick up a quality player, especially if the Caps jump early.

I understand this is risky, but sometimes that's what you need to do to be one of the best. Los Angeles had two injury-prone wings they planned to play with Kopitar on the top line, and while Simon Gagne has had more issues, Justin Williams has stayed healthy in the playoffs.

Jeff Carter struggled in Columbus, and the Kings traded for him and slotted him alongside another guy who I think may be a little disappointed in his regular season performance in Mike Richards. Sutter asked those two to play harder minutes to help take the load off of Kopitar, and the ploy worked.

They inserted Slava Voynov to take Jack Johnson's spot, and he was pretty green, like Orlov, but has done very well in a season in which he was supposed to spend in the AHL polishing his defensive game.

They came into the year with two young, cheap netminders, and Jonathan Quick got even better (if he hadn't, Los Angeles probably misses the playoffs). They traded for Dustin Penner and he's returned to his underrated form that he had in Edmonton.

Phoenix risked it with Mike Smith in goal and a second-year D as its 1D plus a collage of vets to round out its blueline, and that team has done well. New York risked it with slotting McDonagh to take Marc Staal's spot, and that's worked out extremely well.

If you could have predicted these players' performances, their salaries would have been much higher. All these teams took risks, and they paid off. While risks may not--the Johnson extension for LA, for example--if McPhee is smart about who he targets, he'll come out ahead frequently enough to build a very good team.

In other words, I want the team to do due diligence and not treat this offseason as especially different. Learn from mistakes in the past and be cognizant of roster weaknesses and age, but don't let, say, the lack of a 2C for three years now magically increase the urgency with which you will pursue it above and beyond what's actually needed (don't overcorrect or panic, like Montreal did with Gomez-for-McDonagh or Columbus with Carter-for-Johnson). McPhee hasn't been prone to overreacting to this point, but who knows, with all the bumps over the past couple of years. I hope he stays in control. That's a plus to waiting--he's obviously invested in the success of the team, and waiting for the necessary emotional detachment is critical.

Explore the trade market for Holtby. Braden Holtby may be the next big thing. I don't know. Seems like everyone (save Rangers and Bruins fans) thinks extremely highly of him (including Henrik Lundqvist). I do know, however, that establishing yourself as an above-average netminder in the league is pretty hard--try it, draw up a list of the top-15--and I do think Holtby could net a pretty nice return in a trade. Neuvirth I think is a decent NHL goalie and Grubauer was great in the minors this season, so the pipeline looks like it can replace Holtby, and there are always underrated veteran backups available in free agency (like Biron, Conklin, and Johnson). I'd jump at a Varlamov-type package (with the first being 2012, preferably).

See if there is a trade market for Ovechkin. I do realize the media fallout could be disastrous, but I do think some teams would offer a substantial amount for Ovechkin (Montreal was the first name that came to mind). There's some evidence that this past season, he was a pretty marginal player at even strength (outscored by checking lines, essentially). I think he'll be better next season, but why take that risk when someone else can for you? I think Howson's desired package for Nash (along the lines of Kreider, Dubinsky, Erixon, and a 1st, if memory serves) proves that some GMs are crazy enough to overrate goal scorers that much, and I think there is real potential here for a ripoff of Carter-Johnson magnitude.

Of course, it's quite possible to avoid this altogether and build a roster that comes pretty close to a championship or even wins one despite Ovechkin's contract--just add him as a healthy scratch to Phoenix and I don't think you've changed anything on a final-four team. You can't afford to overpay in UFA without bargains, though, and the Capitals are running a little short on bargains, which are now concentrated in Carlson-Alzner-Orlov and the goaltending.

Assess whether you can make the playoffs without Semin. I realize he may want to leave, but he was the team's best forward this season who played more than 42 regular season games and without Parise, at least two other top-six forward acquisitions, or a coach who will coax a dominant game out of this roster like Boudreau did from 07-10 and Sutter did this year with LA, it may very well be that the team misses the postseason without his regular season contributions.

Give Perreault a chance. His possession numbers and scoring rates have been solid for three years in a row. I don't think you need to have two high-end centers to ice a championship roster if you have outstanding depth, and given that Perreault has been scoring in the ice time he's been given, give him some more and see if he can build on it. His would-be replacement as a top-six center has not earned that spot any more than he has, whether it be Laich or Johansson.

Keep your excitement down for Marcus Johansson. He had a very, very quiet leap from 27 points (9th on team) to 46 points (tied for third). Sure, that's two years in a row where he's had a very high on-ice shooting percentage, but I think more strength will help him win a lot more puck battles and mitigate the drop in conversion efficiency. But entering the last year of his ELC, it would be nice if he were kept under the radar so that he comes in cheap on his second contract.

Trade Dennis Wideman. People have traded for the rights to guys like Jay Bouwmeester and Dan Hamhuis before. Even if a team gives up a low-round pick, it's better than nothing.

Do your utmost to keep the affiliation with Hershey going. As far as I know, the affiliation was set to expire at the end of this season and has not been renewed. Hershey is a team known for winning, though, and experience with pressure, expectations, playing in scoring roles in the postseason, and long campaigns can't hurt players like Cody Eakin and Stanislav Galiev in their development. They truly have to earn their ice time since the AHL affiliate is by no means the parent NHL club's puppet, and that's also an extra defense against rushing prospects. It's not terrible if the relationship ends, but it sure would be good to maintain a relationship that has worked out very well for both organizations so far.

Tell Alex Ovechkin he needs to learn to play defense. Todd McClellan for precisely this reason I think would be great for coach in Washington--not only do his Sharks dump and chase more than any "skill" team I've ever seen, but he transformed Joe Thornton into a dominant two-way force, and I don't doubt he could do the same to Ovechkin. As it is, it's just an extra hassle for the Capitals' coach to be wary of power-on-power matchups against Ovechkin's line, and without being competent defensively you can't send out your most dangerous offensive-zone weapon for 40 of the 60 minutes a game (when the other team has its top-six forwards on the ice). That's rather inconvenient.

Find a new coach, and make sure he knows what he's doing. If Backstrom hadn't been hurt, I think a top-notch coach could have taken this team to the Stanley Cup Finals. I think the true MVPs of the league are Dan Bylsma, Darryl Sutter, Mike Babcock, and Alain Vigneault, coaches who drastically improved their teams fortunes through a specific forecheck, defensive zone scheme, and zone/line matching. No coach is without his flaws, and so they all represent some risk. I hope the Caps find the coach that best suits the roster as currently constructed and as constructed in the foreseeable future.

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