Thursday, March 21, 2013

Becoming what they wanted to avoid?

Before the 2004 lockout, the Capitals decided that the way they were building their team wasn't working. Washington followed its 1998 run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 with conference finishes (by points) of 12th, 3rd (ECQF loss to Pittsburgh), T-5th (ECQF loss to Pittsburgh), 9th, and 6th (ECQF loss to Tampa Bay).

Major moves made during that time:
  • Summer 1999--signed 33-year-old winger Ulf Dahlen
  • 2000-01 season--acquired 22-year-old former first-rounder Dainius Zubrus from Montreal and 30-year-old middle-six wing Trevor Linden from Montreal for 24-year-old winger Richard Zednik (depth scorer) and 22-year-old forward Jan Bulis (who looked like he might become a 2C at some point)
  • 2000-01 season--acquired 31-year-old forward Dmitri Khristich (who had declined from top-line form a couple of years earlier) from Toronto for a 3rd rounder
  • Summer 2001--traded three prospects (with hindsight, no one significant) for superstar Jaromir Jagr (and a defenseman); signed Jagr to the richest contract in NHL history, at the time (if memory serves)
  • Summer 2002--signed Jagr's former teammate in Pittsburgh, 1C Robert Lang
  • 2002-03 season--acquired 30-year old 1C Michael Nylander from Chicago for depth (D Andrei Nikolishin and F Chris Simon)
It doesn't look awful, but remember the money involved in signing players in free agency. Lang was also signed to a pricey contract, no doubt. (The figure isn't exactly cited as often as Jagr's is.)

Anyway, so the organization pretty much looked like this:

Forwards: Jagr, Lang, Bondra (home-grown), mix of home-grown and external depth
Defensemen: Gonchar, mix of home-grown and external depth
Goalie: Kolzig

In terms of star power, the main force was, of course, Jagr. Adam Oates was acquired before the Finals run and was traded away in 2002. Bondra was still a great scorer, and Gonchar developed into a high-end puck mover (he was in the midst of nine straight seasons with at least 50 points, ignoring an injury-filled 08-09).

This isn't a team that was built quickly from the outside, like Florida last season, but the Capitals did make direct changes to their core, trading away Oates and adding Jagr and Lang. They didn't have much stability after the Finals run--they also lost Craig Berube, Andrew Brunette, Joe Juneau, Dale Hunter, Phil Housley, Esa Tikkanen, and Michal Pivonka, to name a few. The idea seemed to be that adding talent would yield immediate results, but with the constant roster tinkering--as well as the attitude issues from Jagr--the team was merely "good," not elite like it could have been. Hence the "firesale" and change of philosophy to build internally, through the draft. For stability. Not just building a winning team, but a winning organization.

Until 2011, it was all working well. The team was built from the inside, through the draft and with other longer-term pieces--the "Young Guns," Brooks Laich, Carlzner.

At the 2008 deadline, the team became "buyers." It added (or attempted to add) veteran 2Cs (Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Jason Arnott) and 1Gs (Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore) while letting its youth (Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby) develop. While the team was capable of winning now, players were not acquired to be "ends" in central roles (like Chara in Boston)--either they were complements (Mike Knuble), depth (i.e. not replacing the "Young Guns"), or stopgaps (goalies).

But in 2011, it changed. Washington traded for D Dennis Wideman, who is best used as a 3rd-pair D at 5-on-5 and a top-unit PP option. But with Green's injuries, Wideman had to step into a more significant role, and did a decent job.

I don't know whether that trade signified a change for McPhee, but from the outside, I wouldn't have blamed him, in a vacuum. A good player stepped into an important role and did a good job. And with the Caps having peaked, regular season-wise, in 2010 (121 points), but falling off some the next season, maybe McPhee figured that these sorts of moves are what he needed to make to get the team to the next level, or at least back to the levels it reached during the first three seasons of Bruce Boudreau's tenure.

True or not, he added more players via FA or trade. Specifically, players who can eat ice time. Roman Hamrlik was signed to be a top defensive presence. Joel Ward, while not exactly a top-line forward, got term on his contract. RFA Troy Brouwer was acquired for a first-round pick, and it seemed like the logical spot for him was to replace Mike Knuble on the top line, soon if not immediately.

(I'm not counting the signing of G Tomas Vokoun because, as far as we know, a) he contacted the team, not vice versa, and b) only Boston and Vancouver had the goaltending to be able to honestly say "no" to one of the league's best netminders at $1.5 million.)

And then go to this season. Signing Eric Fehr and Wojtek Wolski to be stopgaps while waiting for Filip Forsberg and Evgeny Kuznetsov, that's fine. But if it turns out McPhee was using this season as their audition for becoming the permanent roster replacement of Alexander Semin (i.e. a core player), well, that's not such a nice thought. Re-signing Mike Ribeiro would be filling a core role with declining veteran who hasn't been here all that long: what the team was going pre-firesale, getting win-now players and getting impatient thereafter when he needed to just wait and see the moves through before tinkering again.

Acquire players from outside to form the core the top of my head, for the recent dominant teams, only Nathan Horton and Marian Hossa come to mind as fitting that bill. (James Neal was also acquired from the outside, but he's only the fourth-best player on that team, unlike Jagr, who instantly became the best on Washington, or Horton/Hossa, 3rd overall and 2nd among forwards, though both the Bruins and Hawks had some sort of good forward corps even before that. I suppose the Kings are a debateable case, although I'd say the core players on that team are the homegrown Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick.)

Maybe, maybe San Jose fits the bill, getting Joe Thornton (instantly the best player on the team) from Boston, Dan Boyle from Tampa Bay, Dany Heatley from Ottawa, and now Brent Burns from Minnesota. So I'd say it's definitely possible to build a core from the outside, although it might be difficult.

(Might be worth mentioning that it looks like the Sharks are going to go home-grown in a couple of years, led by Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, and Brent Burns, who'll have spent enough time as a Shark that I'll consider him home-grown enough.)

At any rate, it's tough to be in that state of team where, on the one hand, you're "contending," and on the other hand, you're changing the core of the team on a regular basis.

In my mind, only if the core of the team is elite is it permissible to add rentals or otherwise expect nice results immediately from additions to the team. I thought that's the lesson McPhee learned from the early 2000s. If you're adding a 27-year-old to be your 1C, for example, you should probably make that move as part of a plan that comes to fruition in a couple of years, not this year itself. (Off the top of my head, that's only worked for the aforementioned Hossa and Horton, as well as Chris Pronger in Edmonton and Anaheim in the two years after the 2004 lockout.) Give them time to grow into the team, and vice versa. Making a good team into a great team isn't as simple as making a few high-profile trades and signings in a span of four months.

McPhee has an opportunity to do just that this summer. But I highly doubt this team can be elite with a bunch of new faces being the on-ice leaders. McPhee should be building toward Kuznetsov and Forsberg at this point--say, 2015-16, to give them some time to grow into core roles--but it will be tempting for him to add to or change the core as soon as possible, and try to get immediate results, with Ovechkin increasingly unlikely to return to top form, Backstrom not as dominant as he once was, and Green's health issues. But changing the core when you're in win-now mode strikes me as as the very thing McPhee swore off in 2004.

Long story short, I used to think it unimaginable that McPhee would get any impact player from outside the organization. He's been doing that more and more over the years. Some of that is expected, since the team isn't holding 10 picks a draft anymore. But given the team's more recent reliance on outside talent, given the success of trades for complements like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and James Neal, given Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green's recent issues, and given how tough this new division is going to be, well, I can actually see a quick fix happening now. And that scares me.

If McPhee is discovering that he was wrong in trying to head in a different direction, if he decides that he was wrong to swear off his original path, if doesn't see any other way forward for 2013-14, I hope Leonsis does--with a new general manager.

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