Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Moving up

It's a little hard to believe, but it's now been nine years (to the day) since the Capitals drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004. Among Caps players, Ovechkin only has the second-longest tenure with this organization—Brooks Laich came on board during the 2003-04 season (and Jeff Schultz and Mike Green are only minutes behind Ovechkin at third and fourth, respectively.) While the Capitals haven't had as exciting a player to watch develop as young Ovechkin, they have had some real difference makers race through the pipeline: Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, John Carlson, and, most recently, Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Filip Forsberg might have become another, but for the time being there's no one else on the radar.

I felt that during this season, the Caps sort of came to a crossroads. Early in the year, when the team was near the bottom of the standings, I thought the team should sell and reload for next season. It could have traded Mike Ribeiro for a first-round pick and more, maybe acquired and re-signed Stephen Weiss—who, luckily, wouldn't be able to contribute until next season, thanks to injury—kept Filip Forsberg, used the season as practice time for Oates to develop his players further (e.g. playing Backstrom and Ovechkin power versus power), and, finally, drafted Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones, or Aleksander Barkov (all four of whom should be able to step into the NHL within a year and have all-star potential) with their own first-round pick.

Instead, they decided to gun for the playoffs, and thanks to a hot run at the end of the year, made it, falling in the first round to the New York Rangers. They traded Forsberg for Martin Erat—a trade I don't mind for a team that's looking to bolster an already formidable lineup. (Erat is a top-line, two-way player. Forsberg's upside, from what I've read, is similar in terms of impact, but Forsberg is a little more of a scorer. As it is, he won't reach his potential for at least six years, if at all.) They also kept Ribeiro on board, even though the playoffs were still a longshot at the deadline and the Erat trade meant it would be tough to find cap room to keep Ribeiro. They wanted results this year, and that's okay.

But it's tough to trade for top-end talent you need year after year. (Brouwer, Ribeiro, Erat.) If you want impact players without giving up important roster players, you have to trade from a limited draft pick pool and, for the Caps, a thin prospect pool. Moreover, these players are getting added to a team that could be getting worse and worse. 

Recall that in 2009-10, George McPhee added Joe Corvo, Scott Walker, and Eric Belanger to a team that was already headed for a comfortable President's Trophy win. 

In 2010-11, he added Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm for a team that had not yet wrapped up the division, but probably would have taken it along with a top-two seed in the conference. 

Now, you're adding players to a team that some people will no doubt predict to miss the playoffs next season. (The question is: how much do you trust the larger sample of games over which the Capitals' Corsi was brutal, and how much do you trust the smaller sample later in the year over which the Capitals' Corsi was almost playoff-level? If the former, you predict them to miss the postseason, probably.)

At some point, this team will need to boost its "baseline talent level"—how good it is before trade deadline additions come in. You do that with young players, since they're the ones most likely to improve a lot while with the team. Marcus Johansson, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner are halfway or more to developing into the players they'll be at their best, I think, so we can't look for huge improvement there. Dmitri Orlov will still improve a lot, probably, but into a reliable second-pair D at best. While Braden Holtby is still pretty young, he already looks like an above-average starter, and it's hard to expect him to improve much more, if at all. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson could provide that improvement, but Wilson probably won't be a dynamic offensive presence (which every scoring line needs) and there's still uncertainty about Kuznetsov's future plans (although he said he's coming to the NHL after next season). With Filip Forsberg now with Nashville, the team has to bank on a permanent return to ES dominance from Ovechkin and Backstrom, or for Kuznetsov to pan out in a big way (i.e. "perennial All-Star").

Even if Kuznetsov does pan out, though, without the addition of another top prospect, the team will really be looking at him and Wilson to offset other players' declines (which will be especially difficult if Ovechkin and Backstrom don't age as well as, say, Datsyuk and Zetterberg). That's a lot to ask for.

Assuming a lot of things, here's what the lineup might look like in April 2018, along with ages:

Kuznetsov (25) - Backstrom (30) - Ovechkin (32)
Laich (35) - Johansson (27) - Wilson (24)
TBA - Perreault (30) - Galiev (26)
TBA - TBA - Brouwer (32)

Alzner (29) - Green (32)
Orlov (26) - Carlson (28)
TBA - Kundratek (28)

Holtby (28)

And if the team continues to trade young (picks/prospects) for old, this lineup will be even older. And there will still be three full seasons left on Ovechkin's contract. This may be a formula to be a pretty good team for some time, but I don't see a way to hit that next level without some pretty good prospects, which the team has had some success drafting late in the first round...but hit a dry spell and there will be some serious issues. (Remember Tampa Bay when they had to trade Brad Richards and Dan Boyle?)

All of this is basically saying that the team isn't on a dramatic rise, nor does it have the assets or prospects to go on a quick rise at the moment. The solution is to get a good young player with high upside, and the almost surefire way to get that guy is by picking near the top of the draft. A player picked in this year's draft will be 22 or 23 in April 2018, still improving but likely already one of the best players on the team.

It might cost too much to move into the top four in this year's draft, but the 5-7 range (Carolina, Calgary, Edmonton) might be more realisticCarolina and Edmonton are both teams that need to improve sooner rather than later, and both need D, which the Capitals have an excess of. If the #5 team is lucky, one of MacKinnon/Drouin/Jones/Barkov drops; if not, there's still Nichushkin, Monahan, and Lindholm, all of whom project as second liners at the lower end, with top-line upside. If you wait until next year's draft, the guy will be 21 in 2018, still taking huge strides every year and ready to be The Guy once Ovechkin's contract is up.

The 4-7 spot in the draft is far from a sure bet as far as forwards are concerned, but if management believes the top of this draft is strongand it seems like everyone who has something to say only praises it at the top, so I have trouble believing that McPhee disagreesthen you're looking at the 4-7 guys in this draft being 2-3 guys in other drafts: near-locks.

The next question is how much it would cost to trade up. According to this study by Broad Street Hockey, it looks like the Caps have half of what they need already with their own first-round pick (23rd overall). Add the second-rounder (46th) and you're three-fourths of the way there. Substitute Orlov or Johansson for that second-rounder and maybe you've got enough to hook Edmonton or Carolina. You might be able to grab Elias Lindholma guy who compares favorably to Nicklas Backstrom on the scoresheetor Valeri Nichushkin, whose production hasn't come along but boasts a variety of high-end tools, including great skating.

Yes, five years is a long time from now, and I don't think a drastic cupboard-restocking is something that needs to happen this year. But while we can infer management's short-term plans (Backstrom-Ovechkin-Erat, depth on D) and medium-term plans (hope Ovechkin and Backstrom stay good, Kuznetsov and Wilson), I don't see a long-term plan in place. (A team like the Flyers has done alright while thinking short-term and figuring things out on the fly, but I think everyone saw their recent troubles coming.) It can't be "Ovechkin-Backstrom age really well or bust." You have to really buckle down and make a draft pick on the level of Kuznetsov, Claude Giroux, or Mike Green, a star with one of your picks in the 20s that can give you that strong push to the next level, or you can trade up, spend the equivalent of an early 20s draft pick in addition to that original 20s pick in order to be sure your pick will be good. (You could also go for quantity of picks over quality, but I think this team needs high-level talent sooner rather than later, and the higher picks will be more impactful individually while coming along a year or two sooner.) It's probably against the odds that this team wins a Cup with Ovechkin at this pointtime is getting a little short. With a smart trade—dealing someone who can be adequately replaced in UFA—that lands a good pick, you could bolster your chances of winning a title every season for the remainder of Ovechkin's contract and beyond.

Just something to think about.

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