Sports

Picking Splinters: Capital Needs

The first day of NHL free agency is a fast and furious affair and by the time you read this on Thursday, the Washington Capitals likely will have already locked up their big free agent acquisition. If there is one.

GM George McPhee has been coy about exactly how active the Caps plan to be this summer. He recently told my ESPN colleague E.J. Hradek they wouldn’t chase many free agents at all, in fact. Of course, GMGM also said that about the previous three trade deadlines, and in each instance the Caps were among the busiest teams.

No, unless the Caps are hoping for a bargain price at the trade table, I think Washington will make a play at one of the big free agents on the market. However, with limited cap space they likely only have room to nail down one such player while retaining their own restricted free agents. The rub there is that many see three distinct areas of need for the Caps. So which one should they address?

Goaltender

In theory, the Caps need a netminder. The thinking is that relying on two, inexperienced goalies (Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth) is a recipe for disaster over the long slog of the regular a season and Stanley Cup run. You want to have a veteran between the pipes who knows how to rebound from a poor outing and keep his head on straight.

With that in mind, the Caps could take a run at free agents Evgeni Nabokov or Marty Turco, the two biggest names on the market. In my opinion, I think that would be a foolish way to spend the majority of their cap space.

A young goalie didn’t hinder the Chicago Blackhawks last season en route to a second-place finish in the Western Conference and a Stanley Cup. And I’d argue that a young goalie is what kept Detroit from missing the playoffs. And it’s not like Turco or Nabokov has ever been celebrated for their play in the postseason.

Varlamov is overdue for the starting job in Washington and entering the season with two goalies with miniscule cap hits is a huge advantage. I’d take a pass in the keeper category.

Second line center

As the NHL’s top-scoring team (by more than half a goal per game), it’s not surprising that the Capitals have the foundation of a spectacular second line. Alexander Semin is one of the top goal-scorers in the game and Brooks Laich is the kind of gritty, front-of-the-crease player you need to dig out rebounds and pot loose pucks. Only problem is those guys don’t have a playmaker to feed them the puck. The Caps tried just about everyone in the role at some point last year and never found a solid solution. Surprisingly, that turned out to be a gaping hole in the playoffs as no one could ignite Semin and secondary scoring became virtually non-existent in the final three games against Montreal.

While the need is unquestioned, the free agent solutions are slim. The top two centers, Patrick Marleau and Tomas Plekanec, are already off the market. That leaves Matthew Lombardi of the Phoenix Coyotes as the top name. The offensively capable (53 points), defensively responsible Lombardi would be a great addition. However the dearth of options would likely drive his price out of the prudent range.  Look for a fix to come from within the organization (Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson) or a cheap veteran solution signed after the first rush has passed.

Defenseman

This is where I think the Caps will make their move. There are ample options to fill a top-four defensive need, which will keep the prices affordable and I don’t think the Caps will target the cream (Sergei Gonchar, Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov) anyway.  Vancouver’s Willie Mitchell is a scrappy, shut-down D-man who has given opposing stars fits. His health (concussion problems) could make him a bit of a risk, but it could also keep his price tag off the top shelf. Adding Mitchell to the lineup alongside a quietly effective Jeff Schultz and up-and-comers John Carlson and Karl Alzner could be a big boost. If nothing else it will take the onus off of a slowing Tom Poti (who was torched on the penalty kill) and the talented, but still learning, Mike Green.

Though McPhee may focus elsewhere, the Caps could make the biggest impact by adding to their blueline. And Willie Mitchell may very well be that beneficial addition.