So here we are on Wednesday, 21 days after the open of the NHL free agent market and the Washington Capitals have made their preference to stand pat perfect clear. There was a hole at center on the second line. There was a need for a shutdown defensemen. Neither have been addressed from outside the organization. Indeed, the big splash some thought the Caps would make following a spectacular seven-game flameout vs. the Montreal Canadiens has been more like concentric ripples from re-upping restricted free agents and inking depth players.
So here we are on Wednesday, 21 days after the open of the NHL free agent market and the Washington Capitals have made their preference to stand pat perfectly clear. There was a hole at center on the second line. There was a need for a shutdown defensemen. Neither have been addressed from outside the organization. Indeed, the big splash some thought the Caps would make following a spectacular seven-game flameout vs. the Montreal Canadiens has been more like concentric ripples from re-upping restricted free agents and inking depth players.
General Manager George McPhee has stated publicly that the team is done spending on FAs. While I’m not sure he won’t dip into the bargain bin if there’s a potential fix languishing there late in the summer, it seems like the roster is set for next season. So now what? How do the Caps capture the Cup that eluded them after leading the NHL in regular-season points? Let’s look at some key factors.
The Pivotal Pivot
Trade deadline acquisition Eric Belanger was sensational in the faceoff circle, but failed to spark the second line in the offensive zone. The Caps never filled the role vacated by Sergei Fedorov last season, despite trying a host of players at No. 2 center. This year two youngsters will offer themselves as possible solutions. Marcus Johansson impressed the Caps coaches and front office with his skating at the recent prospect camp, raising expectations. But he still just turns 20 in October. And he’s not used to the North American game yet. He showed a tendency to retreat from the offensive zone and get set on defense instead of forechecking as he should on this side of the Atlantic. He’s got the upside to be a force in the NHL – eventually. But is he ready now? We’ll see soon enough.
Mathieu Perrault presents another option. Perreault provided nine points in 21 games with the big club last season, but was a beast in the AHL with 50 points in 56 games. The added experience likely gives him the edge once camp starts, but he’d likely just be keeping the roster spot warm for Johansson in the long run. Undersized, but feisty, Perreault won’t give it up without a fight though, and that competition could help the Caps.
A Bolstered Blue Line?
Defense is an intriguing area. For several seasons, talking heads have spoken of a need for the team to add a hulking, crease-clearing defensemen. Only problem is that hulking defenseman often can’t keep up in today’s faster NHL. Those that can command top coin. Just look at what the Flyers gave up to obtain Chris Pronger and then sign him to a long term deal. Balancing a contract of that caliber with those of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green (whose deal expires in 2012).
So the Caps will rely on Karl Alzner and John Carlson (A.K.A. Captain America) for that blue-line boost. The good news is that both former first-round draft picks have the talent to become long-term fixtures. The good news is, again, they’re young, and neither has that boulder-like build that can throw bodies away from goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.
Expect both Alzner and Carlson to get lots of ice time early. If they can carry the load, the Caps will have plenty of maneuverability heading forward. If they have to make a move to address that area though it could lead to yet another key factor …
In Game 5, 6 and 7, the Caps’ lack of secondary scoring was glaring. The second line, usually carried by sniper Alexander Semin was silent. Semin went goalless in the series and as he became frustrated he became predictable. As soon as he touched the puck in the offensive zone, he was directing it to the net. The Habs happily obliged him these low-percentage, long-range attempts, captured the rebounds and started the other way down the ice.
That’s not acceptable from a winger drawing a $6 million salary. If Semin expects the Caps to keep him around after that contract expires after this season, he’ll need to produce in the playoffs … if he gets that far. If the second center spot or the blueline appears to be holding the Caps back before the trade deadline, they could spin off Semin to plug those holes. But will anyone else want a scorer who can’t do his job in crunch time? Something to keep an eye on for sure.
Mike Hume may be emailed at [email protected]