Thursday, June 28, 2007

On tempering expectations

Since the draft, Original Six has been sending emails to the Deuce and I every day, with a countdown to "D-Day," or the start of free agency. There is a sense of anticipation, a buzz that is evident on the message boards, in several blogs, and in the hearts of Caps fans everywhere. Caps fans are giddy in anticipation that the club will dig deep into its pockets and pull Drury, Gomez, or even *ugh* Briere into the fold. So, as the resident grumps in the group, it's up to us to bust the bubble for everyone.

You will not see Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, or little Danielle Briere in a Capitals sweater (or jersey or uniform system) this year.

Okay, deep breaths everybody.

Here's why:

The Capitals are shallow at the center position, but they also have a prospect that they believe can be a true number one center in Nicklas Backstrom. He has top tier Swedish Elite league and international experience with Team Sweden (the senior team, not a junior roster). He'll be a full year older, more experienced, and more physically developed than other NHL rookies. And George McPhee almost cracked a smile when talking about him during a recent press conference (for those of you that know how much McPhee dislikes dealing with the press know this is no small thing).

Signing one of the "big three" immediately cuts into Backstrom's minutes. Severely. And if Nick is anything like a certain other Capitals rookie who came into the league a full year after he was drafted, the Caps will want him playing first line minutes. So it makes very little sense to go out and break the bank on a number one center when you have the makings of one already under contract with the organization.

So, if the number one center position is taken, what do the Caps need to do?

I wrote last season that the team's most pressing needs are at the blue line, and that still holds true. The Capitals absolutely NEED a top tier defenseman, for two reasons. First and most obviously, they need a defenseman with the experience to play first line minutes and strike fear into opposing players who right now view the Caps defense as a set of turnstiles. Don't get me wrong, the Capitals do have talent back there, especially with the younger players. However, they don't have a hammer, a guy who forwards will actively avoid engaging. Think Scott Hannon, not Sheldon Souray.

That brings us to the second reason the Caps need a big time defensive defensmen. They have a wealth of young, talented blueliners who lack experience. And while teaming with Pothier will help them learn how to make a great breakout pass, it will not teach them how and when to play the body of an opposing forward. Having a veteran defenseman to tutor Jurcina, Green, Shultz, Morrison, Eminger and now Alzner is an absolute necessity for them to continue their professional growth. Without one, it will take a minor miracle for them to develop into top tier NHL defensemen.

Once the Caps make a move for a free agent defenseman, they still have a hole up the middle that needs to be addressed. But since they're looking for a number 2 center, and not a number 1, they have options. Options like Handzus, Nylander, or even bringing back Dainius Zubrus. Reuniting Ovechkin, Zubrus and Clark would give the Caps two top tier scoring lines with Semin, Backstrom and either Fleischmann, Fehr (should his hip heal up) or a mid-level free agent right wing working the second line. This looks more and more likely since Buffalo has decided not to sign Zubrus to an offer before the start of free agency. It's no secret that we aren't huge fans of Zubrus as a number one center, but as a number 2 or 3 he could be effective. And since Backstrom would be the number one pivot on the power play, that's effectively the role Zubrus would fill, even though he'd be logging minutes on the first line at full strength. Handzus could fill that role equally well, and his defensive prowess would allow him to play with either the first or second line (since we all know Semin and, to a lesser extent, Ovechkin need someone willing to do the dirty work in the defensive zone).

So Caps fans, when the Capitals don't break the bank signing Drury, Briere, or Gomez, don't fret. But if they don't sign a big-time defenseman and a second tier free agent center, if may be time to hit the panic button.


JP said...

I couldn't agree more.

Add in the fact that Ovechkin, Semin, Kolzig, Clark, Morrisonn, Green and Gordon will all be free agents of one kind or another after next year, and it would probably be a worse move on the books than on the ice to spend $7m+ on any one player.

b.orr4 said...

In principal, I agree with your comments on Backstrom. And while everything points to him becoming a top-end center, we have to remember that he's still a young European who's never played a game in the toughest league in the world. How is he going to respond to the much more physical play of the NHL, the speed of the league and even the travel? Until we know the answers to those questions, I don't think there's any way we can pencil him in to the #1 slot. I say bring in a veteran center like Nylander and give Backstrom a few years on the #2 line. Then he should be ready to permanently move to the top line.

3 Grumpy Caps fans said...

I think there is a problem with bringing in anyone as old as Nylander. The Caps are trying to structure a team that can be competitive for at least a 4-5 year window. Nylander is currently 34 years old.

Lets say their competitive window opens next year (although realistically it's probably another year off). That means Nylander would be 39 at the close of the window. Not many guys are still in the NHL at that point, which means they have to replace him with another free agent. I just don't see the logic in that.

the deuce said...

I'm really hoping the Marleau to Washington rumors are true. That would be the perfect fit. He's fast, skilled, and could play on either the first or second line, depending on Backstrom's development. He's also a good character guy, and comes with a reasonable price tag (for the moment -- 4.5 million). Who cares if he disappears in the playoffs at this point. He can help us GET to the playoffs, and hopefully OV, Semin, and Backstrom can take it from there. Now, whether we'd be able to sign him beyond next year...well, that's a different story.

Roger Padre said...

I think that Nylander would be a smart signing for the Caps. He is a savvy SWEDISH veteran center who could mentor our young SWEDISH center. I know that McPhee signed Josef Boumedienne to have a Swedish speaker in the clubhouse but Josef is merely that, another Swedish speaker. He is an up and down defenseman who brings no plus to the team aside from his native language. Besides, Nylander has always impressed me with his intelligent play.

Roger Padre said...

Caps signed Tom Poti, 30 year old defenseman from the Islanders. Size and offensive talent. I'm not sure whether he uses his 6 foot 3 and 215 pounds effectively on defense. He has 594 games of NHL experience and played on the US Olympic team in 2002. Is he the defenseman that will help to steady our young guys? Hopefully so.

PRC said...

Does Kozlov fit the bill as a #2? I'm pleased, personally. Poti, yeah, he'll be useful. I'd rather have Hannan though. But either way, truly peerless prognostication there, good job.