“Around The Boards” – Issue Five (Heading Into the Homestretch)

The All-Star break will be over on Tuesday and then the NHL hits the ice for the three-month dash to postseason play. While the Capitals have grown accustomed to coasting towards the playoffs, they find themselves trailing in the Southeast division and sitting at fifth place in the Eastern Conference this time around. Injuries, scoring droughts, and the Winter Classic headlined the first stanza of the 2010-11 season, but now the Capitals need to put the chaos behind them and hone in on what the game is all about.

We talked to several members of the Capitals blogosphere to get their opinion on the state of the team and what they need in order to make a run at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

The Washington Examiner‘s Caps beat reporter, Brian McNally, was able to brave through a power outage last week and kindly gave us some of his expert analysis.

Since we had one “Mc” we went for another in McFanboy; Homer that is. Or Brian Murphy. Or Murf. Take your pick. Honestly, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but we needed a new contributor. But no seriously, Murf is great and knows his stuff.

Finally, we decided to have Neil Greenberg be the first repeat panelist since, well, he’s smart. He’s also entangled in a bromance with Murf and so couldn’t leave him out.

And so without further ado, we give you another edition of Around the Boards. Enjoy!

Heading into the homestretch of the regular season, the trade deadline is looming. Should the Capitals be looking to upgrade their roster? If so, what is their greatest position of need?

McNally: I think every team could use a roster upgrade before the deadline. If a veteran second-line or third-line center is available that would make a lot of sense. The team appears set on D and in goal – as long as Varlamov and Neuvirth remain healthy for the next five weeks. If not then a veteran goalie is likely in play, too.

McFanboy: General manager George McPhee is a smart, savvy man who is very good at what he does. That means, heading into the trade deadline, he’ll do anything and everything he can to help this team win.

Now, as I’ve said all along, his preference is to build from within — so he’s going to give the current roster every single opportunity to “get it together.” But if the Caps continue to hand away winnable games to lesser opponents and get shut out at such an embarrassing pace, then he’ll pull the trigger on a bigger than anticipated deal. Short of a second-half collapse though, I wouldn’t expect him to do anything too drastic.

The team doesn’t have a ton of cap space remaining, so to make a blockbuster trade he’d have to move some established players. If I had to guess now, I’d say he acquires a serviceable veteran (someone along the lines of Eric Belanger) to fill the second-line center role and calls it a day.

Greenberg: Clearly the Caps lack offense. A top six forward should generate ~1.7 even-strength points per 60 minutes. Using this definition, that leaves Semin (2.5), Ovechkin (2.37) and Backstrom (1.95) as the only top six forwards the Caps have, with MJ90 (1.62) on the outside looking in. If you buy Johansson is a top six forward (I don’t) then Washington still needs a winger. Otherwise, at least a second line center and top six winger. I see the top two lines as:

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Laich

Semin-2C-LW

Without giving up a young NHL player (Perreault?) and draft picks, it is going to be tough to fill their needs.

Much has been made of the Capitals offensive woes this season. What do each of you see as the cause for the lack of scoring?

McNally: A power play that hasn’t looked right since the Montreal series. Fix that and the scoring problem goes away entirely. A shaky PP overshadows injuries to Semin and Fehr, Ovechkin’s relative off season (again, maybe due in part to injury: see the cortisone shot earlier this month), Laich and Knuble dropping off their pace of a year ago and the trade of Tomas Fleischmann.

McFanboy: Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr and Matt Bradley are guys who have been out of action for a stretch this season. Those three accounted for 71 goals last year. Tomas Fleischmann was traded away for a say-at-home defenseman, and he scored 23 goals last year. Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble haven’t been in a groove for much of the season and they combined for 54 goals one season ago. Without even mentioning Alex Ovechkin and/or Nicklas Backstrom, that’s a ton of production missing. The rest of the roster — guys like Jason Chimera, Matt Hendricks, etc. — they’re solid players and good guys, but they’re not going to provide a scoring punch to offset that level of goal scoring.

Greenberg: It is just regression to the mean. I wrote back in October that the Caps’ offense would struggle just like the Boston Bruins did in 2010 after experiencing an unusually high effectiveness in their 2008-9 season. We saw the same effect for the Caps at the beginning of their 8-game skid, where they saw their offense dry up. They were heavily outchancing the competition and just weren’t seeing any luck.

Which of the goalies will seize the starting job for the postseason?

McNally: Semyon Varlamov returns to seize the goalie job by the end of the West-Coast trip next month and holds it through the playoffs.

McFanboy: I’m a big Michal Neuvirth fan and think he’ll eventually establish himself as a number-one goalie — either in Washington or elsewhere. But Semyon Varlamov has an uncanny ability to insert himself into the lineup for the team’s biggest games. He might go through slumps and injuries, but he always finds a way to make himself the only option for the Capitals’ biggest moments.

Greenberg: Coin flip. It is going to come down to injury, but I don’t think the Caps’ goalies (whether it is Neuvy or Varly) keep them from going deep into the playoffs. Gun to my head, I put money on Varly as the postseason starter.

Alex Semin signed another one-year deal before the All-Star break. What are your thoughts on this deal and will he eventually agree to a multi-year contract to become a part of Washington’s long-term plans?

McNally: I think the one-year deal was a calculated risk for Semin. He – and his agent – get to see how the next CBA shakes out. He rolls the dice on a monster 2011-12 season pushing him to an $8 million deal when he becomes a free agent on July 1, 2012. He gets two more cracks at the playoffs to prove once and for all he can thrive on the sport’s biggest stage. And if he fails in that attempt he will still have a monster payday waiting for him in the KHL or can try to be the main offensive threat for a different NHL team. I do not see him signing long-term in Washington.

For the Caps – they have a relatively small amount of cash on the table for a legit 40-goal scorer over the next 18 months. Then they clear a lot of cap space after 2011-12, giving them more time to see if their younger prospects are ready to step into the mix (Kuznetsov, etc) and have money to pay future RFAs like Alzner, Varlamov, Carlson, Neuvirth and even Mike Green in the summers of 2012 and 2013.

McFanboy: I’ve long heard that Semin either wants to play for the Capitals or in the KHL. If the rumors are true, he has little desire to play for another NHL team. As stated earlier, I think very highly of McPhee and have little reason to doubt the job that he does. If I were in his shoes, I’d happily give Semin one-year deals and never even consider signing him to the kind of decade-long contracts your other superstars on the roster are currently enjoying.

That being said, there is a sense that doing another one-year extension is only delaying the inevitable. Eventually a decision is going to have to be made and they’re either going to have to lock him in or ship him off to keep some of these other pieces in place once their contracts are up. And $6.7 million is a awful lot of money for a one-dimensional player known to vanish come playoff time.

Greenberg: $6.7 million is high. The chances of him scoring 40 goals again this season were low to begin with and his projection for next year is around 32 goals and 67 points in 70 games. Seems like a lot of money for that type of production. It is hard for a player to “outplay” a contract of that size. Sasha Minor would have to become Sasha Major and be in the 100-point range plus a huge playoff performance to make it fair value. Just don’t see it.

As for long-term, again, it is extremely hard to get fair value on a long-term contract of that nature. Look at Ovechkin’s contract. It won’t be long before that too is an albatross around Washington’s neck. No one scores 40-50 goals forever. Paying Semin anything over a 3-year deal at $6+ million per is a mistake.

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2 Comments

Filed under Around The Boards, Capitals, Capitals Blogosphere, NHL

2 responses to ““Around The Boards” – Issue Five (Heading Into the Homestretch)

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