Through 59 games of the 2011/12 NHL season, the perennial playoff contending Washington Capitals sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a decidedly average 29-24-5 record. The Caps look like a shell of the team that they once were, and with the trade deadline now on the horizon, General Manager George McPhee is likely to be very active as he prepares his team for the long months ahead.
With some big free agent signings this past offseason, fans and journalists were lauding the Caps, naming them as runaway Stanley Cup favorites. But with the team not nearly playing up to expectations (despite sprinting out to a 7-0-0 start), the Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau and brought in team legend Dale Hunter to take over behind the bench. They are 17-15-4 since the change, and are still struggling to keep up in the playoff race.
With the Florida Panthers pacing the Southeast Division and the Winnipeg Airplanes hot on their tail, this year’s trade deadline is shaping up to become the most important one in recent memory for the Caps. If they want to bring back the crown they have owned for the past four seasons, the Caps must improve at the deadline.
George McPhee, the team’s general manager, is notorious for keeping his cards close to his vest. He is not likely to divulge any information about his intentions, but he is believed to be working the phones harder than just about any other GM in the league. First and foremost, the Caps need a center. While a corps of Nicklas Bäckström, Jeff Halpern, Marcus Johansson, and Brooks Laich looks great on paper, when Bäckström is missing it is significantly worse. It is crucial for the team to add depth down the middle of the ice, especially with the Swede out indefinitely with no real timetable for a return.
The market for top-six centers is deep this year, and the Caps will likely find themselves with no shortage of options come February 27th. Jeff Carter of Columbus, Ryan Getzlaf of Anaheim, Mikhail Grabovski of Toronto, and Derek Roy of Buffalo are all elite centers that have at some point in the past couple of months been linked with the Caps, and there is a good chance McPhee takes a run at one of them before the trade market slams shut.
The Caps could also look to add wingers that can play in the top of the order. As it stands, the Caps have only three top-six calibre wingers in Troy Brouwer, Alex Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin, and the lack of proven goalscorers in their lineup reflects in the team’s measly 159 goals scored. While there is little doubt that the need for a center is more dire, the acquisition of a top-end winger would ease the hole down the middle. Again, the pickings are far from slim, with the Caps are likely to be spoiled for choice. Andrei Kostitsyn of Montreal, Rick Nash of Columbus, Dustin Penner of Los Angeles, Tuomo Ruutu of Carolina, and Ray Whitney of Phoenix are all on the block, and are all potential targets for McPhee. Expect the Caps General Manager to take a hard run at Edmonton Oilers’ winger Ales Hemsky on deadline day.
Most of the F Street Faithful and media feel that acquiring a center at the deadline is the direction that McPhee needs to be heading towards. The question remains: Who leaves?
As of right now, the Caps have very little cap room to work with. According to Capgeek, the team sits with approximately $1 million in cap space, so the key here for McPhee will be to walk the fine line between being a buyer and being a seller. He must be able to dump salary while keeping the team in the playoff hunt.
With the emergence of Dmitry Orlov and the return from abdominal surgery of Mike Green, the Caps have eight defensemen, and are likely to offload in this area. One option he has is to trade Jeff Schultz. The struggling 25-year-old from Calgary, Alberta has played in only 35 games and has just 1 goal and 6 points, maintaining a plusminus rating of +3. His 4-year, $11 million contract is set to expire in 2013-14 and can easily be moved to a team looking to bolster its blue line come the deadline.
If teams find Schultz’s contract to be too steep, the Capitals also have a cheaper defensive option in John Erskine. The 31-year-old, originally drafted by the Dallas Stars, only has 2 assists on the year so far but carries a cap hit of just $1.5 million through 2012-13. This may be a better option for teams who aren’t looking for a long term hit on their cap, especially with an unknown salary cap next year with the expiring collective bargaining agreement.
There are options up front as well. There have been rumors that the team may try to trade Mike Knuble. At 39 years of age, Knuble is the elder statesman of the team and has a wealth of knowledge to pass along to younger players. He has looked snakebitten at times this year and has only scored 3 goals and 12 points. While Knuble has spent a lot of time on the fourth line this season, a team who is willing to make him a top-six forward may get a big return on his investment, especially one who is trying making a playoff push. His $2 million cap hit is minimal and he does become a free agent after this season, making him the perfect rental.
The Capitals have one more player that they may be willing to part with. Alexander Semin has for a long time been one of the team’s biggest scorers, but he has been an enigma for years. His $6.7 million cap hit is massive and there may not be many buyers for his services. There is a growing chance that the team does not re-sign him since his contract expires at the end of this season and McPhee may not want his star to leave for nothing. If the Caps can find a buyer for him, it would clear up the cap room needed to bring in the legitimate second-line forward that the team so desperately needs.
While Capitals fans continue to cry out for Semin to be traded, there is little doubt he has been the Caps’ best forward in the past few months. In his first 27 games this season, Semin scored just five goals and six assists for 11 points to go along with a plusminus of -9 and 36 penalty minutes. In his last 27 games, Semin has 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points (0.96 points per game), along with a +15 rating and just 14 penalty minutes. His trade value is high, but fans need to realize that the Caps would be in a much worse position if not for the Russian, and that trading him away might be a crushing blow to the team’s chances.
At the 2007-08 deadline, the Caps acquired Sergei Fedorov from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a middling prospect in Theo Ruth. Over the next two seasons, the Russian center would tally 13 goals and 33 assists for 46 points in his 70 games with the organization, all the while bringing great leadership to the locker room with his three Stanley Cup rings and one Hart Trophy. Sergei Fedorov was the perfect addition for the Caps, who found a player that brought everything from tremendous offensive punch to all-situation versatility to a great veteran presence. He cost next to nothing, but played a major role in helping the Caps return to the postseason for what was then the first time in five seasons. The Caps need a Fedorov-esque trade addition if they want to once again be a playoff team this season.
This is sure to be a busy deadline for McPhee and company. The wheeling and dealing around the league is already in full flow, but knowing McPhee, nothing will be done until the very last second. This may be a quiet week for Caps fans, but once the shoe drops, it will be a sickening thud in the nation’s capital.