State of the Washington Capitals: NHL Trade Deadline Edition

Written by Jeff Kleiman of Capitals Outsider (@J_dizzle_caps) and Jake Ware of DC Pro Sports Report (@JacobWare95).

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.

If the Caps want to acquire a top-end player, it might have to be from a rebuilding team. Such an organization would ask for prospects and picks, rather than roster players. Top youngsters Cody Eakin and Braden Holtby might well become expendable for the Caps, especially with the likes of Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov up front and Philipp Grubauer in goal. With two first-rounders available, the Caps might also have their own pick in play.

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.

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  1. #1 by Kiper at February 21st, 2012

    I think Carter would look good in a Caps uniform. They have the extra 1st rounder if they need to go that high. Would mean the end of Semin.

  2. #2 by Scotty_P at February 21st, 2012

    They need Backstrom to recover and Green to return to form. If they can add a couple pieces that gets them in a playoff spot, and if Backstrom and Green can get to their level before they were injured, they could do some damage.

  3. #3 by Jim at February 21st, 2012

    No mention of Vermette?

  4. #4 by Jeff at February 21st, 2012

    Vermette wasn’t added to the list because the Caps don’t need a 3C or a 4C. If the Caps acquire a center, it will be someone like Roy or Carter, a 2C who can play 1C in the absence of Backstrom. Carter would be a nice fit, but it would require moving Semin or placing Backstrom on LTIR to have enough cap space to sign him.

  5. #5 by Bob at February 21st, 2012

    Need to trade Alex Ovechkin. He does not do anything for the Caps anymore. He is just dragging the team down

  6. #6 by Lizzie at February 21st, 2012

    I am NOT one of those Capitals fans crying out for a Semin-trade. Far from it. He is an incredible player and we need him now and in the future if our goal is to win the cup. He has been a very bright part of these dismal past few weeks.

  7. #7 by Geo at February 22nd, 2012

    Nice roundup. How about Dallas Stars’ Mike Ribeiro, which the site here pointed out today (Feb. 22):

    He’s got 29 assists and has had 52+ assists in 3 of the last 4 seasons. A little undersized, but sounds like the playmaker the Caps so desperately need right now:

    Stats over at SBnation on him:

    Hefty $5M hit though, so they’d probably have to unload Semin (or several other players) to free up enough cap space.

  8. #9 by Jenn at February 22nd, 2012

    They will not trade Ovechkin. Although he is scoring less this year he is still one of their most productive players. People jump right off the Ovi bandwagon if he does not score when they need him to. I believe both him and Semin will stay. As for Green, he is a great player…when he actually plays, which is not all that often anymore due to so many injuries. I would not mind seeing him pack it up.

  9. #10 by Sharon at February 22nd, 2012

    I agree that the Caps would be in bad shape without Semin’s play in the last few weeks. He is not the problem with this team and I don’t believe he is the enigma people claim. Ovi is the real enigma and the real problem with this team! What is going on with him? Semin needs a coach that will spend time with him, set limits for him and provide guidance and structure to give him confidence. Semin needs leadership and a mentor. He has responded well for Hunter and responded well when Arnott and Federov were here because he respects them all and Arnott and Federov are the skilled 2C’s that he needed to set him up. The Caps may not resign him, but that would be a mistake especially if they keep Hunter, because I believe that Semin will continue to play very well and very consistently under Hunter.

  10. #11 by gino at February 22nd, 2012

    how did it ever come to this!!!! what this team need is heart!!!

  11. #12 by Jacob S at February 23rd, 2012

    Ovechkin is not the problem. The problem is the Capitals trying to playba defensive style game with virtually no “great” defensive players. John Carlson and Karl Alzner can shut it down occasionally but theyre young, and still not that big of a defensive threat.

    Semin has been producing but just watching the games since 2010 when we lost to MTL he hasnt been the same Semin. He is more predictable than Ovi…toe drags and breakaways that go backhand everytime. No doubt hes an extremly talented player but if we could get a great center for Semin, it needs to be done.

    Honestly if the Caps want to bring things back, they need to go back to their strengths. Offense. Montreal was a fluke by a goaltender that had an incredible year. Green, Semin and Ovechkin with Backstrom and other great offensive players, we need to play to that style.

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