After Rough Finish, Caps Not in a Free Agent Frenzy
By Scott Lowe
A wise man who happened to be a former boss of mine and a baseball hall of famer once provided me with a nugget of business and life advice that has served me well over the years (although I’m not always successful with the execution; kind of like the Capitals’ and their defensive system): Try to take the emotion out of everything you do.
At least attempting to follow that advice over the years has served me pretty well. I’m an extremely competitive person, so I’ve learned that when I’m embroiled in emotionally charged situations, a period of cooling off and analysis usually serves me well instead of a knee-jerk response. Over the years I’ve deleted angry emails, torn up biting letters and more recently deleted blogs that were products of emotional initial reactions. While each would have made interesting reading for the intended audiences, adhering to the advice and cooling off a bit before responding has probably saved me a ton of headaches.
If I had written what I was feeling immediately following the Washington Capitals sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lighting, I guarantee you it would have been entertaining. Believe me, I had the blog written after Game 3, and it was a good one. I saw what was coming in Game 4 and had it all ready to go. But instead I waited, took a few days off from watching hockey and then examined the rest of the league.
The bottom line is, as it has been for the past four years, the Capitals’ organization is in an enviable position with a solid mix of talented and now-experienced young veterans and several up-and-coming prospects who should contribute within the next two years. While the season wasn’t as successful as those wearing red-colored glasses might have hoped, it wasn’t a total failure either. If I had to give the season a grade, I guess I’d give it a B-minus.
Normally the campaign would have earned a “C,” after a first-round playoff win and a second-round out, but the marks are slightly higher because of the transformation made by both the coaching staff and the players from a high-flying undisciplined style to a more defensive, Cup-minded approach. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Despite reinventing themselves the Caps rallied to earn the top seed in the East, were basically the second-best team in the league during the second half of the season and began playing in a way that someday could take them a long way in the postseason.
They ran up against a hot team with a hot goalie and a few Cup-savvy veterans that actually played even more defensively than they were, and Washington didn’t quite know how to respond. The Caps were confused and taken out of their rhythm – another learning experience for a core group that is entering its prime – not on the downside – and that still is poised for many more successful years together.
I do think that Bruce Boudreau got outcoached in the playoffs for the second year in a row, but the fact that he checked his ego in December and was willing to adapt his style to one that serves the organization better in the long run took a lot of fortitude, and I believe it’s what saved his job. Had he continued on the path he and the team were on and then exited the playoffs in a similar manner, it seems to me that his number would have come up. Obviously the leash gets a little bit shorter for him this year, but even though he comes off as a goofball publicly, Boudreau is a true student of the game who is extremely well-respected among professional hockey people. If anything, he might need to be a little tougher on his players going forward.
Believe it or not, the biggest mistake Boudreau made was a lineup decision prior to the Tampa series that involved a fourth-liner. Prior to that series Boudreau, for the second year in a row dealing with an overflow situation at forward, decided to bench heart-and-soul character guy Matt Hendricks.
An off-season under-the-radar pickup, Hendricks played desperate hockey from Day 1 of training camp. He had to if he was going to crack the lineup for one of the NHL’s most talent-laden teams. Hendricks may have been the best player in camp and then during the rough times in December he became a lockerroom leader and a guy who laid it on the line every night. His injuries and willingness to play – and literally fight – through them were well documented by HBO’s 24/7 series, and Hendricks even showed enough skill to become one of the Caps’ top shootout performers during the second half of the year.
He was a guy who personified Washington’s transformation from a soft, finesse team to a more rugged defensive squad, yet he was benched going into the team’s biggest playoff series in more than a decade. Moved into his place on the fourth line was Marco Sturm, a solid professional who really helped the Caps down the stretch, but who is not built to play on a checking or grinding line. As we listened to the scratches prior to Game 1 at Verizon Center, when Hendricks’ name was announced, my 12-year-old son looked at me and said, “What is he (Boudreau) doing?” I think that says it all right there. Hendricks was re-inserted for Game 4, but at that point there was not stopping the Bolts.
Oddly enough, as we prepare for today’s Free Agent Frenzy, Hendricks is the only fourth-liner under contract. He played so well this year that he was given a contract extension during the season, which is good news for Caps’ fans. It looks like he will fully assume UFA Matt Bradley’s role as the stand-up guy who mixes it up on behalf of his teammates to light an occasional fire. It seems likely that either Bradley or linemate Boyd Gordon will not be re-signed at this point, and Gordon’s 58 percent faceoff success rate seems like something the team cannot afford to lose.
The acquisition of Troy Brouwer last week in a trade with Chicago further indicates that the Caps are intent on becoming even bigger and more physical next year. So far it’s the only move Washington has made other than to acknowledge that they will let UFA’s such as Jason Arnott, Sturm and Scott Hannan test the market and that if goalie Semyon Varlamov decides to defect to the KHL they will move on with Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.
Based on team, media and insider reports it appears as though Washington is pretty set with the following lineup:
Hendricks and ???
Organizational prospects such as Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle should have a shot at earning time on the fourth line, and junior star Cody Eakin nearly cracked the roster a year ago. In addition, talented Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov, the star of last year’s World Junior Tournament, and newly signed Swede Mattias Sjogren have a shot at making the club out of camp. Many believe that Sjogren, who is capable of playing center or wing, wouldn’t have been signed if Washington didn’t think he was capable of making the team right away.
Clearly the Caps need to figure out the fourth line situation. Assuming Bradley is not brought back, it would be a great move for them to bring in a guy like Rob Niedermayer, Jamie Langenbrunner or John Madden who has won at least one Cup and is nearing the end of his career. It seems like every recent Cup winner has had a guy like that (see Boston Bruins, Mark Recchi).
Brooks Laich is a very capable center. In fact that’s what he was drafted to be and where he played before moving to wing a few years ago. He’s a better than average faceoff guy who takes his defensive responsibilities seriously and plays both ends of the ice. Is there a better option out there as a second-line center? Probably, but maybe not one that’s affordable at this point since the Caps have about $7 million to play with after making RFA qualifying offers. Many believe that Brouwer, who is in his mid-twenties, has the upside to one day score 30 goals. He and Laich should create room for enigmatic winger Alexander Semin, a former 40-goal scorer. That trio is interesting, but something tells me adding one more dynamic two-way forward would really help this team. Marcus Johansson should one day be a great No. 2 pivot, but I don’t see the Caps rushing him into that role quite yet.
Players out there are intriguing and who would appear to fit in nicely include:
Erik Cole (probably too costly, but the perfect fit for this team)
Sean Bergenheim (playoff fluke?)
Ville Leino (solid, great playoffs two years ago)
Joel Ward (see Sean Bergenheim; salary may be falsely inflated)
Chris Higgins (key cog in Vancouver)
If the Caps don’t bring in anyone to fill this role, it would mean they probably think that Sjogern is ready to make the jump to the NHL.
On defense, Tom Poti’s career is said to be in question. He’s had a nagging groin injury that just won’t go away after nearly losing an eye in the 2010 playoffs. John Erskine has his best year as a Cap last season, but in the playoffs his weaknesses, mainly his lack of mobility and puck-moving skills, seem to be exposed by certain matchups. Still, he’s one of the league’s true honest tough guys and is an invaluable part of the team. On any given night a defenseman is banged up or needs a rest, so having a guy like Erskine to be the No. 7 d-man and play 50-plus games a year is perfect.
Based on the flurry of late signings along the blue line (Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Jonathan Ericsson, Steve Montador, Eric Brewer, etc.), the only players available to really upgrade the defense are overpriced guys such as Ed Jovanoski, Tomas Kaberle. Given the circumstances and his strong performance last year, bringing back Scott Hannan makes the most sense, but his $4.5 million salary isn’t going to fly, and teams such as the Flyers and Blackhawks appear interested. Washington has up-and-coming Russian two-way d-man Dmitri Orlov, another World Junior hero, waiting in the wings, but he is said to be a year away.
So, on the defensive front it appears likely that the Caps would have to look at a lower-priced option such as a Shane O’Brien or to sit back and wait for the UFA losers to panic and offer someone in a trade. It’s no secret that Semin is not in very high standing within the organization. His $6.5 million one-year deal will be a stumbling block, but stranger things have happened when teams looking to upgrade have gotten shut out during free agency.
Washington owner Ted Leonsis has hinted that shakeups and trades are likely. There has been a lot of speculation around the league that the Caps will pull off a pretty large deal at some point, and usually where there’s smoke there’s fire. Eric Fehr is another talented player who is big and strong and has shown flashes of offensive brilliance. He has been plagued by injuries and actually spent a bit of time in Boudreau’s doghouse last year, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move at some point if the right offer is made.
Finally, if Varlamov signs with the KHL, Washington could be in the market for a veteran backup netminder so that Holtby can continue to develop by playing in the AHL.
The expectation here is for the Caps to fill in some minor missing pieces during the Free Agent Frenzy and see what offers might come about as the few high-profile players are gobbled up early by the big spenders. Either way it should be an interesting few days in Washington and around the NHL.