Caps in Enviable Position Despite Lack of Moves

By Scott Lowe

Followers of the Washington Capitals probably didn’t think that as training camp approached they’d be talking about offseason acquisitions such as D.J. King, Brian Willsie and Danny Sabourin.

Instead the talk after a premature postseason exit, as it always seems to be, focused on solidifying the defensive corps with a top-four d-man such as a Volchenkov, Mitchell, Hamhuis or Martin and bringing in a true second-line center such as a Lombardi, Cullen, Koivu, Plekanec or even a Modano.

The Caps were involved in the Willie Mitchell sweepstakes until his recent signing with Los Angeles, but now with camp right around corner the Caps’ strategy seems very clear: With most of the NHL’s top regular-season lineup from a year ago returning and some talented young players who have helped Hershey to consecutive Calder Cups waiting in the wings, they refused to overpay for a player that would put them in a salary cap bind heading into the season. The only possible move at this point would be a rumored potential trade of forward Tomas Fleischmann to a Western Conference team, possibly Vancouver or Edmonton, with a defenseman coming to Washington in return. But even that seems unlikely at this late date.

While this stand-pat approach does not sit well with the George McPhee bashers in the D.C. metro area (nothing ever sits well with them, by the way), if you can take a step back and remove any emotion from the situation, Washington’s plan of attack makes all the sense in the world.

As constituted the Caps clearly are a playoff team, the favorite to win the Southeast Division and a frontrunner to earn a top-three seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. That’s without making a move. By not filling holes from the outside, the organization is providing an opportunity for some battle-tested, talented prospects such as reigning AHL MVP Keith Aucoin and sparkplug center Matthieu Perreault, as well as role players such as Jay Beagle and Boyd Kane, with an opportunity to shine at the NHL level.

These players, along with recent top draft picks and other prospects within the organization, will get an extended opportunity to prove their value to the parent club – not only in training camp, but during the first half of the season. In addition, with Karl Alzner and John Carlson, young up-and-coming defensemen who were first-round draft picks and already have had a taste of the NHL, moving into the lineup full time, the Caps’ defense already should be improved.

Washington’s young blueline contingent includes a top four that figures to be in place for a long time in two-time Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green, last year’s NHL plus-minus leader Jeff Schultz, Alzner and Carlson. Add seasoned veteran Tom Poti, who played his best hockey in a Caps’ sweater during the playoffs before suffering a grisly eye injury, to that group and the situation is far from bleak. John Erskine and Tyler Sloan have proven to be serviceable number-six d-men in the league and likely will shuttle in and out of the lineup until one of them grabs that sixth spot by the throat.

This approach allows the Caps to mix and match lineups and see what they really have at their disposal without jeopardizing their status as a playoff team. The tinkering can go on right up until the trade deadline, or if the proper chemistry is found, head coach Bruce Boudreau can stick with a consistent lineup and determine whether or not that group can make a playoff run.

If Boudreau determines that there is a missing ingredient, the Caps will have plenty of cap space available at the deadline to go after one of the top potential UFAs who might be on the market at that point. Players who may be available, depending on their team’s performance include: forwards Brad Richards, Simon Gagne, Patrice Bergeron, Erik Cole and David Backes along with defensemen Zdeno Chara, Ed Jovanoski, Andrei Markov and Tomas Kaberle.

In this day and age of big spending and huge salaries, sports traditionalists love to complain about how much money is spent on free agents and that teams never build from within anymore. Although the summer is not nearly as exciting when a team doesn’t venture into the free-agent sweepstakes, Caps’ management has earned a little leeway as it attempts to build a perennial winning tradition in Washington.

McPhee has built the deepest organization in the sport and simply is giving the prospects who have been a part of two Calder Cup championship teams a chance to bring some of that experience to the dressing room and produce at the NHL level. If that doesn’t pan out, Washington is in a great position to tweak the roster as necessary and add the missing parts for a deep playoff run during the season. A lot of organizations would relish the opportunity to be in that position.