Caps Free Agent Analysis: Fine Tuning for a Playoff Run

Washington Capitals Free Agent Analysis at a Glance
By Scott Lowe

Caps’ UFAs – Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Joe Corvo, Milan Jurcina, Brendan Morrison, Shaone Morrisonn, Quintin Laing, Jose Theodore

Caps’ RFAs – Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Tomas Fleischmann, Jeff Schultz

Caps’/Hershey RFAs – Jay Beagle, Chris Borque, Andrew Gordon, Alexandre Giroux

All RFAs have been extended qualifying offers.

Looking for a Shot: Giroux, Matthieu Perreault, Keith Aucoin, Boyd Kane, Marcus Johansson, Michael Neuvirth, Beagle, Borque, A. Gordon

On the Block?: Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin

Needs: Second-line center, mobile/stay-at-home defenseman, big/physical forward, enforcer (?)

Position Overload: Fourth-liners, wingers

Cap Position: Approximately $12.4 million under the cap (more like $6 million considering qualifying offers and other potential financial obligations)

Caps Look to Fine Tune for Cup Run
Despite the knee-jerk reaction by the fans and media in regards to the makeup of the Washington Capitals following their first-round playoff upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the reality is that the defending President’s Trophy winners find themselves in an enviable position entering the 2010 season.

Certainly the Caps’ playoff shortcomings the past few seasons have exposed some areas of their lineup that could stand some tweaking, but remember that you are looking at a team coming off its best season ever that has superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom tied up for the next decade and Norris Trophy-finalist Mike Green signed through 2012. Combine that with the late-season emergence of budding defensive superstar John Carlson, the projected full-time blue line arrival of former No. 1 draft pick Karl Alzner and am estimated $12.4 million of cap room and you’ve got a scenario that almost any GM would relish.

But this isn’t your father’s Washington Capitals. Verizon Center is expected to be sold out again through the 2010-2011 season, and nothing short of a trip to the Stanley Cup finals will be acceptable to the team’s growing fanbase and local media. And, if Washington can’t capture a Cup within the next several years it would be considered a major disappointment for a franchise that has yet to win one during its 35 years of existence.

So, while the buzzards were circling following the early playoff exit, even the most skeptical Caps’ fan has to admit that the team doesn’t need a complete overhaul – maybe just a tune-up, or as one local blogger put it, “an oil change and a new set of tires.” General Manager George McPhee spoke recently of not getting “seduced” into any deals that would tie up money for the long term, which seems prudent considering that the Caps have a deep lineup sprinkled with youth and experience, players ready to step in from Hershey and recent highly touted draft picks in the pipeline.

A Look at the Caps’ UFAs
Of all the Caps NHL-level UFAs, only Shaone Morrisonn and Eric Belanger may return. Morrisonn reportedly is in contract negotiations, and Belanger has indicated a desire to come back to D.C., however his recent request for a three- or four-year deal seems to have cooled Washington’s interest. Low-salaried Quintin Laing, a penalty-killing and shot-blocking specialist, also may be back simply because of his $500,000 salary and the fact that you can never have enough selfless players like him in your organization.

McPhee has made it clear that last year’s UFA-signing Brendan Morrison, who tailed off considerably after a solid first half and never really fit as a second-line center, as well as deadline pickups Scott Walker and Joe Corvo will not return. Mercurial Masterton Trophy-winner Jose Theodore also has been informed he will not be back, and it appears as though depth-defenseman Milan Jurcina also will move on – although with a relatively low cap number and an improving, physical game, he is not a lock to go.

Belanger would be an ideal third-line center and performed well in that role after coming over at the trade deadline last season. But when he was forced into duty on the second line he clearly looked out of place, exposing the second-line pivot spot as an area of concern for Washington heading into 2010-11. While Belanger wouldn’t be a huge cap hit, would the Caps be better off to take some of the money it would take to sign him to help fill a need (second line center or defense) while allowing a player like Matthieu Perreault, who performed well in limited NHL duty last year, or Keith Aucoin, the AHL MVP at Hershey, making the fulltime leap to D.C.? With puck possession a key to playoff success, having a guy like Belanger, one of the league’s top faceoff guys, in the lineup can make a big difference when it counts. McPhee recently was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that Perreault is either ready or about ready to make the leap. That comment, combined with Belanger’s desire to sign for three or four years, points toward the Caps looking at someone from Hershey to pivot the third line.

Morrisonn has developed into a steady d-man for the Caps and has been one of their more physical players, something that a team known more for its finesse probably doesn’t want to lose. Casting a shadow on his future, however, is a recent comment by McPhee in which he effectively said that he had seven defensemen ready to go. If you look at that comment and do the math it appears as though even Morrisonn may be on the way out.

Laing is the type of player who could help Washington with its penalty-killing deficiencies, but is it worth using up a lineup slot on an 8-minute-a-game specialist – especially considering that over the past three years David Steckel, Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon have formed one of the NHL’s top fourth lines and with the understanding that there are players like Boyd Kane and Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle down on the farm itching for an opportunity. Boyd Gordon has received a qualifying offer from the team, so odds are that he is coming back, and after his solid playoff showing following an injury-plagued season, that makes sense. Because of his low cap number and team-first mentality, expect Laing to return, but he may never see the light of day at the NHL level in 2010-11.

The RFAs
All of the players listed above have received qualifying offers from the Caps. Budding power forward Eric Fehr, who scored 21 goals last year in just 69 games despite averaging fewer than 10 minutes per game, would probably generate the most interest on the market, but he already is in negotiations for an extension with Washington. If Fehr continues to develop, he possesses the ability to become a 30-goal scorer, and if he plays with the edge he teased us with at times during the playoffs on a regular basis, could become the big, physical skill guy the Caps need to compliment Mike Knuble.

Tomas Fleischman enjoyed a fine offensive season, but his commitment to playing both ends of the ice came into question when he was benched for Game 7 vs. Montreal. Reports indicate the Caps are in contract talks with him as well, but apparently his agent is seeking ridiculous “Plekanec-type” money. There have been rumblings of a possible trade involving “Flash.” A talented offensive player, he would seem to have pretty good market value at this point, so if Washington does look to pull off a trade for a Marc Savard or a veteran defenseman, either he or 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin, who also was a playoff disappointment, would be likely candidates to be shipped.

Jeff Schultz is coming off a breakthrough year on the blue line in which he led the league in plus-minus. McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau have been lauding his play for the last three years despite fan and media criticism, and their confidence in the big d-man was rewarded last year. He appears to be in the team’s long-term plans. The Caps look to be set on the blue line for the foreseeable future with a young, talented core including Schultz, Green, Alzner and Carlson.

Boyd Gordon’s situation has been addressed above. A versatile player who is a solid faceoff guy and penalty killer with some offensive skill, he struggled through an injury-plagued year before sparking the team in the playoffs with his two-way play. Steckel, a long-time Boudreau favorite, seemed to fall out of favor a bit in the postseason, but has the body and attitude to be a key component. It appeared as though when Boudreau started messing with the chemistry of the fourth line that something just wasn’t ever quite right with the team as a whole. If it were up to me, I’d send Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Bradley out on a nightly basis and take my chances.

If Boudreau does want to tinker with the fourth line, Hershey prospects such as Andrew Gordon, Boyd Kane and Jay Beagle offer interesting options. The biggest question of the off-season, especially considering Hershey’s postseason success the past two years, is whether McPhee will go out and buy all the parts he thinks the team needs or if he will mix in some battle-tested prospects from Hershey. These three guys seem to have the ability and makeup to play on a skill line or the fourth line, so they are intriguing. Kane is an interesting option. Mostly because of cap restrictions he opened 2009-10 on the NHL roster and has played 31 NHL games in his career. Kane is the type of big body the Caps need up front at 6-2, 220, and played the get-under-your-skin role to perfection for the Bears in the postseason. He could be a sleeper to earn a roster spot in September.

Others in the System
Keith Aucoin, the AHL MVP, already has been mentioned. Although slightly undersized at 5-9, 187, Aucoin has shown versatility at the NHL level in 74 career games. An amazing playmaker in the AHL, he was bounced among all four lines for the Caps in his brief call-ups, showing an ability to be a playmaker and provide a spark on the power play and the energy to be a solid third- or fourth-line player. Late in the 2008-09 season when the Caps appeared to be going through the motions prior to the postseason, Aucoin arguably was their best player in the last week to 10 days before being returned to Hershey. It’s hard to overlook a guy with his attitude who also has the ability to score 106 points at the pro level.

Chris Borque, the Calder Cup MVP, is another undersized player who brings skill and energy. The son of Hall of Famer Ray Borque, he was claimed on waivers by the Penguins early last year and actually saw some minutes on their top lines and power play before ultimately being reclaimed by the Caps. Like Aucoin and Giroux, Borque has not produced much offensively in limited NHL time despite solid AHL numbers. He sees the logjam in front of him at forward in the Washington organization and apparently is looking at an offer from the KHL. Still, you have to wonder if a guy who had 27 points in 21 AHL playoff games isn’t worth giving a long look.

Giroux is one of those enigmas who dominates offensively at the AHL level, but really only possesses the skill set and mindset to play on a first or second line in the NHL. He just hasn’t produced for the big club in his short-lived opportunities and doesn’t seem to be in the McPhee’s plans at the NHL level. It remains to be seen whether the UFA will return to the Caps’ organization.

Michal Neuvirth has backstopped Hershey to the past two AHL championships, and with Theodore on the way out, will battle Semyon Varlamov for the Caps’ starting job in net. Neuvirth has been given a chance to prove himself at the NHL level thanks to injuries to Theodore and Varlamov the past two years and has fared well, posting an 11-5 record, a 2.80 GAA and a .910 save percentage in 22 career appearances. Like any young netminder Neuvirth has experienced his ups and downs with the big club, but he has shown flashes of brilliance and has at times been dominant at the AHL level. Washington’s goaltending situation appears to be set for a long time.

Marcus Johansson was the Caps’ first-round pick in 2009 and played for the Swedish League champions in Farjestad and Sweden’s World Junior Team the past two years. While many Caps’ fans want to rush him to the NHL, with the talent at Boudreau’s disposal and Washington’s history of bringing along prospects slowly that seems unlikely this year. However, McPhee has said that both Johansson and 2010 first-round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov may be ready for the big time a year from now.

Who Might Fit?
Although McPhee has denied it, the Caps have been mentioned as a player in the sweepstakes for shot-blocking Senators’ UFA defenseman Anton Volchenkov. A Washington Nemesis, Volchenkov appears to be in line for a $5 million annual salary, but the Caps may not be willing to shell out those kind of dollars in a long-term deal. Washington fans and media have been waiting for McPhee to dive into the UFA defenseman market for the past two seasons, but the organization seems united in its belief that the defensive corps is solid and deep. On the surface it would appear that signing a player such as Volchenkov could put the Caps over the top, but nothing is ever that easy, and $5 million per year is a lot to invest in a salary-cap era in which a poor free-agent signing can handcuff a team for years.

Other possible defensemen who may fill a need and not demand a long-term contract include Henrik Tallinder, Willie Mitchell, Pavel Kubina and Derek Morris. Willie Mitchell is an intriguing possibility if the fact that he only played 48 games last year keeps his asking price down a bit. Other than him, though, it’s just not a certainty that any of the other available guys is going to improve a defensive group that should be better this year thanks to the continued development and arrival of younger prospects. If Volchenkov or Mitchell can be added without crippling the team financially, or somehow a deal could be swung for someone like Tomas Kaberle, those moves might make sense. It doesn’t seem like adding any of the others really does. A couple of intriguing possibilities would be Andy Sutton and Paul Martin. Sutton, who is 34, could be an option for a year or two if he would be willing to keep his salary at our near the $3.5 million he earned last season. Martin, at 28, seems less likely to waiver from his just-completed $4.5 million deal.

While McPhee has not spoken highly of this year’s UFAs as a group, he still indicates that he’d be interested in finding a true second-line center who won’t demand a long-term contract. Saku Koivu, who made slightly more than $3 million last year, and Matt Cullen, who made just under $3 million, seem to fit that bill. An interesting possibility would be Mike Modano, who will not be returning to Dallas, and may just be interested in one more shot at a Stanley Cup. Although his playing time and role has diminished in the past several years, he certainly possesses the skill to be a No. 2 pivot, and his leadership, composure and playoff experience would be welcomed in the room.

Matthew Lombardi, who made about $2.25 million last year, would appear to be the best available player to fill the void, but it may just depend on the asking price and the desired contract length. Of course Savard would be a great fit, but as it stands his contract doesn’t seem to fit into the team’s financial blueprint, and the Bruins have not indicated that there has been any serious interest in trading for him to this point.