GM's Job Done, Players and Coaches Must Produce
By Scott Lowe
Someone, not sure who, wrote in this space yesterday that the Washington Capitals would most likely sit back and let the Free Agent Frenzy play out, waiting for the day’s losers to approach them with ridiculous trade offers they couldn’t refuse. Okay, maybe that scenario didn’t quite pan out.
Instead, while the Caps’ venture into the free agent wilderness could not be considered as much of a frenzied approach as some teams (ahem, Buffalo and Florida), Washington turned out to be one of the more active teams. And by all accounts, General Manager George McPhee did a great job filling holes and continuing to mold his club into a tougher and more physical group.
Yes, as predicted here, there was a trade, but it did not involve mercurial Alex Semin, blue-chip defenseman Mike Green or the oft-injured Eric Fehr. Instead, Semyon Varlamov, the teams’ backup goaltender, who by the way has the talent and athleticism to become a top starter, tried to play hardball and was sent packing to Colorado for a first and either a second- or third-round draft pick.
Varlamov, who never showed any indication that he wanted to have to compete for the starting job in Washington, tried to force McPhee’s hand – first talking of signing with the KHL and then asking the GM to guarantee him the starting job. So, instead of waiting a year to move one of his three talented young goalies, GMGM shipped the frequently banged-up netminder to the Avalanche and got more than anyone thought possible in return. Welcome to the NHL Braden Holtby.
“There’s no way I could guarantee him something like that,” McPhee told the NHL Network. “We would have had to make a move next summer with three young goalies, so we just did it a year early.”
From that point, with just enough extra money freed up thanks to Varlamov’s departure, the dominoes started to fall. It was written here that the Caps probably wouldn’t want to give up center Boyd Gordon’s 58 percent proficiency, but when Gordon got more money to sign with Phoenix, former Cap fan-favorite Jeff Halpern was brought back for the bargain price of $825,000. Halpern is from the D.C. area, so it was a natural fit made even more comfortable for McPhee because of his 56 percent faceoff proficiency as well as his ability to kill penalties and move into a second- or third-line role if necessary.
Halpern, who is older than Gordon at 35, once potted 46 points in a Washington sweater (albeit an ugly one) and wore the captain’s “C” for a year. Remember that Gordon wasn’t even playing center until David Steckel was dealt for Jason Arnott, and compare his nine points to Halpern’s 26. All things considered, signing Halpern was a definite upgrade for Washington.
The funny thing about Halpern is that about three days ago I mentioned the possibility of his returning to Washington to erstwhile Caps/Habs blogger Steven Hindle, a hockey buddy and friend of TCL, but for some reason my fingers didn’t manage to put his name into yesterday’s blog. Oh well, Steve will vouch for me I’m sure.
As players started signing at head-spinning speed – sometimes for ludicrous sums of money (ahem, Buffalo and Florida) – and team representatives continued filing in and out of the office of the agent for prize free agent center Brad Richards, things got quiet for a few hours in the Nation’s Capital. Those of us who have spent most of our lives in the D.C. area know that when things get quiet downtown, usually something big is on the horizon.
Sure enough, not 15 minutes after Mr. Hindle (no charge for the props) mentioned that McPhee was busy working behind the scenes, it was announced that the Caps had signed Nashville playoff hero Joel Ward and Great 8-nemisis Roman Hamrlik to contracts, basically signaling an end to the tenure of both Matt Bradley and Scott Hannan in Washington.
McPhee said he outbid 15 or 16 teams for Ward’s services, paying “15 percent” more than he anticipated. He added that Ward was someone they were interested even before his 13-points-in-12-games playoff showing this year, but that his postseason performance sealed the deal. “That’s something we haven’t had enough of around here,” he said in an understatement.
Ward has shown the ability to shine and produce offensively when surrounded by good players, which means he could see time on either the second, third or fourth lines, depending on how players such as Troy Brouwer, Fehr and Jason Chimera perform. A big and strong player who can get physical, he is penciled in on the fourth line along with Halpern and Matt Hendricks, giving the Caps a fourth trio that would serve as a solid third unit for most NHL clubs. Compare Ward’s 29 points to Bradley’s 11 and throw in his versatility and Washington again upgraded considerably.
The final piece to the puzzle was Hamrlik, a solid two-way defenseman who seems to have made it his life’s ambition to shut down Alex Ovechkin. No more. Hamrlik is another player who has performed well in the postseason and at $3.5 million per year he makes a million dollars less than Hannan was paid this season. He also provides an offensive upside (34 points) that Hannan (one goal, 11 points) does not.
In two years the Caps have gone from having what was considered a sub-par defensive corps to one of the deepest in the league. Washington’s top-six defensemen – Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz, Hamrlik, John Carlson and Karl Alzner – would qualify as top-four d-men on most NHL teams, and the No. 7, John Erskine, had his best year last season. Washington still has Tom Poti, another top-four guy in his prime on the roster, but his injuries the past two years – paired with the Caps’ need to resign RFAs Alzner and Brouwer – indicate that he may be destined for long-term IR or possibly even retirement.
A further breakdown shows that the Caps’ defensive stable gives head coach Bruce Boudreau the luxury of being able to play a more dynamic two-way defender with a more conservative, stay-at-home type in each pairing – for example Green and Schultz, Carlson and Alzner, Hamrlik and Wideman.
McPhee’s spending raised questions about whether Washington would have enough financial wiggle room to keep the two RFAs (Brouwer and Alzner), but he was adamant that they would be able to get the deals done. “Last year I thought we entered training camp with some holes to fill, and that wasn’t a comfortable feeling. I felt we were a man short on the blue line and had some other needs. I think that right now we have a team we can keep together right up until the trade deadline. If we feel like we have a need we can make a move then.”
In the span of about six months George McPhee has taken a high-flying, highly-skilled Washington Capitals team that was considered weak defensively and turned it into a club with one of the NHL’s deepest defensive units and a forward contingent that possesses not only skill, but speed, size, toughness, and most important, versatility.
The transformation started during the season, but ended as a work in progress after the Caps were eliminated by Tampa in a surprising second-round sweep. Now it appears that all the pieces needed to complete the facelift are in place. The time for making excuses has passed. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has everything he needs to compete in April, May and possibly beyond.
The GM has spoken and done his job. The rest is up to the players and coaches.