With the NHL trade deadline of April 3 looming large and getting closer by the day, the Washington Capitals will be one of the more intriguing teams to keep an eye on.
The reason for that is that no one really knows whether the Caps will be buyers, sellers or simply do nothing at the trade deadline.
In years past, it has been hard to get an idea of what George McPhee will really do.
In 2008, McPhee made some great moves that helped the Caps get back to the playoffs (NHL.com). Obtaining Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet were strokes of genius that helped the Caps go on a tear at the end of the season and capture the first of four consecutive Southeast Division crowns.
In 2010 McPhee made moves for Scott Walker, Eric Belanger and Joe Corvo. All of them were good, solid players. Walker was supposed to add some toughness, Belanger was a faceoff expert and Corvo would add some depth to the defense. Nevertheless, the Caps suffered a historic upset loss to the No. 8-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
In 2011, McPhee acquired Jason Arnott—who had won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2000—and Dennis Wideman. Again, Arnott and Wideman were good, solid players, who looked like they could be the answer to help the Caps get to the next level. They couldn't, as the Caps were eventually embarrassed and swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference semifinals.
Last season, with the Caps fighting for their playoff lives, McPhee did nothing at the trade deadline. It was almost as though he had the attitude that if the Caps were not going to be a top seed, then it made no sense to try and make them better.
This season, the Caps are in even worse shape, sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, four points out of a playoff spot and seven points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the lead in the Southeast division.
So what do we make of the Capitals here in the days leading up to April 3? Will they be buyers or sellers? Who might be on the move? What sort of needs would does the team look at filling?
Here is your primer for the Washington Capitals as the 2013 NHL trade deadline approaches.
What will George McPhee's approach be at the trade deadline?
My feeling is that the Caps will be a bit of both at the trade deadline. I think George McPhee will be a bit more active this season than he was last year.
The main reason for this is that with the condensed schedule being what it is, and with no inter-conference games being involved, four points will be nothing for the Caps to make up, meaning they are very much in the playoff race.
Moreover, teams are not separating from each other as one might normally see in an 82-game season. Many games are now turning into the so-called "three-point game," where teams play it extra safe in the third period of a tied game so as to assure themselves of getting at least one point. The situation of a team just picking up two points on the other team has become almost novel at times this season.
Think about it. The New Jersey Devils currently hold the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, yet the Caps have the same number of wins (15) as the Devils. But the Devils have seven overtime or shootout losses to their names, while the Caps have only one. Those six points are a big difference.
Credit the Devils for knowing how to play the three-point game strategy quite well—a lesson the Caps obviously did not learn in their loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday—but I think we will see much more of this from any team fighting for a playoff spot. It is therefore possible for a team like the Caps to consistently chip away at the hole they are in—provided they can figure out a way to win some hockey games in regulation?
One also has to factor in the Caps rather favorable upcoming schedule. The Caps next six games are all against teams currently on the outside looking in as far as that final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Even though four of those games are on the road (Buffalo, Philadelphia, Carolina, Florida), the Caps have a golden opportunity to pick up some points before the schedule gets ugly at the end of the season, with seven of the final nine games against teams that would currently be in the playoffs.
With all of these factors in play, I believe George McPhee will not go crazy. But I do think he will pull the trigger on a deal that he feels will give the Caps the best chance to make the playoffs and succeed once they get there. If such a deal is there, then look for the Caps to make an unexpected splash at the deadline.
If it is not there though, the Caps could still be sellers of sorts, as they have some players who might make sense to move.
But perhaps the biggest decision McPhee might have to make at the trade deadline involves the man who has been the Caps MVP so far this season.
What will become of Mike Ribeiro at the trade deadline?
Possibly the biggest issue facing the Caps at the trade deadline will be what they do with Mike Ribeiro. It is a difficult question to answer and it will be a very tough decision for George McPhee to make, regardless of what direction he goes.
It was on draft day 2012 that McPhee cut a deal with the Dallas Stars, whereby the Caps got Mike Ribeiro in exchange for Cody Eakin and the 54th pick in the draft (Washington Times). It was a great move that has paid huge dividends for the Caps this season.
Ribeiro leads the Caps in several major offensive categories. He is tied for the team lead in assists with 24. He leads the team in points with 35. He is third on the team in goals with 11 and tied for second on the team with five power-play goals.
If there is an MVP for the Caps so far this season, it has to be Ribeiro. The man Caps fans simply call "Ribs" is having a stellar season on multiple levels.
And therein lies the rub. When McPhee acquired Ribeiro, there was only a year left on Ribeiro's remaining contract. One could see the logic. If Ribeiro was a bust, then the Caps only invested a year into him and then they could lick their wounds and let him go to free agency.
Instead, Ribeiro has been the most consistent player on the Caps this season, and now letting him just go to free agency is no longer a very viable option.
Katie Carrera of the Washington Post touched on the Caps' conundrum with Ribeiro in a recent article. Letting Ribeiro become an unrestricted free agent would be some pretty terrible management on the part of GMGM. But what would the Caps have to invest to keep Ribs in D.C? And if the Caps are not willing to make that investment, should they pull the trigger on a trade before April 3?
And it is clear from the comments Ribeiro made in that interview with Carrera that he is looking for a long-term deal:
I don’t want to move too much. If you can agree to a long term then I’ll be more than happy to stay here. I don’t know if I’m looking for two years and then change place then another two years. I don’t think I want that. Five years for me is long term. Two, three years I don’t think is long term. I think two, three short term. Four, five, six [is] long term and 10 years like Ovi, that’s a marriage thing.
Ribeiro is 33 and he has kids who are all in school. You certainly can't blame the guy for wanting some stability. But is he worth a four or five year investment for a team that will be receiving an influx of young talent from the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Fillip Forsberg and Tom Wilson within the next two to three years?
If McPhee decides he is not, then Ribs has to be dealt before April 3. The Caps just cannot allow themselves to lose Ribeiro for nothing this summer. In the article by Carrera, Ribeiro discusses what the Dallas Stars went through when faced with a similar situation involving Brad Richards during the 2010-2011 season. The Stars did not pull the trigger, missed the playoffs and then Richards left via free agency.
The Caps would be wise to learn from the mistakes of the team from whom they acquired Ribs. The Caps need to either make some sort of long-term commitment to Ribeiro, or deal him prior to April 3.
McPhee has a really tough decision on his hands.
Eric Fehr is one of several high profile Caps about to be a free agent
In order to really get primed for the trade deadline, it is important to know which key players for the Caps will soon be entering the ranks of free agency. This could very well dictate which Caps' players might be on the move by April 3.
At capgeek.com, you can find a full list of the Caps restricted free agents (RFA) for 2013, as well as their unrestricted free agents (UFA). Let's take a look at a few of these key players to see who might be on the move prior to their hitting the open market.
Restricted Free Agents
When looking at the list of RFAs for the Caps, several key names jump out.
I do not believe Karl Alzner or Tomas Kundratek will be going anywhere. The Caps are already rather thin on defense to begin with, so parting ways with either Alzner or Kundratek would not make any sense. Beyond that though, Alzner was an excellent match with John Carlson in the playoffs last year and Kundratek has shown a lot of potential for such a young defender.
Alzner is only 24, is second on the team in blocked shots (57), is third among Caps' defensemen as far as ice-time is concerned (21:02 per game) and has a respectable plus-one rating. While I do not believe he has been as effective as he was during the playoffs, I still believe he has too much upside potential for the Caps to trade away.
Kundratek is only 23 and his situation is not so clear cut. He has a goal and six assists in 25 games. He is third among Caps defenseman in points with seven. But his minus-five rating has to be rather concerning for the Caps. Were the Caps a bit healthier on defense, Kundratek might be someone they would consider moving. But that is not the case this season.
Two other names on the list, however, are a bit more intriguing. One of them is Michal Neuvirth. The Caps backup goalie could attract some interest from teams in need of a goalie. Edmonton, Buffalo and Toronto are teams that come to mind. With the Caps having Philipp Grubauer waiting in the wings, Neuvirth has become somewhat expendable. I would not be surprised if Neuvirth gets traded prior to April 3.
The other RFA that is interesting is Marcus Johansson. MoJo got off to a very bad start this season. In between missing roughly a month to an injury, MoJo's efficiency rating was, at one time, a dismal minus-nine.
But ever since he scored the Caps only goal in a loss to the Boston Bruins back on March 16, Johansson has been playing much better. Since that game, MoJo has three goals, five assists and a plus-six rating. Is this recent surge enough to convince George McPhee that Johansson deserves a qualifying offer this offseason?
If not, then the Caps would be wise to try and deal MoJo now. Would a team like the Boston Bruins, who lost out on Jarome Iginla, be interested in MoJo? What about the Chicago Blackhawks who are always looking to build depth. While I do not think the Caps will move Johansson, I think they might very well get some inquiries about MoJo.
Unrestricted Free Agents
As for UFAs, we have already discussed the Mike Ribeiro situation. But there are a few other names from the Caps' upcoming UFA list that might generate some interest if the Caps are going to be active at the trade deadline, either as buyers or sellers.
Matt Hendricks might generate some interest from any team looking for a gritty, third or fourth line center who will add a physical presence to the team. Hendricks has just as many goals this season as Johansson, with fou,r and he plays very hard night in and night out.
For some reason, the surprisingly good Montreal Canadiens would seem to be a really good fit for a player like Hendricks.
Wojtek Wolski is another upcoming UFA who might generate some interest. Wolski has had some good games this season, but he has also been a healthy scratch on more than one occasion. Like Hendricks and Johansson, Wolski has four goals on the season and his defensive play has been a bit more solid, as he has an even efficiency rating on the season.
The New Jersey Devils could sure use some more scoring depth. But would the Caps trade Wolski to an Eastern Conference foe with whom they might be battling for playoff position?
Eric Fehr is another UFA that might generate a few calls. At one point in the season, Fehr was having one heck of a great comeback season for the Caps. He scored one of the Caps' highlight goals of the season in overtime against the Boston Bruins back on March 5.
But Fehr is now riding a 10-game pointless streak and he is a minus-one during that streak. If teams come calling about Eric Fehr, the Caps might want to move him. The Phoenix Coyotes and Minnesota Wild both need to score more goals. Perhaps Fehr could be a good fit with one of those teams?
It is also worth mentioning that Jason Chimera becomes a UFA in 2014 and if there is someone on the Caps who should absolutely be on the trading block right now, it is Chimera. After having a career year in 2011-2012, with 20 goals and 19 assists, Chimera has absolutely crashed and burned in 2013. He has just one goal on the season, just eight assists and a dreadful minus-seven rating.
Still, Chimera has excellent speed and a change of scenery might be just what he needs to regain some of his touch. I can see Chimera fitting in quite well with teams like Anaheim, Chicago, Boston, Dallas or Edmonton. If trading Chimera could help the Caps fill another need on the team, it is a move they absolutely should make.
John Erskine is one of the Caps' defenders who has had to deal with injury this season
Aside from resolving the Mike Ribeiro situation, if the Caps decide to be buyers at the trade deadline, there are two areas the team should try and address via a trade. If Ribeiro is being moved, then the Caps could command enough of a return that either, or possibly both of these areas could be fixed.
Some Defensive Help
The biggest need the Caps have is to try and get some help on defense. A shut down defender would be great. For the Caps though, any sort of depth on defense would be enormously helpful for the stretch run.
On March 21, when Dmitry Orlov returned to the Caps' lineup for the first time all season, an article appeared on RockTheRed.net documenting the trials and tribulations of the Caps on defense this year. A mere 29 games into the season and the Caps had already used 12 different defensemen due to injuries, poor performance or a combination of both.
The Caps have not been able to keep their top four blueliners healthy, and this has truly gutted the teams' ability to maintain any sort of consistency or chemistry on defense. It has been a dizzying string of injuries for the Caps. Jack Hillen was lost for 25 games. Tom Poti has been dealing with injuries. John Erskine, perhaps the most physical of the Caps' defenders, also went down with an injury. Just when the Caps got Hillen back, they then lost Tomas Kundratek.
On the plus side of things, all the injuries enabled the Caps to discover Steve Oleksy, who has been a pleasant surprise with his intensity and his physical style of play.
According to the most recent injury news from the Washington Times, the Caps might get Erskine back this weekend. Poti and Kundratek's statuses are not so clear.
If the Caps are going to make a run at the playoffs, they may very well need to try and grab a defender prior to the trade deadline.
Some Depth On Offense
It is pretty well accepted in the NHL these days that you can never have too much depth. The Caps' lack of depth last season eventually caught up to them in the playoffs. This season, the Caps are finally getting healthy on offense and they look to be deeper than they were a year ago.
In general, the Caps' current Top Six consists of Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin on the top line with Brooks Laich, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer on the second line. Four of those six are among the Caps' leaders in goals—and one has to recall that Laich has only played in five games so far this season.
The Caps have been using a third line of Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward. The troubles of Jason Chimera were previously discussed. But Joel Ward is fourth on the Caps with six goals and Perreault is eighth on the team with five goals. So, the Caps third line is looking pretty good, with the exception of Chimera.
As for a fourth line though, the Caps have used recent combinations of Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks and Wojtek Wolski. These are all good players, but probably not good enough to lead the Caps to the playoffs. And with Eric Fehr struggling and banged up, the Caps are going to need some help on offense if they want to stay in the playoff race.
As such, adding some more depth on offense would be a very good idea. Again, if Ribeiro is on the trading block, the Caps could very well get back some good, young talent that, perhaps, could make a difference during the stretch run.
It is also useful to note that the Caps rank ninth in the NHL in goals per game, with 2.82 per game. With just a little bit of help on offense, the Caps could very well make some serious noise and jump right back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
Could the Caps make a play for Jay Bouwmeester?
Based on the Caps' need to get some help on defense and add some depth on offense, there are several players who might be on the Caps' radar as we approach the trade deadline. Here are a few of them:
If the Caps are looking for a healthy and reliable defenseman, the it need look no further than the Calgary Flames and Jay Bouwmeester. With the Flames having dealt their captain, Jarome Iginla to the Penguins earlier this week (ESPN), the fire sale could be on in Calgary.
Bouwmeester is exactly the kind of blueliner around whom the Caps could build. He is only 29 and still has a year left on his contract after this season. This season he has put up decent numbers with six goals and nine assists, although his minus-seven rating is nothing to get excited over.
If the Flames decide to move him—and that is absolutely not a sure thing—the price will likely be high. ESPN's Pierre LeBrun reported on this earlier. The Caps are not mentioned anywhere in that article. But if the Caps are going to trade Mike Ribeiro, then he might be the type of player the Flames would be interested in.
That, of course, assumes the Flames are more willing to ink Ribs to a long-term deal than the Caps are.
Acquiring Bouwmeester would be a great move for the Caps, but it does seem like a bit of a long shot.
A more likely possibility as far as bolstering the Caps' defense might involve Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks.
Unlike Bouwmeester, Boyle is no longer in the prime of his career. At 36 years old, Boyle is winding down—although you would never really know it from watching him.
Even though he won't be getting confused as a two-way defender anytime soon, Boyle has still put up decent numbers this season, with five goals and 10 assists. He only has a minus-one rating and there is virtually no chance he will command as high a price as Bouwmeester will.
Boyle is also solid on the power play and he would add that extra level of responsibility the Caps will need to make a playoff push. With Adam Oates giving his defenders more of the green light to join the rush into the offensive zone, Boyle is actually a better match for this type of system than Bouwmeester—and the Caps might not have to part with Ribeiro to get him.
Then again, the Sharks are currently in a much better playoff position than the Caps, sitting with the No. 7 seed at the moment. They may not want to move Boyle. On the other hand, they may want to really try and make a move to improve and that could involve a demand for someone like Ribeiro.
Acquiring Boyle would appear to be a more likely scenario for the Caps if the Sharks are looking to make a move.
How exactly are the Calgary Flames in such bad shape with all the talent on that team? In addition to Bouwmeester, the Flames have another player on their team the Caps could target if they are looking to add some depth on offense—Mike Cammalleri.
Cammalleri has always been a solid producer. He has scored at least 20 goals four times in his career and at just 30 years old he still has some solid years ahead of him. This season he has 11 goals and 13 assists for the Flames, and he is second on the team in both goals and points.
But similar to the situation with Bouwmeester, if the Flames are going to move Cammalleri—and that is still a pretty big if—the cost for the team to acquire him will be quite steep.
For the Caps to pull this off, it would probably require trading someone like Marcus Johansson and draft picks to get the job done. I really can't see the Flames being keenly interested in Ribeiro, but a young player like MoJo might be enticing for the Flames, especially if the Caps can sweeten the deal with some picks.
Cammalleri would be a solid pickup for the Caps but this too would appear to be a very long shot.
A much better option for the Caps to add some quality depth to the team would be for them to target the Edmonton Oilers' Ales Hemsky.
Hemsky has been a fixture in Edmonton for the past decade and has always been a solid, albeit not spectacular, performer. This season, Hemsky has again been very good for the Oilers. He is third on the team in goals with nine and fourth on the team in points with 19. Though he is only 29, his production has tailed off a bit the past couple of seasons.
But with all that young talent on the Oilers, Hemsky may be somewhat expendable. He does have a year left on his contract after this season. Nevertheless, with all these teams fighting for a playoff spot, this could be the perfect atmosphere for the Oilers to deal Hemsky and allow the youth movement in Edmonton to take hold.
Hemsky will not command nearly the price that Cammalleri would and the Caps have something the Oilers could use—a solid goaltender by the name of Michal Neuvirth. With the Oilers still in the playoff chase, adding someone like Neuvirth might make sense to a team like Edmonton. Devan Dubnyk has been playing well, as has Nikolai Khabibulin. But can Khabibulin stay healthy? Someone like Neuvirth might provide some valuable insurance for a team like Edmonton.
And don't discount that the Oilers could try and make a play for Ribeiro. His veteran leadership and abilities could really transform that team. The Caps would probably want something in addition to Hemsky if they were to move Ribeiro. But Hemsky is younger and has that extra year of his contract for the Caps to play with.
Ales Hemsky might very well be an option for the Caps at the trade deadline.