The Weakest Link at Every Position for the Washington Capitals

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIJuly 15, 2013

The Weakest Link at Every Position for the Washington Capitals

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    With the 2013 NHL draft and the first week of free agency behind us, it is possible to look at the roster of the Washington Capitals and begin to analyze strengths and weaknesses for the upcoming season.

    There may very well be moves that are yet to be made. If you read my article from over the weekend, then you already know that there is still speculation that the Caps might make a move for Mikhail Grabovski.

    Whether that happens or not remains one of the bigger questions surrounding the Capitals right now.

    Beyond that, though, most Caps fans are justifiably concerned about the current makeup of the team and whether they will be able to compete for a seventh consecutive playoff berth.

    Have they lost too much in free agency? Have they not done enough in free agency to replace those who have departed?

    Are they still too reliant on Alexander Ovechkin to continue to carry them? Has general manager George McPhee foolishly placed too much trust in an unproven lot of young prospects?

    As is usual for this time of year, there are many questions but not so many answers.

    Like every team in the NHL, the Capitals have their share of strengths and weaknesses. Up and down the lineup and from one line to the next, the Caps have players who add to the team's strength—and then there are players who weaken the team somewhat.

    In this article, we will take a look at the weakest link at every position on the Capitals—at least at this point in time.

Goaltender: Michal Neuvirth

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    The reason why Michal Neuvirth is the weakest link on the Capitals, as far as goalies are concerned, has very little to do with his ability or skill.

    Ironically, it is his potential that makes him the weakest link. This is because Neuvirth has some definite trade value, but for whatever reason, McPhee will not trade him.

    Neuvirth's stats for the 2013 season were decent enough. He played in 13 games and started 12 of them. He compiled a record of 4-5-2 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

    Of course, when one compares those numbers to Braden Holtby's, Neuvirth does not quite measure up so well. Holtby started in 35 games, posted a final record of 23-12-1, had a 2.58 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

    Neuvirth did have some moments down the stretch where he showed what he is capable of. This was particularly true during a 3-2 win by the Caps in Montreal back on April 9.

    Therein lies the problem with Neuvirth. He is good enough that there are several teams out there for whom he could play and seriously compete for the starting goaltender's spot. At times last season, Neuvirth showed that he has all the skills necessary to garner strong consideration for being the starting goaltender for a different team.

    But it certainly is not going to happen in Washington, not with Holtby playing as well as he did last season.

    Despite all of that, the Caps signed Neuvirth to a two-year, $5 million contract extension back in April. When Neuvirth was signed, McPhee spoke highly of him and also explained that he did not consider Neuvirth a backup to Holtby.

    I am not sure anyone got the message to head coach Adam Oates, though.

    Regardless, Neuvirth is actually getting paid more than Holtby. Can anyone think of another team out there where the backup goalie makes more than the starting goaltender?

    As if that was not confounding enough, the Caps already have another solid, young goaltender in Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer came in to relieve an ineffective Holtby in Philadelphia on February 27 and stopped all 14 shots he faced in a 4-1 loss to the Flyers. Grubauer would then get his first NHL start on March 9 against the New York Islanders and played pretty well until the Caps' penalty kill sabotaged him.

    Gurbauer would stop 40 of 45 shots he faced that night as the Islanders prevailed, 5-2.

    Nevertheless, Grubauer showed a lot of potential in the two games in which he played—enough that if McPhee wanted to move Neuvirth, the Caps would still have someone solid to back up Holtby.

    And if the Caps were really so sold on Neuvirth, then why is it that one of the few free-agency moves they have made this offseason involved signing goaltender David Leggio? Leggio led the AHL in wins and games played, so McPhee obviously brought him to D.C. for a reason.

    With all of these options—and with the Caps salary-cap situation being, shall we say, not so good—why doesn't McPhee trade Neuvirth to a team that could really use him and get some players the Caps need in return?

    Western Conference teams like Calgary, Edmonton or possibly Vancouver could all use a goalie of Neuvirth's caliber.

    Eastern Conference teams such as Carolina, Florida, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay could also do worse than to have a goaltender like Neuvirth on their roster.

    No matter what McPhee says, Neuvirth is an expendable asset. He has quite a bit of trade value, and McPhee is just too stubborn to take advantage of that.

    The Caps have several solid goaltending options, and Neuvirth should be moved in exchange for players the Caps could really use.

    Because of the way Neuvirth is being mismanaged by McPhee, he is the Caps' weakest link at goaltender.

Defense: Jack Hillen

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    As far as blueliners are concerned, the weak link of the defensive corps is Jack Hillen.

    To some, that might seem a bit unfair. After all, Hillen was hurt in the Caps' season opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning and would then miss almost the next two months.

    From an offensive standpoint, Hillen was not bad at all. He was tied for third on the team, among defenders, with three goals and nine points. He was fourth among defenders in assists with four. He even had a game-winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens on April 9.

    He was also tied for third among Caps defenders with a plus-nine rating.

    Where I believe Hillen struggles, however, is with the more defensive side of his game.

    He does not play a very physical style of game. He was ranked eighth among Caps defenders in hits with just 10. You can try to blame that on the injury and that Hillen only played in 23 games.

    However, Jeff Schultz had 17 hits in just 26 games played, and Tomas Kundratek had 21 hits in 25 games played. Injury or not, Hillen just did not hit enough for my liking.

    Hillen is also not the best shot-blocker. He had only 35 blocks in the 23 games he played and was ranked sixth among Caps defenders in this category.

    Compare that to Steve Oleksy. Oleksy played in 28 games but still had 52 blocks. No, that is not a huge gap. Still, to me anyway, it indicates that Hillen does not block enough shots to be particularly beneficial to a Caps team that will need to become even better at shot blocking if they hope to reach the playoffs again.

    This is not to suggest Hillen is a bad defender or anything of the sort. Of all the Caps' available defenders though, Hillen does seem to be the weakest of the six. He is a good threat on offense, but his defensive game leaves something to be desired. His minus-four rating in the playoff series against the New York Rangers is further evidence of this.

    The Caps have two very promising young defenders in Dmitry Orlov and Kundratek who both deserve a real look this coming season, particularly Orlov who only played in five games last season. When Orlov and Kundratek were in the lineup last season, they both played quite well.

    If any of the Caps' current defenders need to be movedor sent to Hershey in order to give Orlov or Kundratek some more playing timethen I believe Hillen should be that man.

    He is a decent blueliner—but he is still the weak link as far as the Caps defense is concerned.

Left Wing: Jason Chimera

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    Jason Chimera will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2013-14 season. That, combined with the rather rotten performance he turned in for the 2013 season, has me convinced that as far as left wingers for the Caps are concerned, Chimera is the weak link of the group.

    A lot was expected of Chimera after the 2011-12 season. He had a career-high 20 goals, double the total he had the previous season. It was also the first time Chimera ever had a 20-goal season.

    To go with his 20 goals, he added 19 assists.

    During the 2011-12 playoffs, Chimera continued his stellar play with four goals and three assists.

    The 2013 season, however, can only be considered a huge disappointment. Chimera had only three goals and 11 assists during the entire season, shortened though it might have been. He also had a minus-five rating as compared his plus-four from the previous season.

    In the playoffs, Chimera had only one goal and that was in Game 1. Like Alexander Ovechkin, Chimera largely disappeared after that first game, even though he has feasted against the Rangers in prior playoff series.

    Granted, some of Chimera's problems this past season were due to bad puck luck. The guy just was not very lucky and, like it or not, that counts for a lot in hockey.

    As far as left wingers on the Caps are concerned, Chimera certainly has more raw talent than someone like Aaron Volpatti. Chimera is a much better skater and a far superior scoring threat. But Volpatti is a really good fit for the role he plays on the team, a fourth-line left wing.

    Chimera, on the other hand, has to do much better if he is going to be the Caps' third-line left wing. That is not to say he needs to be top-six material. Clearly, that is not the case with Chimera.

    Nevertheless, the Caps desperately need more depth and balance if they are going to remain competitive this coming season. The third-line left wing should be good for at least 10 goals, and I am not sure that Chimera will reach that milestone this year.

    If general manager McPhee is smart—and that might be a big if the way things have gone this offseason—then he will pull the trigger and trade Chimera if he is not producing at the rate he should be.

    While there won't be a demand for him like there was for Mike Ribeiro at the trade deadline this past season, McPhee cannot make another mistake and let Chimera walk away at the end of the season and get nothing back in return. He will command some level of trade value as the trade deadline approaches.

    For now, though, based on his pending free-agency status and his decreased production, Chimera is the weak link on the Caps as far as left wingers are concerned.

Center: Brooks Laich

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    Now before you all rip me for this selection, let me say that I am a huge Brooks Laich fan. He is one of my absolute favorite players on the Caps, and if Ovechkin was ever stripped of the "C" on his jersey, I think Laich warrants consideration as a replacement.

    All that aside, Laich is being slotted as the Caps' second-line center. There is no question that Laich can be a very good center. The problem is that despite McPhee's belief that Laich is a natural center, the statistics seem to indicate otherwise.

    The other problem is that if McPhee truly believes this, will he forgo signing a true second-line center, such as Grabovski, due to some misplaced confidence in Laich?

    Statistically, Laich has had his better seasons when he has been playing primarily on the wing as opposed to being a center, regardless of what the program says his position is supposed to be.

    Laich's first 20-goal season came in 2007-08, when the Caps started their current consecutive playoff run. Though Laich was listed as a center, he saw a lot of time at right wing and was a mainstay on the Caps' third line with Eric Fehr playing left wing and Dave Steckel playing center.

    Laich would end up with 21 goals and 16 assists that season. He also collected a goal and five assists in the Caps' seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

    The following season would see much of the same, although the Caps did show more flexibility with Laich. Sometimes he would play center. Then again, he was frequently moved out to left wing on a line centered by Steckel and with Matt Bradley playing right wing.

    For the 2008-09 season, Laich had 23 goals and 30 assists for a career high 53 points. Laich also had another solid outing in the playoffs with three goals and four assists.

    The Caps experimenting with Laich as a true second-line center came during the 2009-10 season. Sergei Fedorov left the Capitals and thus began the Caps' seemingly annual search for a second-line center. Laich assumed much of this role during the 2009-10 season, and he played very well.

    Then again, the entire team smashed all sorts of team offensive records en route to the President's Trophy that season. Statistically, Laich had his best season yet with 25 goals and 34 assists. Laich did his best to keep the Caps alive in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens as he had two goals and an assist. Alas, it was not enough as the Caps fell in seven games.

    The experiment, however, took a turn for the worse during the 2010-11 season. Laich was pretty much the full-time second-line center, but he struggled in this role. He scored just 16 goals and had only 32 assists, an 11-point reduction.

    On the positive side of things, he was a plus-14 during the 2010-11 season. He was also pretty decent at the faceoff circle, winning 51.3 percent of his draws.

    In 2011-12, though, Laich's struggles as the second-line center continued. Laich scored 16 goals and 25 assists. But he was also a minus-eight as opposed to the plus-14 rating he had the year previously. His faceoff win percentage dipped sharply, down to 47.6 percent. In the playoffs, he was only marginally better with a 48.6 percent win ratio.

    This is why as far as centers go, Laich is the weak link on the team. No one plays harder than Laich, but he is just not the natural center that McPhee wants us to believe he is. His declining win percentage on faceoffs and his negative efficiency rating the last time he played a full season have to be a bit of a concern.

    And here is why what McPhee says does not make any sense: If Laich was such a natural fit for a second-line center, then why did McPhee trade for Mike Ribeiro in the first place? When the Ribeiro trade went down, didn't pretty much everyone anoint him as the new second-line center?

    So what changed during the past season, a season that saw Laich play in only nine games while Ribeiro was one of the most consistent players on the entire roster? Did I miss something along the way that should have convinced me that Laich was a better solution as a second-line center than Ribeiro?

    I already know I did not miss anything—and neither did you.

    Laich needs to be on the wing where he can add flexibility, depth, balance and creativity to the Caps' lines. Can he play some center too? Absolutely.

    But naming Laich as the second-line center—with the statistics showing this is not the best use of his talents—and not making a move for a true second-line center like Grabovski is what makes Laich the weak link on the Caps as far as centers are concerned.

Right Wing: Martin Erat

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    I have said it many times before that I think the Caps trading Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat and Michael Latta was one of the worst trades in the history of the franchise.

    Don't get me wrong...I think Latta has a lot of potential and could absolutely make a difference for the Caps in the coming years.

    But let's be honest here. The Caps did not trade Forsberg so that they could acquire Latta. Erat was the prize.

    General manager McPhee made the trade so the Caps could win the Stanley Cup now—or at least sooner rather than later. The thought was that Erat would add what the Caps so desperately needed to win the Cup.

    To say things did not work out would be a gross understatement. In nine regular-season games with the Caps, Erat had all of one goal and two assists. In the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Erat did absolutely nothing except have a plus-one rating—and he missed the final three games of the series when the Caps could arguably have used him the most.

    To recap, Erat was brought to D.C. to help the Caps win the Cup, did very little in 13 games played and was not even on the ice during the ugly Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series when he might have made a difference.

    Erat does not become an unrestricted free agent until after the 2014-15 season. He might very well be on the trading block at the deadline if he does not produce. He is still a very good player. He is relatively young at 31 years old, and there is no doubt he is still very skilled.

    However, he has not had a 20-goal season since the 2009-10 campaign. Even when he was in Nashville prior to the trade, he was not the same Erat who scored 36 goals, had 72 assists and a combined plus-26 the prior two seasons.

    Will things change if Erat is healthy and he has a full offseason regimen and training camp with Adam Oates and the rest of the team?

    Anything is possible. It sure does not seem too likely, though.

    Compare Erat to the other right wingers on the Caps. He is certainly no Ovechkin (when Ovi is playing right wing that is). Troy Brouwer looked light years better than Erat both as a scorer and an overall player last season.

    Joel Ward, Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle might not be as good as Erat as far as pure skill level and goal-scoring potential. But Ward and Beagle played as hard as anyone last season and Fehr had some true highlight-reel goals, including two overtime winners against the Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Bruins.

    No, when you match Erat up against the other right wingers on the Caps and you then factor in what the Caps might have given up to get a player who, unfortunately, might not have as much left in the tank as McPhee had hoped, the only conclusion one can reach is that Erat is the weak link at this position.