Early Winners and Losers of the Washington Capitals' Offseason
It has been a rather odd yet eventful offseason for the Washington Capitals so far.
As far as free agency, the Caps have had a rough go of it so far. The losses and damage to the roster have, thus far anyway, far outweighed the team's few additions.
Mike Ribeiro, one of the most consistent and solid performers for the Caps this past season, signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Phoenix Coyotes. In addition, Matt Hendricks signed a deal with Nashville.
On the first day of free agency alone, the Caps lost their second and fourth-line centers.
To make matters worse, viable options to replace Ribeiro and Hendricks vanished almost immediately. Tyler Bozak re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs for five years and $21 million. Furthermore, the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Valtteri Filppula to a five-year, $25 million contract.
With the Caps needing a second-line center to replace Ribeiro and Mikhail Grabovski still available as a solid option, the Caps instead entered into one-year, two-way contracts with defenseman Tyson Strachan, right winger Matt Watkins and goaltender David Leggio.
The Caps did at least re-sign Karl Alzner. Marcus Johansson, however, remains an unsigned restricted free agent.
The 2013 NHL draft saw the Caps make six selections, many of whom show some potential.
The Caps also held their annual development camp about a week ago, where the organization got a better look at prospects such as newly drafted Andre Burakovsky and Madison Bowey, along with Tom Wilson, Michael Latta and Riley Barber.
Odd and eventful indeed.
So, early in the offseason, who are the winners and losers for the Washington Capitals? This article will render some verdicts.
Winners: The Defense
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No, the Caps did not go out and snatch a top-four blueliner in free agency, but they did not need to, either.
Regardless of that, the Caps defense is in good shape, and the defensemen are the big winners early in the offseason.
Heading into the offseason, two Caps' defenders were restricted free agents: Karl Alzner and Tomas Kundratek. The Caps re-signed both of them.
Alzner, in many ways, is the backbone of the Caps defense. He is not the shot blocker that John Carlson is and is nowhere near the goal scorer that Mike Green is. But he probably plays the best defensive style of any of the Caps' defenders, and his contribution to the team's defensive effectiveness and overall scheme should not be overlooked.
Thankfully, the Caps did not overlook this and re-signed him to a four-year, $11.2 million deal.
As for Kundratek, the young defender played admirably for the Caps last season after Jack Hillen was injured in the season opener. Kundratek appeared in 25 games and must have impressed head coach Adam Oates and the rest of the organization, as the Caps signed him to a two-year extension.
The Caps have another young and impressive defensive prospect in Dmitry Orlov, who will likely get some more playing time this season.
Then there is Madison Bowey. The 53rd overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft was quite impressive during development camp, according to Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com.
The Caps also have Carlson, who was third in the NHL in blocked shots in 2013, and Green, who led all defenders with 12 goals last season.
Take all of this and add in the rest of a solid group of defenders—Steve Oleksy, John Erskine and Hillen—and the Caps defense is in good shape.
I like the way the Caps defense is eclectic. Green can score, Carlson is a premier shot blocker, and Alzner plays a well-rounded game. Oleksy, Orlov and Kundratek are all young and eager to prove themselves.
When Bowey arrives, he will likely have added some size to his impressive 6'1", 194-pound frame, and the reports on him are that he already plays a physical style of game.
And let's not also forget that the Caps bought out Jeff Schultz and obtained some much needed salary cap relief in the process.
While much of the offseason has been rather negative, the defense is as stable as any unit on the Capitals. With young talent like Kundratek, Orlov and Bowey waiting in the wings, the Caps defensemen are the early winners of the offseason.
Losers: The Offense
Even more responsibility will fall at the feet of the great No. 8 this season.
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In almost direct contrast to the defense, the offense is a real mess.
Whereas the defense has stability, depth and flexibility, the offense has none.
The sad truth is that the offensive unit that takes the ice for the season opener will bear little resemblance to the team that played Game 7 against the New York Rangers.
On the top line, we know that Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will be there. Marcus Johansson, however, remains unsigned. Trying to figure out the precise value that "MoJo" will command, as demonstrated by Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post, will be a tricky proposition.
If the Caps can't figure it out, another team might take a chance and sign MoJo to an offer sheet.
The Caps' second line is in shambles. Mike Ribeiro is gone, leaving Brooks Laich to resume his role as the second-line center. Of course, that experiment did not work out so well the last time, which is what prompted general manager George McPhee to trade for Ribeiro in the first place.
Troy Brouwer is solid on the wing, but the jury is still out on just how effective Martin Erat will be on the other wing.
If McPhee does not make a play at someone like Mikhail Grabovski, there are going to be real problems with the second line in particular and overall depth in general.
The third line is stable but might not be effective. Jason Chimera had only three goals last season, and if he does not bounce back, the Caps offense will struggle even more. Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr are good but will not be able to carry the load without Chimera's help.
With Matt Hendricks gone, the fourth line will be a work in progress. Expect a lot of experimentation here. There are good players to plug in on the fourth line, such as Joel Ward and Jay Beagle. Still, the lack of consistency on the fourth line is going to be an issue to watch.
What all of this means is that the Caps will have to be more dependent than ever on "Ovi." Instead of giving Ovechkin the depth he needs—never mind another legitimate scoring threat—the Caps will need him to be even more productive this season than he has been in the past.
As great as Ovechkin was a season ago, is it reasonable to expect him to maintain such a torrid pace this coming season?
If he can't, it will be a long season for him and the Caps.
With so many question marks, so many holes and a GM that seems to be in denial about fixing the problem, the Caps offense is the big loser so far this offseason.
Winners: The Young Guns
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With the Caps offense in such disarray, many young prospects are going to have every opportunity to earn permanent roster spots.
The reality of this scenario was confirmed by McPhee at a press conference on July 8, when he seemingly tried to convince himself that this year's free-agency class just was not good enough to invest in. As reported by Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, McPhee thinks his team is fine just the way it is.
We went through the process and analyzed every player and said does this player fit in with us and at what price and everything else. You keep coming back and saying he’s not better than what we have. Or he might be a touch better than what we have, but the guy we have is a good player at the right price. Why do that? We like our team. We’re a solid NHL team.
With McPhee feeling that way—and assuming he won't make any additional moves in free agency—then the success or failure of the Caps for the 2013-14 season might hinge on the young guns of the franchise.
The Caps are relatively loaded with young talent, all of them eager to prove themselves ready to compete at the highest level possible. The fact that they will all get an opportunity is beyond fortuitous—it is fantastic and a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
First, the Caps have Tom Wilson, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft. Most figured it would be a couple of years before Wilson skated with the Caps. Instead, when the team needed a lift after Martin Erat was injured in Game 4 against the New York Rangers, the Caps turned to the 19-year-old right winger.
He played well in three games against the Rangers in the playoffs. Of all the prospects at the recently completed development camp, Wilson is the most NHL ready of the lot. He now wants to stay in Washington and not go back to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.
NHL.com ran a good article on Wilson recently, recapping his rise to perhaps becoming a full-time member of the Caps. This excerpt demonstrates that Wilson may have outgrown the OHL and is ready to take a major next step:
A case can be made that the 6-foot-4, 217-pound power forward has outgrown the OHL, where in 60 games last season (regular season and playoffs), Wilson had 32 goals, 75 points and 145 penalty minutes. He was voted the best body checker in the OHL Western Conference for the second straight season in a coaches' poll.
This echoes what I have said previously—that Wilson has nothing more to gain from playing in the OHL and he is too young to play in the AHL.
Wilson is going to be a tremendous player, and I am excited to see what he can do with the Caps.
Second, the Caps have Michael Latta. With Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks gone—and with Evgeny Kuznetsov's status up in the air—the Caps have a shortage of quality centers. That means Latta is going to get an opportunity to earn a roster spot.
He knows that Hendricks' departure leaves a void to fill on the Caps; fourth line. He seems to be the one who wants to assume that role. In an interview with Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, the young center showed that he recognizes the unique opportunity he has:
As a young, right-handed centerman that kind of plays a role similar to Hendricks, I see him leave and I’m sure Caps fans are upset and I heard nothing but good things about him, but he leaves and maybe that opens up a spot for me. You never know. It’s nice for myself, personally and selfishly that he’s gone, so we’ll see. Hopefully I can do what he did and earn a spot here.
Most Caps fans were fond of Hendricks and hated to see him leave. But Latta offers a dimension to his scoring game that Hendricks arguably did not have.
If you look at what Latta did after he was traded to the Caps, it has to give you hope. He played in 14 games for Hershey, was the third-line center and scored three goals. The general consensus was that he was a hard worker, very determined and eager to make a name for himself.
The Caps also have Riley Barber, who has a great hockey pedigree and is also eager to show what he can do. Plus, there's Connor Carrick, another Caps' prospect who left an impression on the coaching staff at development camp. And don't discount Dmitry Orlov, Madison Bowey and Tomas Kundratek, discussed earlier.
Could there also be a chance for the Caps' first-round pick from the 2013 NHL draft, Andre Burakovsky? Perhaps.
And we have not even discussed the open door that would be presented to Kuznetsov—if he ever shows up of course.
With the Caps needing to bolster their offense and McPhee unwilling to do anything in free agency, the young prospects are going to get a rare opportunity to shine.
Loser: Michal Neuvirth
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You have to feel bad for Michal Neuvirth.
It is rare for so many mixed signals and conflicting messages to be sent in the direction of one player. Yet that is exactly what is happening with Neuvirth.
His 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.
Early in the season, when Braden Holtby was struggling, Neuvirth seemed to be the favored goalie, and it looked like he had a chance to wrest the starting gig between the pipes away from Holtby.
On February 7, though, Neuvirth allowed a couple of questionable goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Holtby relieved him, and Neuvirth's hopes of being the starting goaltender in 2013 evaporated right.
He did have some moments down the stretch, including a 3-2 win in Montreal on April 9.
So if you are a general manager and have a goalie who has starter potential but probably has no chance of starting, what do you do?
Trade him, you say, and get some valuable assets back in return? That sounds like a great idea.
Instead, McPhee and the Caps signed Neuvirth to a two-year, $5 million contract extension in April. When Neuvirth was signed, McPhee spoke highly of him and also explained that he did not consider Neuvirth to be a backup to Holtby.
Amazingly, he is actually getting paid more than Holtby. That's right—the backup goalie makes more than the starter. That has to be great for their morale.
In any event, let's take McPhee at his word and assume, for the sake of argument, that Neuvirth will get a fair chance to be the starting goaltender. Then why is it that one of the few free-agency moves the Caps have made this offseason involved signing goaltender David Leggio?
Leggio led the AHL in wins and games played, so McPhee brought him to D.C. for a reason.
The Caps also have another decent goaltender in Philipp Grubauer, who is worthy of being considered for the backup job.
But McPhee won't trade Neuvirth—or will he? Who knows for sure any more?
Neuvirth is in the hockey equivalent of purgatory. He has the skill to be a starting goaltender—and the salary as well—but he probably won't get a chance to compete for the job in D.C.
His GM is telling him he can be the starter, yet that same GM brings in another goalie to compete for the job with him. Additionally, there are teams out that could offer him a starting job, but the GM won't make the move.
None of these moves makes much sense, and the situation is terrible for the immediate career of Neuvirth.
Unfortunately, and for reasons beyond his control, he is one of the early losers of the Caps' offseason.
Loser: George McPhee
George McPhee has made some questionable calls this offseason.
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In case you had not guessed, I think McPhee has made some horrible moves so far this offseason.
I am not alone on this. Go to just about any website or blog about the Capitals—including the community here at Bleacher Report—and you will find plenty of people angry about the decisions and actions he has taken.
His choices have the potential to set this franchise back several seasons.
A lot of this started at the trade deadline. McPhee was not willing to trade Mike Ribeiro, yet he was not willing to sign him to an extension either.
Did the GM really think "Ribs" was bluffing and that he would ultimately accept less than a four-year deal, even though Ribeiro made it clear what kind of deal he was looking for?
In the end, Ribeiro got exactly the deal he wanted, and the Caps lost their second-line center with nothing in return. The mismanagement of the Ribeiro situation—especially when one looks at how everything played out—is inexcusable in my opinion.
Instead of trading Ribeiro, McPhee traded away Filip Forsberg—one of the most highly touted prospects in the organization—for Martin Erat and Michal Latta. While I like Latta, why trade a potential star for a player whose production had slipped the past few seasons?
Then Erat scores a single goal in 13 games with the Caps.
Take all of that into consideration: The Caps lost their second-line center, possibly the second best prospect in the organization and their fourth-line center and spiritual leader in Matt Hendricks...and what has McPhee done to fix the situation?
To the contrary, McPhee seems to be in a state of denial. Go back to his comments after the July 8 press conference, and they reveal a man who has lost sight of what needs to be done. He just does not have his finger on the pulse of where the Caps need to go.
How can a team be solid when it lacks a true second-line and fourth-line center? One of the wingers on the top line remains unsigned, and yet that's OK?
The Caps need depth and balance, and yet every quality free agent available bypassed the Caps completely. Come on, McPhee: Do you expect fans to believe that all of them s were useless and could not have helped this team?
Vincent Lecavalier and Daniel Alfredsson would not have helped? Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak, Valtteri Flippula, Michael Ryder, Derek Roy, Jarome Iginla—none of them would have made a difference?
Nonsense—complete and utter nonsense.
To be fair, I think McPhee had a solid draft, and I like what I have seen so far from Madison Bowey, Zach Sanford and Andre Burakovsky.
I also think he did well to re-sign Karl Alzner and Tomas Kundratek, but he needs to do something about Marcus Johansson quickly.
McPhee also has a golden opportunity to fix some of these other problems by making a move for Mikhail Grabovski and remedying the second-line center problem.
But if that is going to happen, McPhee must be the first to admit—to himself more than anyone else—that the Caps are not what they have been in the past and that they need some help.
He has to recognize the improvements of the other teams in the division. He has to know that if the Caps do nothing, they are destined to disappoint.
McPhee still has time to wake up and get the Caps back on the right track. For now, though, he is the biggest early loser of the offseason for the Capitals.