5 Roster Spots Washington Capitals Should Be Looking to Upgrade
Heading into the team's first summer without George McPhee behind the wheel since 1997, the Washington Capitals have a number of holes to fill over the next three months if they have any hope of climbing back into the postseason in 2014-15.
Obviously, Brian MacLellan knew that this would be the case when he accepted the offer to replace McPhee, his former teammate and longtime boss, as the team's general manager. Given his familiarity with Washington's roster, one has to believe the former Stanley Cup champion will follow through on his intentions to make changes to this group.
No, this doesn't mean that trading an irreplaceable franchise cornerstone such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom or John Carlson is the answer, but there are certainly some upgrades that need to be made for the Caps to finally emerge as a legitimate contender.
Heading into the final couple of weeks before the 2014 NHL draft, here's a look at which areas of the roster require the most attention prior to Barry Trotz's first season behind the bench in Washington.
No. 1 Goaltender
Braden Holtby could very well shine in 2014-15 and establish himself as the Caps' long-term starter, but as of now, the team has to be aware of the glut of quality stoppers that will be available in July.
No, this isn't to say that the Caps should get ready to throw money and term at Ryan Miller, but at the very least, someone like Jonas Hiller, Evgeni Nabokov, James Reimer or even Martin Brodeur is worth a look, even if they were simply brought in to push Holtby to reach his potential.
Right now, the Caps are a team that far too often surrenders goals in bunches, and though much of that has to do with the unpredictable play of the defense, Holtby has to be more consistent.
Holtby's contract is up after 2014-15, but can the Capitals really run the risk of suffering through another mediocre campaign and only acquire a goaltender at the deadline?
No. 4 Defenseman
Until the Capitals either trade or buy out the remaining year on Mike Green's contract, it has to be assumed that the two-time All-Star will retain his spot among Washington's top four.
Even if that's the case, Washington needs to acquire a legitimate No. 4 to pair with Green, because after the oft-used pairing of Karl Alzner and Carlson, Green's the only rearguard capable of playing big minutes on the roster.
Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov all need more seasoning in order for them to become steady impact defenders, but they're not ready yet, so help from outside the organization is required on the back end.
Brooks Orpik, Dan Boyle, Willie Mitchell and Matt Niskanen are all names the Caps should be kicking the tires on once free agency begins, and with cap space to spare, the new general manager will have money to spend on a high-end veteran.
No. 2 Center
For the Capitals, arguably the biggest issue the team faces is who will line up at center on the second line come opening night this fall.
Of course, there's still the distinct possibility that Mikhail Grabovski will return to D.C. after impressing during his injury-plagued season, and according to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, it sounds like the 30-year-old pivot is leaning toward returning.
Nonetheless, Grabovski has the versatility to play on the wing, and though Evgeny Kuznetsov has the potential to play center, a proven two-way presence with scoring upside would be a coup for the Caps.
If Dave Bolland is available, he'd be a great fit, particularly because he is a former linemate of Troy Brouwer's, and other pending unrestricted free-agent possibilities include Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen.
But perhaps the most intriguing option could be former Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards, who, according to many sources, including NBC Sports' Mike Halford, appears to be a buyout candidate this summer.
While Richards isn't the 80-point threat he was when he was an All-Star and Canadian Olympian, the guy has won at every level and would bring confidence to the Caps, especially come postseason time.
No. 1 Left Wing
Right now, the Capitals have just three natural left wingers on the roster: Tom Wilson, Aaron Volpatti and Jason Chimera.
While some, such as Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich and Kuznetsov are capable of shifting to the left side, which may be beneficial if none of the three improve on draws, Washington needs a capable, physical presence to play alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin on the top line.
It's crazy to think that Dustin Penner would consider returning to Washington after a dreadful 18-game stint with the Caps, but given his track record and championship pedigree, at the right price, couldn't he be a valuable contributor under a new coach?
He's proven that he's got the tools to produce alongside superstar talents, such as Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Jeff Carter, and though his first stay in D.C. didn't go well, he could be an affordable option with big upside.
If not, guys like Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson will be far out of MacLellan's price range, but a steadying, though not physical, veteran such as Ray Whitney or Mike Cammalleri wouldn't be terrible options, would they?
No. 5 Defenseman
In addition to a second-pairing rearguard, the Caps could definitely benefit from acquiring another veteran presence on the back end.
While the group of forwards in Washington is dotted with veterans with postseason experience, the defensive core is missing a capable, yet rugged cog, and that's one of the main reasons opponents feasted on the Caps' unstable defensive structure in 2013-14. Adam Oates' squad finished 21st in the league in goals allowed.
John Erskine simply doesn't have the foot speed to be a quality top-six defenseman at this point in his career, but a potential free agent such as L.A.'s Willie Mitchell would be perfect for this role.