Washington Capitals

Will Washington Capitals Be Better in 2014-15 After Free-Agent Spending Spree?

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 19:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals battles for the puck against Brooks Orpik #44 of the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images
Dave LozoNHL National Lead WriterJuly 8, 2014

The Washington Capitals identified a glaring weakness on their roster, and new general manager Brian MacLellan strengthened that fragile link in the chain.

Free agency is a wonderful tool that allows teams to solidify their soft underbellies, and MacLellan did just that with great aplomb.

But enough about signing Justin Peters as the new backup goaltender.

The Capitals made a splash on the first day of free agency, giving seven years and $40.25 million to Matt Niskanen and five years and $27.5 million to Brooks Orpik, a pair of former Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen.

With the money going toward bolstering the back end, there wasn't enough in the kitty to retain the services of center Mikhail Grabovski.

For more on these decisions, we throw it over to Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, via the translation of Russian Machine Never Breaks from a Russian report by ITAR-TASS:

Of course I am upset about Mikhail Grabovski. We had a close relationship. ...

That our team signed such guys [as Niskanen and Orpik] – that’s a very strong move. Orpik, for example, is a very physical defenseman. If he plays on your team – it’s a positive for you. But the results will be at the end of the season, it hasn’t even started yet. Who knows what other changes are coming to the team– maybe there will be a trade or something else.

That about sums it up: Nice signings, but who knows what else the Caps will do and, man, that Grabovski was pretty good.

With one more shoe likely to drop—Mike Green's trade seems inevitable with Niskanen and Orpik now in the fold—how much better, if at all, will the Capitals be next season?

With everyone on the roster healthy, this is the ideal team the Capitals will ice during 2014-15.

Washington Capitals, projected 2014-15 lineup
Left wingCenterRight wingLeft defenseRight defense
Evgeny KuznetsovNicklas BackstromAlex OvechkinKarl AlznerMatt Niskanen
Eric FehrMarcus JohanssonTroy BrouwerBrooks OrpikJohn Carlson
Jason ChimeraBrooks LaichJoel WardDmitry OrlovMike Green
Aaron VolpattiJay BeagleTom WilsonJohn ErskineJack Hillen
Dave Lozo

Of course, staying healthy has been an issue for Brooks Laich, who has played 60 games over the past two seasons. If the Capitals flip Green, it will probably be for a top-nine forward.

But even as it stands now, that's quite the formidable lineupalthough upgrading the forward group by dealing Green and going with John Erskine as the third-pairing defenseman on the right side makes far more sense.

Heck, a full of season of Evgeny Kuznetsov in place of whatever the heck Martin Erat was doing last season is an upgrade on par with a Porsche over a sack of dirt with four wheels made of phlegm glued to it.

But what of Orpik? What of Niskanen?

It's July 8, so there's no doubt you've heard that Orpik is 33 years old, has terrible possession numbers and has been in decline for quite some time.

Japers' Rink went into extreme detail about all of this, and while, yes, everything that's been written about Orpik is true, when you factor his zone starts, quality of competition and the fact that his relative Corsi on a top-heavy Penguins team was never going to look good, he may not be a walking corpse after all.

The Capitals defense last season was a revolving door, especially on the left side. John Carlson and Karl Alzner played 82 games and Green played 70.

Only one other defenseman (Dmitry Orlov, 54) played more than 37 games last season.

 

Washington Capitals defensemen, 2013-14
PlayerGamesCorsi %
Karl Alzner8247.0
John Carlson8246.9
Mike Green7051.7
Dmitry Orlov5451.3
John Erskine3745.7
Connor Carrick3443.9
Steve Oleksy3346.6
Nate Schmidt2950.6
Alexander Urbom2044.2
Tyson Strachan1840.3
Jack Hillen1342.9
ExtraSkater.com

So, is Orpik going to win the Norris Trophy next season? Of course not, but he should be an upgrade over the likes of Alzner, Jack Hillen and Nate Schmidt and, at the very least, a more consistent presence in the lineup.

Slotting Orlov (plus-6.6 percent relative Corsi in 2013-14) on the third pairing could make him even more effective than he was a season ago.

Niskanen serves the same purpose on the right side of the blue line, where Steve Oleksy played 34 games last season. If for some reason Green remains a Capital, and that's not the worst thing in the world, that's a deep, talented right side.

The problem for the Capitals is whether this is enough of an upgrade to go from also-ran to playoff team.

With the way some of the teams in the Metropolitan Division improved this summer, it may not be enough.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished four and three points ahead of the Capitals, respectively, have just about stood pat in the offseason.

The New York Rangers, who finished six points in front of the Capitals and reached the Stanley Cup Final, have been decimated by free agency and bought out center Brad Richards.

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 04: Mike Green #52 of the Washington Capitals plays the puck against the New Jersey Devils during the game at the Prudential Center on April 4, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Andy Marlin/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the New York Islanders signed Jaroslav Halak, Nikolai Kulemin and Grabovski, and will be far better than the 79-point team they were a year ago. The New Jersey Devils added Michael Cammalleri and Marty Havlat, and with Cory Schneider likely set to receive about 65 starts next season, simply not having Martin Brodeur play half the team's games makes the Devils stronger.

The Carolina Hurricanes...well...they have terrific barbecue within the Raleigh city limits.

The Detroit Red Wings edged the Capitals by five points last season and, despite serving mostly as a right-handed defenseman repellant in free agency, aren't noticeably weaker heading into 2014-15.

There is reason for optimism with the Capitals, but much of that hinges on what happens with Green. Losing Grabovski may hurt more than adding Orpik and Niskanen will help, unless the Capitals can deal Green for a No. 2 center who brings more to the table than Marcus Johansson and Laich.

If coach Barry Trotz is truly an upgrade over Adam Oates, then the Capitals should be a playoff team in 2014-15.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com and Extra Skater. Contract information courtesy of CapGeek.

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