While the Capitals lost on the scoreboard to the Bruins yesterday afternoon, the bigger loss might have been in the locker room. Versatile forward Brooks Laich was helped off the ice after a hard check into the board and did not return for the remainder of the game. Laich was seen leaving Verizon Center in a leg brace and on crutches, leading to speculation about his return, and is currently listed as “day-to-day” by coach Dale Hunter. If this was the beginning of the season, there would not be much to worry about. Hockey is a rough sport and players are often injured. However, right now we are entering the thick of the playoff race and the games are all looking like they are “must win.”
Laich, who is currently sixth on the team in points (10 goals, 18 assists), joins Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green on the list of highly-paid, important Caps personnel who are unable to assist the team as it attempts to claw its way into the playoffs from its present position in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The three players represent about $16.5, or 25%, of the team’s total payroll.
When Laich went down and was helped to the dressing room, many fans on Twitter were remarking that it might be the nail in the coffin for the Caps chances at the Stanley Cup or even the playoffs at all. With the NHL trade deadline looming in only three weeks, and clear knowledge that some sort of changes must be made, the Capitals are faced with the decision to either fish or cut bait.
Since arguing with yourself is not the most productive (or sane) of pastimes, Kevin Klein (follow him on Twitter @sickunbelievabl) of the new and highly recommended Capitals blog Sick, Unbelievable has provided one (probably more popular) option for the Caps: be buyers over the next month and make a hard run at the playoffs and Cup.
Kevin argues that acquiring one good piece could vault the Caps into the mix of things, especially since the Eastern Conference is so tight this season:
The trade deadline looms at the end of a shortened month, and the Capitals’ needs are painfully evident. Washington is a team that is built to win now, not later, and a failure to secure a playoff berth would mark one of the biggest disappointments in the franchise’s 38 season history. Their best players are entering the primes of their careers, and the team has now experienced four consecutive postseasons with the same core of players. But always there has been a missing element. Thus, it makes sense that the Capitals will be buyers, not sellers.
Though general managers are a clandestine bunch when it comes to the status of their players, a few names have emerged as trade-deadline candidates around the league. At center— a position at which the Caps currently resemble a one armed man clinging to a piece of sodden flotsam— the following options have been bandied about: Derek Roy, Ryan Getzlaf, Sam Gagner, and Jeff Carter.
The assumption was that one of these players, upon acquisition, could center the team’s second line, thereby bolstering the offense in both even strength and powerplay scenarios. But now, with Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich’s health hanging in the balance, a trade target’s responsibilities within his hypothetical new team could be even greater.
A brief analysis of each: Gagner, already labeled a bust by some at age 22, spent the week in the record books after reeling off points in 11 consecutive Edmonton goals over a span of 3 periods. But Gagner is unproven, and this streak may have made him pricier than he’s worth. Getzlaf is a proven, big bodied center with a scoring touch. In a perfect world he’d end the season wearing a Caps sweater. Getzlaf’s con however, is his cap hit of $5.3m— a trait he shares with Jeff Carter, who also boasts an enormous 11 year contract. As Getzlaf has only one year left on his contract, it makes him a much lower-risk option.
Derek Roy, perhaps the quintessential fit for Washington’s roster needs and salary allowances, is another veteran top-2 center, under contract through next season, with a cap hit of only $4m. Any of these players, though, would greatly improve the Caps’ chances at a sustained playoff run.
There is still much to be learned between now and February 27th— Backstrom, Laich, and Mike Green’s health paramount among them— but one thing is certain: February will not be a quiet month for George McPhee.
However, there is also the possibility that the inverse is true in this situation. That is, what the Capitals can pick up at the trade deadline is not enough to help them achieve postseason success. There are two important aspects that must be considered when examining the Caps’ personnel situation: the present and the future. I think that a serious argument could be made that it would be in the best interests of the Capitals in both the short-term and long-term to sell, sell, sell as the trade deadline approaches.
In the short term, there is the question of just how much talent would have to be acquired in order for the Capitals to be successful. Mike Green, arguably the team’s number one defenseman, is out for at least a few more weeks recovering from a groin injury (which are notoriously hard to recover from) and abdominal surgery for a sports hernia. Nicklas Backstrom is still experiencing concussion-like symptoms from a Rene Bourque cheap shot, similar to Sidney Crosby, who has been benched almost the entire 2011-12 season after sustaining a similar injury last year, and Marc Savard, who hasn’t played since a concussion in the 2009-10 season. If Brooks Laich is also sidelined with an injury for an extended period of time, there might not be enough quality players available for the Caps to sign or trade for to be successful this season, or the cost of acquiring such replacement players might be ruinous to the Capitals’ future chances.
Thinking long-term also leads to the same conclusion. After the Caps fired coach Bruce Boudreau early in the season, not only did it soon become abundantly clear that the previous coach was not the problem, but also that the team believed that new coach Dale Hunter figured prominently in their long-term plans. According to GM George McPhee, the team had “talked consistently over 12 years [to Hunter], and was always hoping that one day Dale could coach this team.”
Hunter will be the coach next season. As constructed, however, the team is not set up to succeed under Hunter’s system, evidenced by its lackluster performance since November. It is obvious that Hunter can coach: he was the fastest Ontario Hockey League coach to record 400 wins (although his success remains to be proven at the NHL level). The solution, then, is to give Hunter players with which he can implement his system and win hockey games. In order to get those players, the Capitals will need to give up assets of their own and give the players time (read: an offseason of practice) to gel and become a cohesive unit.
Next year’s Caps team will probably look much different than it now appears. Mike Knuble is aging and will likely retire. Enigmatic Russian winger Alex Semin will likely not be re-signed due to both the disconnect between his whopping salary ($6.7 million) and mediocre performance (currently 112th in the NHL in points) and the advent of prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov next season. Goalie Tomas Vokoun has been solid in net for Washington, but only signed a one-year deal, one in which he was disappointed and that convinced him to fire his agent, which invites speculation that he might be looking for a bigger payday with the Caps or elsewhere this offseason.
In addition to those players, the Capitals will also have to re-sign or replace Mike Green ($5.25 million), Dennis Wideman ($3.93 million), and John Carlson, who will be due a raise from his rookie contract. In order to make some or all of these deals, salary will need to be shed. Why not move some players now to a contending team and stockpile draft picks and prospects with which to make moves over the summer, instead of letting them leave in free agency for nothing. That way, the Capitals will have the cap space and the incentives with which to get Dale Hunter exactly the players he wants for next season’s campaign. A well-constructed team with a plan and on the same page as its coach has a much higher chance of success than one cobbled together at the trade deadline, such as Washington has tried the past few seasons.
In my opinion, it is worth going through a rebuild (although not a complete fire sale) and missing the playoffs for a few seasons and then winning the Cup as opposed to barely making the playoffs every season and getting quickly eliminated. For these reasons I think the Caps will be sellers as we approach the trade deadline in a few weeks.
In either case, as Kevin mentioned, February will not be a quiet month for the Capitals.