Capital Upgrade: Summer 2012 Edition

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Typically, the period between the NHL Awards night and Unrestricted Free Agent day – known to non-hockey fans as July 1 – can be one of tumult, surprise, or downright boredom. It’s when the front office of every team takes the spotlight, working last-minute contract deals, shuffling trades for salary cap space, and executing the yearly NHL Draft. Year to year, it can be hot, cold, or lukewarm for any organization.

This year, the Washington Capitals have been hot. How hot? Enough that I’ve had to morph this article from a NHL Draft day summary into one that encompasses several changes from the Caps’ front office over the last few days. And the initial prognosis – such as these can be in the off season – is that the Caps may have finally found the last pieces of their playoff enigma.

A fast recap: in the last week, we have 10 new draft selections, a new coach, a new second-line center, and sayonara to two players (with a third possibly on the horizon). Shall we dive into the changes?
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New Head Coach

With Dale Hunter’s resignation at the end of the Caps playoff run in mid-May, things certainly didn’t look stellar for the team. Caught in some weird identity crisis, the Caps needed to look hard and long for a quality coach that was going to elevate the team. General manager George McPhee took his time; many thought a coach would be named just before the NHL Draft. Well, come draft day McPhee had a short list of candidates but no coach signed. That happened this past Tuesday, when recently-announced Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Adam Oates was tapped for the bench boss position. Recently off a stint with the New Jersey Devils as an assistant coach, Oates signed a three year contract with the Caps.

Oates spent parts of six seasons in DC (1997 – 2002). Overall, the former Cap captain and 19-year league veteran finished his playing career sixth in all-time assists and 16th in points. But while his stats are impressive, it’s the little things that made the difference to McPhee’s final decision. “You want intelligent guys running the bench,” McPhee said in yesterday’s press conference. “You try to get the smartest guy in the room. I just think with Adam’s understanding of this game and his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy. He’s the [one] with the most upside and he can really be a difference maker.”

The new Caps boss faces a tough road ahead. The team’s offense has sputtered under the defensive orientation of Bruce Boudreau’s later term and his replacement last season, Dale Hunter. Captain Alex Ovechkin’s season is an excellent marker for just how tough the Caps’ struggle was: Ovie had a career-low 65 point season.

News of Oates’ hiring did perk up the star winger. “It’s not blocking the shots and it’s not dump and chase,” Ovechkin said, as per the Canadian Press. “Any system that I play I learn a lot. I’m an offensive guy, it’s not a secret to anybody, and I’m pretty excited and very happy to hear the Caps signed that kind of guy who likes offense.”

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Late for Practice
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But it’s not going to be as easy as that. Oates, while a stellar offensive player, learned the value of strong defense as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning (2009-10) and the Devils (2010-12). “We’re going to talk about [Ovechkin's] game,” Oates said yesterday, “but I still think the physical aspect of his game is unprecedented. I think he’s a special player and in terms of adding to his game, I think I can. But he’s got to earn my trust as a coach first and it will be a process that we’re starting soon.

“Ilya [Kovalchuk, star Devils winger] made his adjustments willingly and people were talking about what a different player he was this season and really he had to be shown a few things. He needed to learn a little bit about the game, and sometimes even the superstars need to be coached once in a while.”

Oates knows what’s in store. While he definitely has his work cut out for him, it looks as if the Caps have landed a coach who will do what it takes to make the team more well-rounded. And a well-rounded Caps team will not only be successful, but fun to watch.

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Draft Day

The Caps walked into Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center last week with 11 picks, more than any other team. At the end of the day on Saturday, the Caps walked out with 10 new draftees. The number of selections equaled their 2010 and 2011 picks, combined.

It’s also very possible that the Caps walked out with one of the draft’s steals in Filip Forsberg in the first round. While of no relation to Peter Forsberg, Filip possesses a similar skill set and creative streak. Ranked number 2 in The Hockey News‘ prospect rankings, the Caps were surprised he was still around when they got to their 11th pick (courtesy of last year’s Semyon Varlomov to the Colorado Avalanche trade). Seven defensemen went out the door before Washington snapped the blue line run. Forsberg has one year left on his Leksand contract in Sweden before he crosses the Atlantic. McPhee seems to think he’ll be worth the wait. “Most kids need a year,” McPhee told NHL.com. “Ovechkin had a year, [Nicklas] Backstrom had a year, [Marcus] Johansson had a year. We’ll wait a year for him.”

Right behind Forsberg, the Caps nabbed Thomas Wilson with the 16th pick. A big right winter with the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL, Wilson has talent that Caps scouts think will improve and develop. His 27 points and 141 penalty minutes in 49 games last season seem to bear that out, but he may need another year or so in Hershey after his stint in Plymouth is over.

Rounding out the rest of the pick pack, the Caps selected forward Chandler Stephenson, center Thomas Di Pauli, right wing Austin Wuthrich, defenseman Connor Carrick, right wing Riley Barber, defensemen Christian Djoos and Jaynen Rissling and goaltender Sergei Kostenko.

Of these, Di Pauli might be another steal – if he develops well. He tallied 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 51 games with the United States National Under-18 Development team in the United States Hockey League. He helped the Americans win the gold medal at the U-18 World Junior Championships, recording an assist in six games. Ross Mahoney, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Caps, said of Di Pauli: “He’s a really honest player. He skates well, has skill. On that U.S. team he played roles, and played them very well, but more of the penalty-killing role, the checking role, shut-down role. Sometimes the younger players find it hard to put aside the skill part and accept those other roles and he has no problem doing that.”

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Ribeiro Lays a Hard Check on Wideman
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Trades

The biggest news of the draft – aside from Jordan Staal’s trade to Southeast Division rival Carolina Hurricanes – was the Caps’ trade for Dallas Stars centerman Mike Ribeiro. The veteran was acquired in an exchange for prospect Cody Eakin and the 54th pick of the draft. Ribeiro, who had 18 goals and 63 points in 74 games with the Stars last season, is an instant upgrade to the Caps’ lagging offense.

“It seemed like when I was watching the playoffs we had some big, gritty forwards and I just wanted to get another skill guy in the middle of it,” said McPhee. “I think [adding Ribeiro] makes us immediately better. He’s got skill, makes plays and he’s a pretty good shootout guy too. We think he’s a one or two center in this League.”

Ribeiro’s had eight consecutive seasons with 50 or more points and has notched 50 or more assists three times in his career. The 12-year veteran brings some toughness to the second line and will fill a leadership role recently vacated by the departing Mike Knuble.

Many thought the Ribeiro trade would be the last splash the Caps made before Sunday’s UFA rodeo. McPhee blew that apart late yesterday when news broke of Dennis Wideman’s departure to Calgary for defenseman Jordan Henry and a fifth-round draft pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. It was widely assumed that Wideman, who would have hit the UFA market on Sunday, would not be returning to the Caps despite recording 46 points (35 assists) and 97 penalty minutes in 68 games last season. That McPhee leveraged Wideman for a prospect and a late draft pick – effectively getting something for nothing – shows the team’s eagerness to build on their recent string of June successes.

With Wideman’s surprising trade, speculation now begins on whether McPhee can do the same with the rights to Alexander Semin, who is also a UFA on Sunday and is not expected to be re-signed. The winger defines “mercurial” and has had seven up-and-down seasons with the Caps. Some believe Semin’s contract demands outweigh his actual game value. Barring an overpriced offer from a desperate team, it’s likely Semin will be playing in Russia with the KHL come winter.

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Congrats Mike – 1,000 NHL Games
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Departures

Aside from Knuble, Eakin, Wideman, and (most likely) Semin, two others have left the organization. Tomas Vokoun was traded in early June to Pittsburgh, where he’ll serve as a replacement for backup goalie (and former Cap) Brent Johnson. And winger Chris Borque, a Caps prospect that many thought might migrate to the team in the next year or so, found himself traded off to Boston for center prospect Zach Hamill. The Vancouver native played 16 games with the Bruins last season and has registered 139 points (95 assists) in his 256 game AHL career.

Outlook

Overall, the Caps are looking healthy in future depth. Solid selections in the draft, some shrewd trading, and a continually strong Hershey Bears organization will give the Caps some much-needed relief down the stretch. Of interest right now is how the Caps will look come September training camp. The team has 17 players signed for the next season but has some holes to fill, and only $20.9 million under the cap to play with.

Can McPhee make some more magic and drop the rest of the pieces into place? Sunday’s free agent fracas will be interesting to watch, no doubt about it.

Having lived in the DC area for nearly ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon. If you’ve got a museum exhibit/program or other cultural event coming up, drop him a line at bhrome AT welovedc DOT com. We know he’d love to cover it for you.

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