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Three good, three bad from Game 1 of Caps-Rangers

Mike Kelly will be providing some guest posts during the playoffs. Here’s his first:

DVR is an amazing invention. Got home late so I figured I’d take my time eating dinner and get to the game later. After fast forwarding through commercials and intermissions, BOOM…only finished about 25 minutes after the actual game ended.

I’m going to try and post the good and the bad in my mind immediately after the game. So here goes from tonight’s big Game 1 win.

The GOOD:

1) Braden Holtby. Cool, calm, collected…almost to a fault. He almost got caught cheating across a couple of times (the Nash shot in the 2nd period is the first one that comes to mind) but he seemed 99% in control. Barring a meltdown of some sort, the rest of his team can feel confident with him back there this post-season. And if he does make a mistake, at least his pants will be there to stop the puck (still not sure how that one didn’t go in). 36 shots and 35 saves…that’ll do every time.

2) The Third Line. What a solid game by these guys. Chimera gets the big third goal caused by Perreault’s relentless forechecking. And then there’s Eric Fehr making George McPhee look like a genius again. Fehr is finally using his long reach and big frame to his advantage…and at times seemed to be skating just as fast as Chimera. I can’t recall any time where this line really got bogged down in their own zone. And they were constantly pushing the puck up ice.

3) Mike Ribeiro. He didn’t make it on the score sheet tonight, but he played the kind of game we all criticized him for not playing so often during the regular season. Aside from a couple of silly turnovers during those first few power plays (more on that later), he played a solid team game tonight. Back-checked several times to break up Ranger chances. Dumped the puck in late in the game. And as always he made smart passes. Was very impressed with his game. I’ll also say that his line’s shift with about nine mintues left in the game tonight was the one that may have broken the Rangers. He, Brouwer, and Erat kept the Rangers pinned in their zone for a solid minute after the Rags had been all over the Caps. I thought it really changed the feel of that period and put the Caps back in the driver’s seat.

The BAD:

1) Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. This one started off pretty bad with the first power play…and the next two weren’t all that better. The turnovers at the blue line are especially maddening and one almost led to a Hagelin breakway goal. Fortunately Holtby bailed out Backstrom. But even not on the powerplay, the Caps were turning it over more than usual tonight. Green, Backstrom, and Erat stick out as the worst offenders tonight. Even the normally sure handed Karl Alzner was coughing the puck up. This is clearly something that must be fixed as the series goes along.

2) The Rangers first line played well. This partly goes along with the first point. But it seemed like Nash, Richards, and Zuccarello were all over the Caps tonight (Nash leading the way with eight shots on goal). I actually thought the Caps did well keeping Callahan and Stepan in check, who traditionally seem to be Cap killers. But I thought they gave Nash and Richards too much room tonight. Nash is always going to get his chances, because he’s too good of a player not too, but let’s not make it too easy for him.

3) Martin Erat. Let’s just say this was not his finest performance. A really stupid penalty, some bad turnovers, and just overall seemed lost tonight. Aside from one very good third period shift and his almost goal that Lundqvist got a glove on…i gave his performance a big, Meh.

In the end, they won…by two goals! It’s nice not to have the infamous coin flip game we were so used to last post season. Still, the Rangers had their chances and have to feel relatively good about how they played. The Caps need to clean up in their own end. And both of the Caps top two lines have to be better, especially the second line. Ovechkin and Holtby…just keep doing what you’re doing.

In trading for Erat, Caps’ McPhee makes a move with guts

McPhee Scowls Down

George McPhee (Photo credit: clydeorama)

The Washington Capitals caused a stir on Wednesday, trading highly touted 18 year-old prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators at the NHL trade deadline for 31 year-old winger Martin Erat and 21 year-old prospect Michael Latta.

Regardless of how these players perform from here, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee has made a move with guts.

In the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps have become an organization that often seems be waiting for the future to get here. And something they’ve rarely done is take a risk by dealing young prospects to try to change that.

McPhee has made his fair share of deadline acquisitions in recent years for players such as Sergei Fedorov, Jason Arnott and Cristobal Huet, to name just a few. But these have often been deals to bring in older players or ones in the final year of a contract for a short time, and without having to sacrifice a great deal in return. There’s always been somewhat of a “we’re not trading away the future for today” mentality. The Caps have made their moves in the time of the Young Guns, but they’ve never really been all that bold.

Erat isn’t simply a rental player, acquired for the stretch run. He’s under contract for another two seasons after this one at a very reasonable $4.5 million salary cap hit. The Caps have potentially filled a hole that existed in their top six forwards for the near future and without having to take on a long-term or expensive contract.

Erat has averaged .67 points per game in his 11 year NHL career, playing mostly in a defensive-minded system in Nashville. His numbers could be similar in Washington or they could make a jump now that he’ll be playing in a more offense-driven set up and with higher caliber offensive talent. It could certainly be argued that no forward on Nashville’s current roster has the established playmaking talent of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro.

Could Erat end up being a bust and produce less than he has for the Predators? Absolutely. Could Forsberg be a 20-plus goal scorer or better in the league for a decade or more? Sure. But these are the chances the top teams in sports often take, sacrificing some of tomorrow for a better shot now.

The Caps have not suddenly made the leap to serious Cup contenders with this one move, though anything can happen in the playoffs if they make it. But they’ve made a trade to improve their chances at the post-season now and to make themselves better for the next two years, rather than waiting to see if prospects pan out. If Forsberg and others take a season or two to adjust to the NHL, that’s more sand through the hourglass with the current core of Caps.

And the Caps do still have several promising prospects, including forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. A roster balance must be maintained to remain competitive in the present, yet positioned for down the road. The Caps have hardly thrown away the future with this one risk.

Except for the once-in-a-generation types, new players can be found via trade, the draft and free agency. Another player of Filip Forsberg’s caliber will come along—there will be several of them available every single NHL draft day, in fact. Barring some huge scouting breakdown, the Caps have not dealt away the next Backstrom or Ovechkin. They traded a still very young player who should not be impossible to replace.

What you can’t get back is time. And unless the Caps want to wake up one day with a 35 year-old Ovechkin on their roster and no Stanley Cups or serious runs at one, they need to take some chances. McPhee just did.

More on trade or re-sign Ribeiro

Dave Nichols has a new post up on DistrictSportsPage.com explaining why the Caps should re-sign Mike Ribeiro and it’s a good read in the ongoing debate about what the team should do with their second line center.

A long-term deal for Ribeiro (which I look at as anything greater than three years in this case) still concerns me, with the number of years being a bigger issue than whether the cap hit is $5.5 or $6 million, for example. As I said in my post on selling high on Ribeiro, having him until he’s at least 37 as another highly paid player on the team is a risk I’m not sure I’d take, when there could be other options available:

Chances are Ribeiro won’t continue to put up the numbers he is right now for many more years. He’s posted 1.10 points per game this season through Tuesday’s loss in Pittsburgh, while averaging 0.77 per game since joining the NHL in 1999. Only once before has Ribeiro averaged over a point per game for an entire season, back in 2007-08 with the Dallas Stars, and he’s likely to face a decline in production over the coming years now that he’s reached his mid-thirties.

There is the outside chance that Ribeiro could prove his career averages wrong and continue to produce at his current level for a couple or few more years. But the Caps might also be able to get solid production from a less expensive veteran or a slightly younger player in that role, without having to take on the larger risk of a long-term deal, while also freeing up a million or so in cap space to spend on other needs.

NHL.com writer Corey Masisak summed up this sentiment well in a tweet yesterday:

ribeiro tweet

When I suggest the team sell high on Ribeiro at the deadline, it’s not to just walk blindly into next season with no idea of who the second line center will be. As I wrote in my post the other day, if the Caps choose to deal Ribeiro—an idea that gets less appealing with every game they win and the playoffs remaining in the picture—they should have a plan to replace him this summer with another qualified second line center from outside the organization.

On the other side of this, before I could fully embrace the idea of signing Ribeiro long-term at whatever it takes to keep him, I’d need for someone to convince me that it’s unlikely the Caps can find another quality second line center in the summer trade market like they did when they acquired Ribeiro.

Here’s another way to look at this whole situation though:

If Ribeiro’s production declines by the third or fourth year of a new deal with the Caps and his numbers no longer justify the cap hit at some point, it could be viewed as part of the price the team paid for the more productive seasons they might get from him. Granted this season is still one in which Ribeiro’s putting up more points per game than he ever has before, save for one year in Dallas, so he may never match this again…or maybe he will. But if Ribeiro does follow the path of many players at the ages he’ll soon hit, the Caps could just hope to get the most from him in the earlier years and then write off the latter ones as part of the cost of the biggest seasons that he has, which hopefully help to bring the team more playoff success.

Here’s a good analogy that someone used when discussing this with me on Twitter:

My next thought though is, do you keep that expensive car at the risk it loses some power a few years from now? Or do you trade it in by April 3 if there’s a lucrative offer on the table and then replace the car with a less expensive two-year lease this summer (i.e. a guy toward the end of a deal like Ribeiro was when the Caps acquired him) or a younger but established option that might have more big years left to help justify a long-term deal?

If the Caps keep winning though and are in the playoff hunt at the trade deadline, a huge piece of this all goes away. So the easy solution is for them to just win the Cup this season, with Ribeiro earning the Conn Smyth. Simple, right? Then George McPhee can just figure the rest out this summer.

Possible free agent target: Brad Boyes

The Capitals top-6 forwards are in need of reinforcements. With Alex Semin set to become an UFA and depending on if the Caps have Brooks Laich penciled in as a 2W or 3C next season, the Caps currently have as few as 4-top 6 forwards on their roster right now (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Brouwer, and newly acquired Mike Ribeiro).  These kind of players don’t come cheap, via trade or free agency.  With a particularly thin free-agent market this year, the price for top-6 forwards is likely to be even more inflated than usual.  The Caps have smartly not locked themselves into any crippling free agency deals with such players in recent memory, and it wouldn’t be smart to start now.  That being said, George McPhee would be smart to look for a player with top-6 potential but who has certain questions marks that will keep the money and term of the deal within reason.  On the free agent market this year, a player that fits that mold is Brad Boyes.

Over the course of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Boyes played in all 164 games and totaled 76 goals and 62 assists (a 0.84 PPG average).   However, in the 3 seasons since then, Boyes has totaled just 38 goals and 91 assists in 210 games (a 0.61 PPG average).  Boyes was particularly mediocre this season in Buffalo when he totaled 8 goals and 15 assists in 65 games.  So why should the Caps take a look at Boyes?

At 29, Boyes is unlikely to again reach the numbers of 4 years ago, but he is plenty young enough to still be a productive player when put in the right situation.  Last season, Boyes played just 13:10 per game and spent time on the Sabres 4th line.  While some may see a player whose production has fallen off a cliff, I see a player with a lot to prove who could be had on a cheap one year deal.  He likely will be signed to a low-risk/potential high value type deal.  Another positive is that Boyes, while primarily a winger, can play center when called upon.

There are reasons to hesitate signing Boyes and there are certainly valid concerns that his days as a top-6 forward are behind him.  However, in a day and age when many free agent contracts get bloated to regrettable levels, taking a flyer on Boyes, if he is under the radar, may be worth the risk for the Caps.

What should the Caps do with free agent Alex Semin?

Of the six players on the Caps roster that are set to become unrestricted free agents, none has garnered as much attention so far as Alex Semin.  Recently on Twitter, we asked what people thought the Caps should offer Semin or how they should replace him if he signs elsewhere.  Here are some of the responses:

Semin’s agent has already said that his client won’t accept a one year contract this time around.  He has also said a lot of other things that I chalk up to posturing, that his client didn’t exactly support when asked about the comments.

Russia forward Alexander Semin lines up for a ...

Russia forward Alexander Semin lines up for a faceoff against Slovakia during the 2010 Winter Olympics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil Greenberg wrote a great piece on Semin’s value, in which he advocated bringing  Semin back on a 1 or 2 year deal for about $6 million per season.  There was also a great FanPost on Japers Rink that took a look at Semin’s value using some fancy charts.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself when talking about Semin’s value when so many Caps fans seem opposed to even bringing him back.  I don’t want to rehash what we’ve already spent plenty of time on in previous posts, but perhaps you should reevaluate your opinion of Semin if you think he’s lazy and should not be brought back under any circumstance.  I also think anyone who opposes bringing back Semin needs to propose how we replace him.  This team needs more top-6 forwards, not less, and if Semin walks then the holes in the top-6 become even more glaring.

If the Caps don’t re-sign Semin, the decision better be part of a larger overhaul set to take place this summer.  Letting Semin walk and taking a business-as-usual approach to the rest of the off-season will result in a team with even deeper flaws than the one we watched over the past season.

Given that I’m not George McPhee, I don’t have the benefit of knowing what options are available to the Caps if they decide to go with a larger overhaul this off-season.  That being said, I don’t see a better option out there than bringing Semin back if the contract makes sense.  I’d absolutely not go any longer than a four year term, and I’d be much more comfortable with a two or three year deal.  In terms of dollars, I wouldn’t go over $6 million per year under any circumstance, and would be much more comfortable with a cap hit in the $5-$5.5 million range.  Unless a major overhaul takes place, specifically to the Caps top-6 forwards, I don’t see how this team gets more competitive by letting Semin walk away.

Jeff Carter to the Caps: What could have been

I’m already on record about why I think the Caps should have traded for Jeff Carter.   Unfortunately, Carter, a sure-fix to the Caps biggest need, has found a new home in Los Angeles.  I could go on about how a 27 year old offensively gifted center, who is a responsible two-way player and affordable (both in cap hit and trade price), could have gone a long way to fixing what ails even a healthy Caps team.  I could go on about how the 2C hole has become the Achilles heel of George McPhee’s tenure and this was likely his best shot at fixing it.  But I won’t.  Instead of 1,000 words on what could have been had the Caps traded for Jeff Carter, I’ll leave you with this picture.

Photo edit by Justin Michaliga (@jmichaliga)

Copy of the original Richards-Carter image here

Why Paul Gaustad makes sense for the Caps

I recently wrote that I thought Jeff Carter was the guy the Caps needed to go after instead of the safer options like Saku Koivu (although, with the Ducks’ recent run, he may be off the market) Derek Roy or any other center from Columbus.

Adam over at Kings of Leonsis recently brought up the name of Steve Ott, which is a suggestion as unique as it is interesting.  I hadn’t thought off Ott as an option but as I read Adam’s post, the name made more and more sense to me.

While I still want the Caps to pursue Carter first and foremost, Ott has been a distant second on my wish list but his remaining years on his contract make me a little hesitant.  Enter pending UFA, Paul Gaustad.

Why he fits

  • He is over 56% in the faceoff circle.  Between him and Jeff Halpern, the Caps would be set on draws.
  • If the Caps can’t bring in a legit 2C (in my opinion, the only one worth pursuing is Jeff Carter) then I think the next best option is to put Brooks Laich there (I’m not saying Laich is better than the other options, it is more of a Cost-Benefit analysis thing).  Bringing Gaustad in to play 3C would allow the Caps to put Laich with Semin and Johansson or Knuble on the 2nd line and give them a gritty shutdown line of Gaustad, Chimera and Ward.
  • I’ve mentioned on the site before that I think team toughness is an issue the Caps need to address.  I think adding a player who is listed at 6′ 5″ 220lbs with 580 PIM’s in 474 career games would go a long way in addressing that issue.
  • He is a UFA at the end of the season so we won’t be handcuffed with any type of long-term deal and his cap hit of $2.3 million for this season could fit on this team without GMGM having to get too creative.
  • He should come relatively cheap compared to other options that have been mentioned as trade deadline targets for the Caps.  I think a 2nd round  pick, if that, could get the deal done.  If not, I certainly don’t think any prospect/player added to the deal would be one that would make Caps fans cringe.

I spoke above about cost-benefit analysis, something that I think GMGM is generally very good at come deadline day (contract extensions are a different story).  He generally does a very good job at finding a player who is a nice fix for the Caps without mortgaging the future to bring that guy in.

In my post about Jeff Carter I said it was time to abandon that philosophy and I still largely stand by that.  However, if GMGM sticks to his general deadline day philosophy, I think a name that makes a lot of sense for the Caps is Paul Gaustad.

Three things that have to improve for the Washington Capitals in the “second half”

Yesterday I wrote about the three things to like about the “first half” so today I’ll look at the three things that have to improve as the “second half” begins.

#1-Road play

The Caps have amassed a record of 47-25-10 on the road over the previous two seasons, good for 1.27 standing points per game.  This season the Caps are 8-13-2 on the road, a clip of 0.78 standing points per game.  The week before the break did provide a solid 3-0 road win in Montreal as well as a gutsy point in Pittsburgh.  The same week also saw a 3-0 loss in Carolina in which the overall effort and result was something that feels all too familiar this season, especially away from Verizon Center. Two goals were allowed in the final minute of a period, the shot total was too low and the power play made us wish we could decline penalties.  With 19 of their final 34 games away from home, seven of which are against Southeast Division opponents, the effort and results on the road HAVE to get better.

#2-Tougher presence in front of our own net

Honestly, I’d like a tougher presence on the ice in general from this team as a whole (like, you know, sticking up for your leading scorer in the game he was ACTUALLY elbowed in instead of addressing the issue 2 weeks later when given the opportunity by luck of a trade), but the issue more specifically needs to be addressed in front of our own net.  If you take a look at generally any game and compare the treatment of opposing players in front of our net to the treatment we are given in front of our opponent’s net, you will see what I consider to be an inexcusable difference.

The aforementioned 3-0 win over Montreal left me feeling more frustrated than even a typical loss because of this very issue.  Yes, this is just one game, but it is all too often a theme throughout many games this year.   At the 6:13 mark of the 3rd period, Michal Neuvirth covers a puck and is poked not once, not twice but three times.  The response?  Karl Alzner gently ushers Rene Bourque (yes THAT Rene Bourque) away from the net.  It might just be me, but I’d prefer the that the treatment of opposing players in front of the Caps net never be something that could even possibly be described as gentle.

Later in the game Mathieu Darche gives Matt Hendricks a shove in his lower back that sent Hendricks into his own goalie.  For a minute, as you can see in the video, the Caps look as if they are thinking about taking issue with this.  Darche then says something to Hendricks and cooler heads prevail.  So an opponent can just explain his way out of throwing Hendricks into our goalie?  If this type of reaction was an exception and not the rule, I’d be willing to let it go.  Unfortunately, this type of reaction seems to be the rule.

I was still complaining aloud about that incident when Erik Cole decided to jab his stick at Neuvirth as he covered the puck, hitting the goalie in the head with his stick in the process.  Neuvirth is staring daggers at Cole as he skates away while the 5 guys who should rush to his defense don’t even bat an eyelash.  We may as well set up lawn chairs and serve cocktails in front of our own net.  A rum and coke, you say?  A Washington player will be with you shortly.

In all seriousness, though, this is an issue that has driven me mad about this team for years. On the day Dale Hunter was hired Brooks Laich talked about wanting this team to become, if nothing else, a team that opponents hated to play against.  If this is to happen then our treatment of opponents in front of our net and protection of our goalie has to get better.  I understand that some players play a grittier style than others and generally only certain players fight, but making the area around your own net an unfriendly place to be is a responsibility every hockey player should willingly fulfill, regardless of his role on the team.

#3-Depth at Center

Injuries at center have not helped this issue but there were problems here even before Mathieu “Hat Trick” Perreault began centering our #1 line.  A 2010-11 season preview over at Japers’ Rink refers to the 2nd line center issue as “lingering”.  If 18 months ago this issue had been around long enough to be considered “lingering” then at this point it’s fair to call it chronic.

If someone could let George McPhee know that in NHL ’12 I traded Alexander Semin and Jeff Schultz for Ryan Getzlaf, our problems could be solved.  Clearly the Ducks will take a pending UFA and a guy that has been a healthy scratch for all of 2012 for their #1 center, right?  Too bad Brendan Morrison was just dealt to Chicago or else the Caps could mistakenly try him out as the second line center again.

Adam over at Kings of Leonsis recently mentioned Jeff Carter as a possible trade target.  An intriguing name that has some potential red flags but, without question, would put an end to a talk about the Caps lack of depth at center.  He also mentioned Derek Roy, who might make more sense from a fiscal perspective.

And with that, we begin the post All-Star break portion of the season.  Now, if George McPhee could just find a 2nd line center who protects the front of the net and is a great road player…

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