Off-Season Game Plan: Washington Capitals

Scott Cullen
6/19/2011 12:36:20 AM
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While the Washington Capitals didn't get bounced in the first round of the playoffs again, the second round of the playoffs not the ultimate goal for a team with this kind of talent.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Capitals' roster and what GM George McPhee might be able to accomplish as he prepares the team for next season.

If one thing positive can come out of Washington's playoff defeat, it's that the narrative that had been constructed about the Capitals learning to win close games was effectively debunked.

There is nothing wrong with the Capitals being the highest-scoring team in the league, as they were in 2009-2010 with 3.82 goals per game, and it's certainly preferable to ranking 11th in the league as they did last season, with 2.56 goals per game.

Washington's power play struggled and their big guns -- Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, most notably -- had dramatically lower point totals than they did the year before, so if Washington is going to be considered a Stanley Cup contender, they may not need much more than bounceback seasons from those three stars.

There may be a temptation, after perceived playoff failures, to make blockbuster moves, and the Capitals have the personnel -- Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlamov and others -- to make those kinds of moves if that's what McPhee prefers, but it isn't easy to decimate a roster that has finished at the top of the Eastern Conference in each of the last two seasons.

That doesn't mean the status quo will suffice, but there is more than enough talent on this roster for the Capitals to go into the 2011-2012 season expecting to contend for the Stanley Cup. If they can upgrade on what they already have then, by all means, those moves have to be considered.

But, there are plenty of teams that don't have the talent to match up with the Capitals and internal improvement alone will enhance their chances.

Adding a few character players and upgrading where they can should only strengthen that position and while that doesn't guarantee postseason success, all the Capitals management can do is give their team a chance.

George McPhee/Bruce Boudreau

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Alexander Ovechkin 83.79 $9.538M
Alexander Semin 77.78 $6.7M
Nicklas Backstrom 76.64 $6.7M
Mike Knuble 70.75 $2.0M
Eric Fehr 66.85 $2.2M
Marcus Johansson 66.35 $900K
Matt Hendricks 63.88 $825K
Jason Chimera 63.62 $1.875M
Jay Beagle 59.36 $513K
D.J. King 56.98 $638K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Brooks Laich 71.42 UFA $2.067M
Jason Arnott 67.27 UFA $4.5M
Marco Sturm 66.29 UFA $3.5M
Mathieu Perreault 64.83 RFA $717K
Matt Bradley 60.38 UFA $1.0M
Boyd Gordon 59.97 UFA $800K

Such are the outrageously high standards he's established, that Alexander Ovechkin was considered to have had a down season in 2010-2011, with 32 goals, 83 points and a plus-24 rating. Woe is the point-per-game winger with a plus-20 rating.

In the last 20 years, only John Leclair, who did it four times, has more seasons hitting those three benchmarks of 30 goals, 80 points and plus-20 in the same season than Ovechkin, who has done it three times.

Now, in relative terms, Ovechkin's season wasn't as productive as his previous five NHL seasons, when his lows for goals (46) and points (92) were better than last year's totals, so he does need to get back to his standard levels of production, but Ovechkin is well down the list of concerns for the Capitals.

Alexander Semin, on the other hand, raises questions that are never easy. There's no arguing his talent, as he's one of the most skilled wingers in the game, but he misses a lot of time (65 games over the last four seasons) and, after scoring 18 goals in 25 games to start the season, he went on a stretch in which he scored seven goals in 35 games, before picking up again in the last week of the season.

Therein lies the conundrum presented by Semin. He's an elite talent, capable of scoring 40 goals (like he did in 2009-2010), but he doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that he can be counted on like a point-per-game winger ought to be counted on.

If the Capitals feel that a shake-up is needed, Semin may be the easiest piece to move. His talent combined with the fact that his contract has one year remaining makes him a relatively low risk and potentially high reward for other teams.

Nicklas Backstrom's ascent to superstardom hit a bump in the road, as his point total dipped from 101 points in 2009-2010 down to 65 points last season and he followed up with an abysmal playoff performance, scoring just two points in nine games and having his effort questioned because of conspicuously indifferent on-ice behaviour.

That seemed entirely out of character, given Backstrom's play in his first three NHL seasons, so he can have some benefit of the doubt, but the Capitals know that this 23-year-old has the ability to rank among the league's top handful of centres.

Though Mike Knuble's 40 points represented his lowest total since 2001-2002, the 38-year-old is virtually ageless, scoring more than 20 goals for the eighth straight season. He's so big and strong that he's often an immovable object when he gets position in front of the opposition's net.

Eric Fehr's a capable scoring winger, but hasn't been able to establish a consistent role, last year's 12:36 time on ice per game ranking as the highest of his career.

To maximize Fehr's skills, and give him a shot at consistently producing 20-goal seasons, he probably has to play in a top-six role; whether that can happen in Washington is increasingly in doubt.

Rookie Marcus Johansson was eased into action, but he thrived when given more responsibility in the second half of the season, scoring 20 points in his last 40 games of the season, when he started playing a more consistent 15-16 minutes per game.

That strong finish, along with six points in nine playoff games, should raise expectations for Johansson next season, to the point that, barring a trade, he may be the best option to take over the second line centre job on a full-time basis.

Brought in to provide grit on the Capitals' fourth line, Matt Hendricks did that and more, scoring 25 points and scrapping 14 times. He was one of six players in the league to have at least 20 points and 10 fights and it earned him a multi-year contract extension.

Though he didn't get a great deal of ice time (12:36 per game) after he was acquired from Columbus, Jason Chimera was a productive checking forward for the Capitals. The veteran has always had the size and speed to have a bigger impact, but he's never been able to score more than 36 points in a season, making him a checker with a little scoring upside...as opposed to a scorer who can check.

Strictly a depth player, Jay Beagle did get into 31 games for the Capitals last season, putting up all of three points, but he does have a one-way contract for next season, so he would seem likely to stick in a similar role.

D.J. King is a heavyweight, but he only got into 16 games for the Capitals in 2010-2011, fighting six times. He hasn't scored a goal since March, 2008, but, to be fair, he's only played 35 games in that time.

Mathieu Perreault is a tiny, but skilled, centre, who has been able to contribute 23 points in 56 games over the last two seasons, but is facing a challenge as he tries to get into a full-time role.

With five unrestricted free agent forwards, there is certainly the potential for change. The only one of the five that has to be considered a priority is Brooks Laich, a 28-year-old character player who has scored 85 goals over the last four seasons. If he makes it to July 1 as an unrestricted free agent, he'll get a flood of offers.

From the Capitals' perspective, they could use some help down the middle. Even if Johansson is ready for a bigger role, the Capitals could at leat use a checking centre. Eric Belanger might be a good fit but, based on last summer's dispute, that doesn't seem the most likely match. Vernon Fiddler, Marty Reasoner, Marcel Goc or local product Jeff Halpern would be possibilities to fill a checking centre role.

Jason Arnott was effective in his short stint with the Capitals, so it could be worth bringing the veteran back to play in a supporting role.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Mike Green 74.20 $5.25M
John Carlson 71.37 $846K
Dennis Wideman 71.33 $3.938M
Tom Poti 64.16 $2.875M
John Erskine 62.65 $1.5M
Jeff Schultz 61.09 $2.75M
Tyler Sloan 59.49 $700K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Karl Alzner 61.98 RFA $1.675M
Scott Hannan 60.85 UFA $4.5M

Following two seasons of better than point-per-game production, Mike Green struggled for much of the 2010-2011 season and also missed a substantial amount of time with a concussion, scoring 24 points in 49 games.

Green returned for the playoffs where, unlike previous seasons, he was relatively productive, scoring six points in eight games, but he did get hurt, cutting his playoffs short.

While some might suggest that Green could be moved this summer, the Capitals will have to get a substantial return to make such a deal because his production has been extremely rare. Despite his down season in 2010-2011, no defenceman has scored as many points (173) as Green over the last three years.

It came as little surprise, following his performance in the 2009-2010 playoffs, but John Carlson stepped right in as a rookie and was Washington's best defenceman. Including his 22 games in 2009-2010, Carlson is plus-32 in his first 104 NHL games, good enough to rank in 12th among defenceman over that those two seasons.

A good puck-moving defenceman, if a tad inconsistent during his Boston tenure, Dennis Wideman was a solid addition from Florida at the trade deadline, before suffering a hematoma on his leg that prevented him from playing in the postseason.

Injuries limited Tom Poti to only 21 games last season and the stability that he can provide was missed. Now 34, Poti doesn't necessarily have to play a big role, but he can surely improve Washington's defensive depth if he's healthy.

Tough defenceman John Erskine plays limited minutes, but played a career-high 73 games, scoring a career-best 11 points, last season. On top of that, he's a tough customer when it comes time to drop the gloves.

There are only a handful of defencemen that have fewer penalty minutes than Jeff Schultz (109) over the last five years, but none of them is 6-foot-6, 230 pounds like Schultz. So, he could be more physical and play with more aggression, but he's also never been a minus player in five NHL seasons.

Tyler Sloan is a serviceable seventh defenceman who has played 99 NHL games over the last three seasons and, with a one-way deal for next season, he appears ear-marked for that role again.

Karl Alzner played his first full season with the Capitals and gave every indication that he's going to develop into a shutdown defenceman, playing 22-23 minutes per game by season's end.

Expecting continued development from Carlson and Alzner, the Capitals could easily go into next season without making any significant additions on their blueline, but they could also seek out a proven shutdown defender and they have the assets to go out and acquire one if that's the plan.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Michal Neuvirth 72.63 $1.15M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Semyon Varlamov 79.76 RFA $822K

Michal Neuvirth won the Capitals' starting job by staying (relatively) healthy and providing above-average puck-stopping in his rookie season. Neuvirth played better in the second half of the year, so he should go into next season prepared to be the number one out of the gate.

Semyon Varlamov might be the more talented of the Capitals' young netminders, but he can't stay healthy enough to establish his credentials as a bona fide starter.

If the Capitals are sold on prospect Braden Holtby, Varlamov could be trade bait this summer. He's skilled enough that another team might see him as a viable solution, not entirely unlike the faith that the Dallas Stars put in Kari Lehtonen when they traded to get him from Atlanta.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Evgeny Kuznetsov C Chelyabinsk Traktor (KHL) 17-15-32,+7, 44 GP
Braden Holtby G Hershey (AHL) 2.29 GAA, .920 SV%, 30 GP
Dmitri Orlov D Novokuznetsk Metallurg (KHL) 2-10-12,-18, 45 GP
Cody Eakin C Kootenay (WHL) 36-47-83,+13, 56 GP
Stanislav Galiev LW Saint John (QMJHL) 37-28-65,+36, 64 GP
Samuel Carrier D Lewiston (QMJHL) 11-39-50,+40, 61 GP
Philipp Grubauer G Kingston (OHL) 3.62 GAA, .903 SVPCT, 38 GP
Mattias Sjogren C Farjestads (SEL) 7-17-24,+5, 51 GP
Brett Flemming D Mississauga (OHL) 4-39-43,+60, 68 GP
Dmitry Kugryshev RW Hershey (AHL) 6-8-14,-7, 64 GP

The good news for the Capitals is that Evgeny Kuznetsov, taken with the 26th pick in the 2010 draft, appears to be a steal, with elite level skills. The bad news is that he's signed for another year in the KHL, meaning the Capitals will have to wait before inserting him into their lineup.

Braden Holtby got into 14 games for Washington last season and was impressive, posting a 1.79 goals against average and .934 save percentage; enough that it's fair to expect him to handle the backup job next season if the Capitals move Varlamov.

A talented offensive defenceman who joined Hershey late in the year, scoring nine points in 19 games, Dmitri Orlov has intriguing long-term potential. A full season in the AHL, where he can get used to the North American game and improve his play without the puck, may be all he needs before challenging for a spot on the Caps.

Not only is Cody Eakin a gifted offensive player, but he does the little things too, playing the kind of game that could earn him a spot in Washington quickly, even if he's not ready to be a scorer right away as a 20-year-old.

A winger who played a big role in Saint John's Memorial Cup win, Stanislav Galiev scored 37 goals in the regular season then added 27 points in 19 playoff games. He may need some time to round out his game, but Galiev has upside.

A sixth-round pick last summer, Samuel Carrier didn't rest on his laurels after getting drafted, turning in an outstanding year for Lewiston.

Philipp Grubauer hasn't put up outstanding numbers in the OHL, but he's still just 19 and there's no need to rush him, considering the Capitals' already-youthful goaltending.

A 23-year-old centre with good size, Mattias Sjogren isn't a big scorer, but plays a reliable two-way game and if he can handle the adjustment to North America, might be able to help at a position of need.

Steady improvement has been Brett Flemming's experience through four years in the OHL, putting up a league-leading plus-60 last season. Some time on the farm will determine just how quickly he needs to be considered a contender for a roster spot.

Though his first pro season was entirely underwhelming, Dmitry Kugryshev has enough offensive talent that it's worth waiting to find out if the 21-year-old can improve significantly in his second AHL season.

Check out a potential roster, on www.capgeek.com, for next season, with few additions and a lot of returnees here: http://bit.ly/klZgga

26th - Alexander Khochlachev, Rocco Grimaldi, Brandon Saad.

According to www.capgeek.com, the Capitals have approximately $50.9M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 18 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards.

What I said the Capitals needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, veteran goaltender.

They added: Marcus Johansson, Matt Hendricks, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Michal Neuvirth.

TRADE MARKET Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Semyon Varlamov.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Off-Season Game Plan Archive

Ovechkin celebrates (Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)


(Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)
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