About 10 days ago I noted in this space the (at that time) upcoming stretch of four games in five nights for the Capitals, and noted just how rare that many games in that short period of time is at the NHL level (second time in 23 years for the Caps). It’s also worth noting that the four-in-five stretch concludes tonight, when the Caps play the second half of their fifth set of back-to-back games in 23 days. The Caps have 19 sets of back-to-back contests all season, so having more than a quarter of them in just over three weeks can be pretty taxing. Especially when you throw in a stomach virus the likes of which no one associated with the team has ever seen before.
(Think about this for a second. The Caps last five pairs of back-to-back games came in a span of just 23 days. The team’s next five back-to-back games come over a stretch of 70 days.)
Before I get into the “meat” of this post, I will note that Matt Pettinger, Brian Sutherby and Steve Eminger — all of whom missed last night’s game with the stomach virus — showed up and ate at the team’s mid-day meal here in New York today. Pettinger was heard to remark that he felt a lot better than he did on Friday, but it remains to be seen which of the virus-ravaged Caps will be in and which will be out of the lineup for tonight’s game against the Rangers. Washington did recall 20-year-old netminder Daren Machesney from Hershey on an emergency basis. Caps goaltender Brent Johnson is one of the most severely hit by the virus, and with Olaf Kolzig slated to play for the fourth time in five nights tonight, it makes sense for the Caps to have a healthy — if green — backup available. These are heady times for Machesney. The first-year pro started and won in his first AHL start at Albany last night, and before he can even eat lunch the next day he is on his way to The Show.
The good news is that the schedule will ease in January. The Caps start the New Year with a four-game homestand, and they play just one set of back-to-back games in 34 days. Some of the injured players (defensemen John Erskine and Bryan Muir and forwards Matt Bradley and Richard Zednik) should return to the lineup at some point in the first month of 2007. And despite the Caps’ recent slide (1-5 in their last six), they’re still hanging in what should be a very tight race for Eastern Conference playoff positioning over the second half of the 2006-07 season.
The trade deadline comes on Feb. 27 this season. Nearly 60 shopping days remain. Like virtually every team in the league, the Capitals have needs. Unlike virtually every team in the league, the Capitals have a lot of salary cap space with which to work. With a payroll of about $30 million, the Caps have plenty of room under the $44 million salary cap, a figure that is expected to rise to $48 million next season. Considering that salary cap hits are pro-rated, obtaining a $4 million player in midseason results in a cap hit of just $2 million.
So what should the Caps do? Spend some money, right? Go shopping, get a couple of defensemen, maybe a center, and still be well under the cap. Why not? Philadelphia is doing it, and they have as much chance of making the playoffs as the Redskins do.
Simply put, it’s not that simple. All things being equal, I’d much rather fill needs over the next 60 days via the trade route, than to get involved in bidding wars for unrestricted free agents looking for a big payday in July. Most observers would agree that Washington’s defensive corps could use an upgrade. But look at the teams that went out and spent on blueliners last summer.
Zdeno Chara is having a decent season for the Bruins, but is it a $7.5 million season? How’s that $7 million a year deal working out for the Coyotes and Ed Jovanovski? Is Pavel Kubina having a $5 million year in Toronto? Rob Blake’s $6 million deal and the Kings’ $20 million defense looks like a pretty good idea now, huh? Jay McKee is earning his $4 from the Blues and Willie Mitchell is having a $3.5 million kind of year in Vancouver, right? If you want to go back a summer, you could note Sergei Gonchar’s deal with the Pens, Adam Foote’s in Columbus, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje in Philadelphia, and Adrian Aucoin in Chicago. The obvious point here is that spending the money does nothing to guarantee success. It didn’t before the lockout, and it doesn’t now.
The Kings and Leafs have both allotted nearly $20 million of their resepctive payrolls for defensemen. Phoenix pays its blueliners somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million. Think those teams are “getting what they paid for?” Anyone out there betting on any of those teams to make the playoffs this year? Good luck with that.
You can spend and win, too. The Ducks and the Wings both spend a lot of money on defense, and Dallas spends a fair amount. But you won’t find defensemen on those teams who are grossly overpaid, a situation that results in “dead money.”
The other night in the press box at Verizon Center, some of the writers were saying how the Caps need to go hard after a guy like Montreal’s Sheldon Souray this summer. Souray’s a nice player, but does anyone think he is going to get less than $5 million a year for about four years on the open market this summer? He has more goals (22) than any other NHL defenseman during calendar 2006. If the market says that Jay McKee is worth $16 million for four years, what sort of deal is Souray going to fetch?
If you’re the Capitals, and you’re bringing along a bunch of young players, including rising stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, you might want to think twice before shelling out $25 million for five years worth of a defenseman (or two). The Ovechkins and the Semins are going to need to get paid if you want to keep them around and try to remain “Cup-competitive” over a period of several seasons. A year ago, Buffalo had a young, up-and-coming team with a relatively low payroll. Now, thanks to the wonders of arbitration, they’re bunched with 20 or so other teams who are within a couple of million dollars of the salary cap ceiling. Buffalo’s payroll went up by about a third, and they still haven’t won a Stanley Cup.
Draft, develop. Draft, develop. It’s not easy, but that’s what you’ve got to do. Build a strong scouting staff at both the amatuer and pro level. Bring along your own players, grow and nurture them through the ranks, and let the cream rise to the top. If you’ve still got holes, spend to fill them. But don’t spend for the sake of spending, and don’t spend because your fans and the media say that you should.
Jaroslav Spacek, Filip Kuba, Joe Corvo, and Brian Pothier were all available as free agents last summer, and all wound up signing for less than $3.5 million a season. All are providing better bang for the buck than most (and arguably all) of the high-priced Class of 2006 blueliners mentioned earlier. Hell, the Islanders shelled out $600,000 for veteran Sean Hill, and all he has done is play 21 minutes a night, rank second among Isles blueliners in scoring, and post a plus-13. The values and the bargains are out there if your scouts are doing their jobs.
Carolina is the defending Stanley Cup champion. It pays no defenseman as much as $2.5 million. Montreal is one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Habs pay no defenseman more than $2.5 million. The Atlanta Thrashers are an up-and-coming team on the verge of their first ever playoff berth and division title. No Thrashers defenseman makes more than $2.5 million.
San Jose and Nashville have two of the youngest groups of blueliners in the league, and both clubs have cobbled together a budget blueline, spending less than $10 million on their defensive corps. The Sharks have allowed the second fewest goals in the league this season, and the Predators the sixth fewest.
Here are a few other things worth noting. Of the top 12 teams in terms of payroll for the 2005-06 season, only seven qualified for the playoffs last spring. Only two of the seven advanced to the second round, and none went any further. All four conference finalists (and therefore, both Cup finalists) came from the lower payroll tiers. Spending does not equal winning. It didn’t under the old collective bargaining agreement, and it doesn’t under the new one.
Which brings us back to the Caps. Washington currently ranks 27th in the league in goals against and 30th in shots against. The Caps have a young group of defensemen, so certainly some improvement can be expected not only over the remainder of this season, but also over the next few seasons. That said, the Caps are in a position to make the playoffs for the first time in four years and that should not be taken lightly. A round or two of playoff experience would do wonders for this young team, regardless of the outcome.
With that in mind, certainly the Capitals should be (and in fact, they are) shopping around for possible upgrades for their backline. But certainly the Capitals should be (and in fact, they are) mindful and careful of the long-term implications a large ticket blueline acquisition would have on their budget not only now, but in the years to come.
All I am saying here in my usual long-winded fashion is the same thing I told those guys in the press box the other night. I’d much rather make a deal for a guy with a year or two left on his current deal than to plunk down $25 million for five years worth of a 30-year-old guy whose value and utility is likely to decline before the life of that pact is halfway finished. It will be interesting to see what types of defensemen are made available on the trade market in the next 60 days or so, and what it will take to fetch them.