The most important summer in recent Washington Capitals history is nearly upon us. Nearly, but not yet, and in the meantime we sate our hockey jones with the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the third straight season a Caps-less playoffs, but in this coming off-season, we all hope the youth-to-veteran and skill-to-grit mixtures are concocted precisely, resulting in a playoff-caliber cocktail.
(Oh, quick Knee-jerks from last night: the better teams both won in a wash, and the Rangers have won’t have much of a chance if that series is called the way it was last night.)
So, what do the Caps have to add to be a playoff contender, and how do they do it?
The What: The consensus seems to be that Washington needs to acquire the following players: an offensive center, an offensive defenseman, a two-way defenseman, and possibly a top six scoring winger, preferably on the right side.
The How: Promote from within, then through trades, then finally free agency.
Candidates to be promoted from within include, but are not limited to, forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Eric Fehr, Dave Steckel, Tomas Fleischmann, Jakub Klepis, and defenseman Jeff Schultz.
Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom is a given to be on the squad (assuming he signs), and expectations will be for him to play very well in his rookie year, meriting some Calder trophy consideration. Eric Fehr seems to have an inside track for a spot on the roster next year, and Dave Steckel’s shut-down defense and penalty-killing is a mainstay of the powerhouse Bears’ club, and the Caps’ brass has most likely taken notice. Fleischmann and Klepis, while talented, may be squeezed out due to a numbers crunch, and Jeff Schultz’ time in Washington was a solid success, but more games in Hershey should help him develop his offensive game.
On the trade front, the organization has a wealth of prospects and draft picks in the upcoming draft (more on the draft in a few weeks), as well as some young players on the current roster that may be packaged in order to land the required additions. Likely targets might include Restricted Free Agents and players with more than a year left on their contracts. Names that have been floated around are centers like Vancouver’s Brendan Morrison and Edmonton’s Shawn Horcoff, both of whom could fill one of the top two center holes. Defenseman like Phoenix’ Nick Boynton and Derek Morris, Nashville’s Marek Zidlicky, and St. Louis’ Christian Backman may be available, providing a more veteran presence on the Caps’ blueline.
The Caps may decide to try their luck in the free agent market, though it tends to be the most expensive avenue to improvement in terms of cash. The Caps won’t break the bank, most likely, and may stay away from the marquee names, instead looking to get a good player for a good value. Defensemen, in particular, tend to get paid above their worth in free agency, so I expect the Caps’ involvement in bidding on UFA blueliners to be limited. A forward like Nashville’s Scott Hartnell, with a nice combination of skill and grit, would be a nice fit up front, and Scott Walker brings leadership as well as tenacity to a club.
Management has publicly stated that this will be a different off-season than the past several, and that changes are on the way. Moves made this summer will go a long way to determine if Caps’ fans will be again watching other teams compete for the Cup, or if they’ll happily leave the days of rebuilding behind.