Too often during the 2009-10 hockey season the Capitals rotated tires with well-worn treads when what they really needed — most especially back on the blueline — was a new set of Pirellis. A pair of Pirelli models named Carlson and Alzner arrived together late — too late (game 7) — to save the sportscar on its arduous journey. This week, bringing us July 1 and NHL free agency, affords general managers their greatest opportunity to tinker under the hood a bit. Mechanic McPhee has some work to do; the good news is he’s driving an elite sportscar.
The 120-pt.-plus Capitals need an oil change and a new set of tires in this inspection season.
It’s the Rangers who need an engine overhaul.
Automotive tinkering in hockey — new lubricant for efficient engine running, newness of tire treads — principally (but not entirely) arrives from the farm garage, I think. George McPhee has already inspected his engine a bit and identified some well-worn parts: Morrisonn/Morrison valves; a Walker spark plug; a Jurcina gasket; a Corvo thermostat; a Theodore muffler.
But there are two important parts George McPhee has to order on special, for they’re not in his garage: a second-line center and a shutdown Dman.
Let’s start with the most difficult part to replace.
Mike Green, methinks, is a hybrid of a blueliner, a designation that by now ought to be accepted and even celebrated by Capitals’ fans. He works well in this sportscar’s engine. He isn’t the type of part you put in the engine of a family sedan, but if you want to motor out on the Autobahn, spend the dough and rev it up. But accelerating as he does, he’s apt to run hot with overuse. He needs an important supporting part. It’s not in the best interest of this sportscar to treat his overuse with Schultz duct tape.
A Hockeys Future respondent ID’d as Atlas recently went a bit beyond the garage metaphor in describing this challenge:
“The problem with Green, IMO is the same as the problem with Semin. BB expected top production from both guys while matching them with subpar NHL players. Green’s interview after the loss to Montreal looks legit to me. He was pissed. He’s a Canadian boy who cares. I’ll take that. But if he’s gonna be the #1 D you’ve got to pair him with a stud defensive player who can pick up his slack a little. Schultz is a pylon. He doesn’t scare Richards, Carter, Malkin, Crosby. Schultz wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s a nice guy and I’d buy him a beer but in the NHL playoffs if he’s in the top defensive pair your team will lose. Pronger is on the other side killing babies and Schultz is baking cookies.”
A little vehicular manslaughter is in order on our roadtrip to glory, this HF poster might posit. I would agree that Chris Pronger is a Pirelli on grade A muscle car. Ready to add Pirelli models Carlson and Alzner on the back of their car this summer, can the Capitals locate a third opposite Green via free agency?
I think so. His name is Anton Volchenkov. He’s perhaps the premiere shotblocking blueliner on the planet (insomuch as he blocks every shot Alexander Ovechkin takes). He also likes to throw his weight around. There are reports that the Captials aren’t the least bit interested in his services. Maybe. But I wonder.
Volchenkov is 28, not in his middle thirties as were Michael Nylander or Brendan Morrison or Mike Knuble when they were acquired via free agency. While virtually universally regarded as the premiere UFA blueliner available this summer, Volchenkov’s not expected to command anything close to a Pronger salary or term. Given the Capitals’ glaring need at the top of their blueline, given the relatively little wear on Volchenkov’s tires, were the Capitals not to pursue him, whom exactly would they ever go after in free agency?
I also wonder this: just as George McPhee has acknowledged that he has an ace card to play with premiere Russian talent at every Entry Draft, could it not also be the case that he’d have one with premiere Russian UFAs? Could it not be the case that he could — were he interested — lure someone like Volchenkov to D.C. without necessarily ponying up the market’s best contract? I wonder.
It’s unfair to Jeff Schultz to place him again in the role demanded of him last season. He is serviceable rather than shutdown. He could excel in a more modest role on the Capitals’ blueline. He’s a spare tire of sorts.
A second-line center is another glaring part needed for a longer, safer roadtrip next postseason. In the unrestricted free agency market this summer, however, that candidate part isn’t nearly so identifiable. It’s highly likely that the Capitals have this player in their development pipeline (Mathieu Perreault; Evgeny Kuznetsov; perhaps Marcus Johansson), however in the here and now that part must be ordered.
A trade with another auto shop manager is probably required.
And in changing out his engine’s oil Mechanic McPhee likely has all the grades he needs in his Hershey garage. I’m not sure Andrew Gordon has any more to prove as a Bear. He’s a terrific skater and he uses his speed to deliver hard and bruising thumps. The Caps could use a little more thumping in their lineup. And speaking of bruising thumping, I’d really like to see Steve Pinizzotto given a real long look at fall camp. The road ahead is bumpy indeed; it’s good to have reliable shock absorbers.