There’s a danger with playing it ultra conservative on Canada Day, the first day of unrestricted free agency: what if your power peers in the East don’t share that philosophy? And, what if they act like there’s no tomorrow with their wallets? What if, when it comes to free agency and bettering their rosters, they play to win?
By the time the Flyers were finished pushing themselves hard against the 2010-11 salary cap on Thursday they had a top five on the blueline that looked like this: Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Meszaros. Not a pushover among them. All Pittsburgh added to its blueline was $45 million in committed money to former Devil Paul Martin and former Coyote Zbynek Michalek. A prime puck mover and a shut down stud there. And in New Jersey, where early on Thursday it was already tough getting shots on through to Martin Brodeur, by happy hour it was especially tough: Lou Lamoriello added high-end rearguards Henrik Tallinder from Buffalo and perhaps this free agency class’ crown jewel among blueliners, the Senators’ Anton Volchenkov.
The Caps? Zippy.
“We have seven guys ready to go [on the blueline],” general manager George McPhee told the Washington Post’s Tarik El Bashir immediately in advance of the silly spending season. Problem is, two of them are named Tyler Sloan and John Erskine, and their nominal shutdown guy is a very finesse d-man — one who’s built like a golfer. And two of McPhee’s projected top four rearguards heading into 2010-11 are aged 20 and 21, respectively. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are talented, and they sure seem to pair perfectly together, but in what will certainly be the most critical season under the management of George McPhee, a season in which another very short postseason is likely to cause heads to roll, the Caps on Thursday sent a conspicuously confusing message about their battle readiness for next spring — while enemy nations around them added heavy artillery.
And before we get too puffy with pride about fiscal restraint and enviable cap space, what of the men who made most of those big moves in the East yesterday? How often do Ray Shero and especially Devil Lou royally screw up with important personnel moves? (Also, how many Stanley Cups have they won?)
I was one who believed the contract the Flyers inked with Chris Pronger last summer an ill-advised one, most particularly in term. I still do. But I also know that I just got done watching Chris Pronger play hockey about two weeks ago.
The Montreal Canadiens this spring may well have offered a blueprint for counteracting the perimeter attack of the Washington Capitals — sag and sit back and keep get it clogged in the middle, and opportunistically counter-attack. I watched two American League teams scare the historically strong Hershey Hears club this spring with this same ethos. On Thursday, three lead challengers to the Caps in the East shopped as if they wanted life made miserable in the middle of the ice. Two of those teams — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — were already strong down the middle at center, where the Caps are not.
One takeaway conclusion from yesterday’s hand-sitting by GMGM is an explicit faith statement on his part in his young bluechip blueliners, who served as the no. 1 pairing for the Calder Cup winning Bears. If there are to be big-league growing pains for them they best arrive in autumn, not spring. We will never know to what extent McPhee kicked tires yesterday, but the bottom line is tough clubs around his — however much you may believe they overpaid on Thursday — got stronger, and where it counts most against these Caps.
Meanwhile, Caps’ fans are left to wonder just what George McPhee must see on the personnel landscape to actually move on a shutdown partner for his hybrid defenseman, Mike Green. In Zbynek, Martin, and Volchenkov he had a pick of premium, far from washed up shutdown talents, and Volchenkov commanded ($4.25 million) a decent bit less than what I imagined he would have. Really, he’s a few hundred thousand dollars more expensive than Tom Poti. He did earn a six-year term from New Jersey, and a no movement clause as well. That latter contract feature may have given McPhee a case of the vapors — he last awarded one to Michael Nylander.
In the short term, there really was no pressure on McPhee to bolster his blueline. It will be better — in the regular season — with the addition of Carlson and Alzner. Moreover, one or two dramatically improved Southeast teams next season might mean that the Caps won’t win the division by 40 points but rather by merely 20. They are assured of a top 3 seed next spring.
McPhee gets five months of regular season exhibition play to judge what maturation his Magnificent Seven on the blueline bring to the springtime cauldron that is the NHL playoffs. Meanwhile, he’ll also see up close and personal three dramatically improved bluelines in the Atlantic division. They won’t be fun to play against.
There was a sense as you followed Twitter and TSN Thursday and saw all those big and able bodies pile up on all those enemy bluelines that the acquiring GMs were re-stocking expressly so as to make postseason life against the Capitals enormously uncomfortable. Which made McPhee’s inertia all the more perplexing and disturbing. There’s still a lot of summer left with which potentially to re-fashion a roster plagued by two big holes, but with each week that passes absent any notable alteration the evidence mounts that management may just believe that last season’s 121-point club just didn’t get the breaks. That would be foolish and dangerous thinking, I humbly submit.
It is good and exciting that McPhee has come out early this offseason and expressed conviction in the abilities of more than a few Bears to play pivotal roles for next season’s Capitals — including auditioning Mathieu Perreault in the middle of the second line. Neither Philly nor Pittsburgh is losing sleep over it, however.
What is so disquieting for a fanbase that is perhaps only marginally less despondent in early July than it was in late April is that to date this offseason there has yet to be a move by management that would indicate anything approaching a recognition of the roster’s true achilles heel — it’s back-end and center-ice softness.
George McPhee didn’t spend Thursday golfing, or with his cell phone ringer on silence. But his rivals in the East Thursday competed, and spent, to win. The Capitals on Thursday exercised striking restraint and irrefutable fiscal caution, but for a team fast approaching San Jose Shark stink in spring, they also gambled.