Storm Clouds Forming in the East

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.

'Our defense is robust and impenetrable!'

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.

This entry was posted in Atlantic Division, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mathieu Perreault, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks, Southeast Division, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Storm Clouds Forming in the East

  1. Greg says:

    I don’t see a big problem with not signing a defenseman. Sure it would have helped but the Caps problem in the postseason had little to do with defense and a lot to do with players unwilling to work for goals. You mention all the other teams in the East getting better on defense but none of them got better on offense…so is the Caps defense really a concern? As a disclaimer I will say that I did not see a ton of Caps regular season games unless they were on National TV and same in the playoffs…but I thought the defense was improved over the year before and now Carlson and Alzner will be in Washington full time.

  2. Mike says:

    The biggest question out of all of the free agent signings yesterday is this: Was there one signing that made a particular team a favorite to reach the Finals? Personally, I don’t think so. I have a lot of confidence in the abilities of GMGM, and if he feels like his team will get it done, then so do I. Is it a gamble? Of course it is — all of sports is a gamble. But none of those signings had “This will win you the Stanley Cup” written on the bottom of the contract.

  3. Puzzle Palace says:

    I also look at the Pens signing as an issue for them. They did not address their biggest need of finding someone to play with Crosby. The Devils still have no offense. To me, that’s the biggest gamble with Lou’s decisions.

  4. penguin pete says:

    @puzzle palace: have to disagree a bit with the biggest need for the pens being a winger. they could certainly use one, don’t get me wrong, but a fire hydrant is scoring 15 goals on Crosby’s line and Sid is doing pretty well scoring goals on his own. The defense was pretty soft, and I do think they addressed that as the main issue. Like another commenter said, I don’t see any of the Pens signings as a Cup Winning Move, but I do feel they addressed their biggest need.

    @pucks: another great article, but all will be well when you sign kovie today. however, big ted will have to wheel nikolai volkov out to sing the russian national anthem before every game….

  5. Geo says:

    Repeat after me, “GMGM and BB only like ‘puck moving defensemen’ who don’t like to hit anybody or clear the crease.” Once you know that, then you’ll stop pipe dreaming about them signing Volchenkov or trading for various crease-clearing shut-down D-men. And I was all for that (less A-Train, then trading for some other highly rated shut-down D-men), but I think I knew realistically they’d stand pat.

    I still don’t like the idea of them guessing whether Matty P., Flash, Laich or *blank* will be a reliable 2nd line center for 80+ games.

    And if Knuble’s gone after this season, who’s going to “get dirty” in front of the net consistently?

  6. Puckhead 52 says:

    Yesterday was a rough day if you are a Caps fan. I feel like a live and die with them. Yesterday was one of those days where I question the “heart” of this organization. I think the team on the ice actually has a lot of heart. However, I’m not sure Ted or GMGM have what it takes to win in sports. They have clearly built a strong, young, contending team. The question is whether or not they will ever move to a championship team. It does not help that we play in a meaningless division and are not pushed throughout the year. So there is little sense of urgency now to improve our team. GMGM is thinking about bringing up prospects and he’ll make moves later in the season to address their issues. Yesterday we saw players available that could help this team get over the top. GMGM is using the season to evaluate prospects and is hoping those kinds of players are still available around the deadline. As we saw last year, deadline deals are tough on a team. Does it make more sense to have a player for a whole year so he can get use to your system, etc or do you roll the dice that you are only missing one small part and they can jump in immediately? Personally, I was shocked that they didn’t jump on a goalie. Chris Mason signed for under 2 million and Nabokov is still out there and will come at a discount. Michalek at 4 million per yesterday was a steal, especially with Poti coming off the books next year. Sometimes you have to jump if a deal presents itself.

  7. Bill-DC says:

    Not sold on Ted and McPhee’s “Remain calm!” strategy while Philly and the Pens get stronger. This past post season was a hell of an opportunity for the Caps to win the Cup and they blew it big time. Sure, they will win the SE division next year but then what? Unless Ted commits to making this team stronger, we’ll get the usual first round elimination come next April. I don’t want them to go all crazy like they did getting Jagr but there are decent players out there and the Caps should be working on getting one or two. Just my .02, thanks!

  8. Hittman says:

    How does anyone know the Caps didn’t try to get some of these players and they chose other cities instead? Hamhuis turned down the entire state of PA! It’s not worth mortgaging the future on a long term contract when the Caps have nearly every piece of the puzzle already in place. We still don’t know if Gustafsson is NHL ready. We don’t know if Carlson and Alzner will provide the shutdown qualities we all desire on D. We also don’t know if one of the 500 FA goalies still around will wind up in town as a tandem with Varly or if we’ll see Varly/Neuvy next year.

  9. OldPhil says:

    Take your pick: Way overspend now for something you may not really need; then at next season’s trade deadline come up short (and get blasted by the fans) because there’s no cap room to make a move going into the playoffs (we already saw how much winning the regular season means). Or, see how the young guys do during the regular season and use that cap flexibility later to pick up the missing piece(s) if you need to. I think they made the correct choice.

  10. I alluded to the point that Hittman raised — we’ll never know how close the Caps came to signing anybody on Thursday. But from where I sit, this was an enormous gamble on George’s part. It’s particularly odd juxtaposed by the parts he added at the trade deadline — throwaway ones all. Well, let’s see what the rest of summer brings.

  11. sean says:

    Well so far we have lost Kyle Mills and Jurcina, both from positions where we are lacking. Jurcina was better than Sloan and Erskine, I never saw much of Mills, but he was never really given a shot. My guess is Mills liked to hit people so GMGM got rid of him=scarcasm.


    Devils are in win now mode because they are probably not sure how much Brodeur has left or how long he’ll keep playing. To me, Brodeur seems to be on way down, not the dominating goalie he once was.

    Penguins are probably trying to sustain success and keep franchise competitive like Red Wings. And it might only be a season or two before Steve Yzerman gets Tampa back on a competitive footing.

    Plus teams in East are guaranteed at least 10 games every year against some combination of the following: Ovechkin, Semin, Crosby, St Louis, Lecavalier, so having strong physical D-men is likely required.

    Leonsis is on record as being fan of “Oriole Way” (consistent playing philosiphies throughout organization), so maybe with consectutive Calder Cups in Hershey using primarily puck moving defensemen, they think that style will win in NHL. I feel that you need at least one knockdown / shutdwon D-man to win Cup, and I dont think Caps will win Cup with Mike Green as one of their top two D-men. He has not shown the awareness in the defensive end that he should, and the Norris Trophy voting results probably didn’t help.

    DISCLAIMER: Spolied by Langway, Stevens and Hatcher.

  13. RAL says:

    I like that the Caps didn’t try to get an NHL goalie. Better to spend money elsewhere.

    I like that they didn’t overpay for a center. If GMGM thinks MP and Johansson are ready I’d give them a shot.

    There will be more defensemen available at the deadline. Which defenseman signed in the last two days strikes you as an all-star? Maybe Martin.
    They are all gonna get overpaid like all stars next season. No thanks.

    Worst comes to worst GMGM chases a guy like Patrice Bergeron at the deadline, impending FA. I’m sure there are lots of Dmen, but I don’t remember who off the top of my head.

  14. sean says:

    Whoa there partner, don’t be bringing up Rob, Scott and Kevin unless you want this discussion to go completely off the tracks and last until sundown.

  15. sean says:

    err Rod, my apologies!



    My apologies that is what another blog says about people that say negative things about Green. They only mentioned Rod and Scott, but when a 5-on-3 is killed with only D-men, you have to include all three( regularly done by one of the Murray brothers)

  17. Ron W says:

    You must have struck a raw nerve with Teddie. He even referred to your post in his usual snarky and condescending fashion. Even some of the players who won’t be back are better than some who will. I mean I would rather have had ShaMo and Jurcina than the wonderful duo Erskine and Tyler ‘F*cking’ Sloan on defense.

  18. Pingback: Ted vs. On Frozen Blog | Capitals Outsider

  19. Boomer says:

    I believe it was a great move not to mortgage the future with a crazy free agent signing this week. There were no players worth the contracts that were given. I want to keep our young core group together for as long as possible and fill in with Cap friendly players. We had the best damn record in the regular season, let’s give it at least another year before we go nuts, this team just needs to mature. Also believe me that my favorite all time Caps include Langway and Stevens, but it is a different game today and I prefer more mobile D-man (Scotty was tough & mobile). You don’t have any true shut down physical d-man of the past, even Pronger who is closest to that was scorched by the Caps in the regular season and the Wawks in the Cup finals.

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