Blueline by a Less Than Bruising Committee (Again)

The good news: the Caps yesterday spent nearly $12 million on their less than intimidating blueline.

The bad news: all of it went to Jeff Schultz. Intimidation quotient on the back end remains unchanged. Level of difficulty playing with the puck in the Caps’ end? Unchanged.

Now for the really bad news: George McPhee wasn’t kidding a week ago when he said he had seven guys he was ready to go with on the back end in 2010-11. He really believes he does. The Schultz signing — that’s top 4 money Sarge was awarded in this deal — signals that the Caps are done refashioning the top four of their blueline for next season. Sleeping easy now?

If you missed that refashioning on the back end, you’ve got company. Actually, it’s unchanged from the top four who earned most of the minutes in game 7 versus Montreal. It’s actually a top four with high-end talent and many years of good hockey ahead. Problem is, it’s not a top four upon which a club desperate — starved — for postseason success ought to rely upon right now. And most of all, it is not a top four that addresses the Capitals’ most glaring need on the back end: the hole that is help for Mike Green.

Mike Vogel has the Caps committed to about $51 million in salary with 19 guys signed under a $59 million cap for 2010-11. Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann figure to gobble up a decent bit of what remains. So absent an unlikely trade, we’re all set on the blueline. Excited yet?

* * * * *

Perhaps to no small degree, and unfairly, Jeff Schultz is the pinata upon which many Caps’ fans want to beat the finesse-Ice Capades approach out of the Capitals’ roster. Sarge here is the collective embodiment for an ethos that is, for these fans, antithetical to a durable stay in the NHL postseason. Evaluating the personnel maneuverings across the East this summer, there can be no mistaking the dichotomy that’s being formed: the Caps once again will attempt to “outskill” the opposition, out-finesse them; their competitors are going big and bully and ice-clogging.

It remains to be seen who’s right in this debate, but yesterday’s contract award for #55 is a fresh stake in the ground by the Capitals’ GM. And it also seems more and more like 2010-11 will carry an air of referendum to George McPhee’s roster building. Were I a manager entering a referendum season most assuredly I’d want some menace in front of my crease.

Almost a week to the day that the Caps passed on signing Anton Volchenkov for $4 million and change they committed $3 million per, beginning in 2012-13, to Jeff Schultz. There’s a symbolism there that’s unavoidable, I submit.

There was praise to be found yesterday on Twitter extolling the virtues of the deal, lauding the Caps for locking up so spectacularly average a defenseman. Problem is, the Caps are placing Sarge in a position on the ice where conspicuously average gets you golfing early in spring. As we’ve seen here for some springs now. Can average be hidden in a top four for a contender? I wonder. In the Caps’ case, however, they’re actually trying (forcing) average on as a Band-Aid for ice left open, vacated by their hybrid defenseman Mike Green. Hence the high-pitched clamor among so many Caps’ fans this summer for McPhee to sign a true, experienced shutdown rearguard.

He has refused to. Again.

* * * * *

There are PR flacks and new media about our town all so adept at producing pretty numbers about our pretty hockey players during our oh so pretty regular seasons. As if such numbers mean dick in game 7s. We’ve become a town of hockey accountants. We’ve become numbed by numbers.

I’m signing up for 82 exhibition games here in 2010-11, but I’ll be referencing no such numbers. Instead, I’ll go to games and tally the number of times our rearguards plant opposing players on their asses when they encamp in front our goalies, or otherwise exact a heavy price in our end. I don’t expect to need a calculator.

* * * * *

The more this offseason matures the more I gain appreciation for the diagnostics of R.J. Umberger. He had no axe to grind with the Caps. He called out the Caps after a game in Columbus late last season. Said our guys were going to be taken down, that their style was ill-suited for the rigors of the NHL postseason. He proved prophetic. His warning hasn’t been heeded in Washington this offseason. It has been heeded elsewhere in the East — among the Capitals’ chief competitors.

* * * * *

This past postseason seared in my psyche the conviction that the NHL is singular among pro sports in showcasing two separate seasons within its calendar season. Conspicuous success in one (the regular season) hardly foreshadows prosperity in the other (postseason). I believe the Caps deserve great credit for assembling a roster that simply cannot be competed with in the Southeast division October through March, and as fans love winter-long winners, with all those wins come filled seats. The Capitals again are sold out all of next season.

The jury, however, is very much still out about the suitability of this Capitals roster for the postseason. I am one who does not view the April failure against Montreal in any singular sort of way, and rather looks out over the past three postseasons and tabulates enormous struggle against all comers, even the lowest seeds. For me those are warning signs.

* * * * *

Incidentally, last summer, the Capitals could have signed unrestricted free agent Hal Gill, who of course ended up in Montreal. Gill of course has skated prime roles for opposition who’ve defeated the Capitals the past two postseasons.

Something for you perhaps to meditate on during our encounters with the Atlantic division this coming season: for the grand sum of $6.5 million dollars the Capitals this fall could have dressed Gill and Volchenkov in their sweater.

The Habs this season will be paying Gill $2.25 million.

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This entry was posted in Atlantic Division, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, Montreal Canadiens, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Southeast Division, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Blueline by a Less Than Bruising Committee (Again)

  1. sean says:

    The last 2 sentences had me facepalming a permanent dent in my forehead.

  2. Steve_R says:

    A 6 year deal with a NTC for a player whose style lends itself to getting himself damaged doesn’t make you nervous?

  3. bucknelldad says:

    You’ve got it exactly right. And the last two sentences were depressing. What is wrong with GMGM?

  4. McBride says:

    I think GMGM is viewing the world through 121 point-colored glasses.

  5. I hope you’re wrong, McBride, because such a tally doesn’t much carry over to the postseason. Although we do gain an extra home game for it.

  6. penguin pete says:

    i hope drew is enjoying whatever crap about the caps he’s reading about today on another blog.

    another great article. just wish i could enjoy your pain without having to tell you what a great job you do…

  7. 55 for a 5 says:

    Yeah, but now that he’s under contract, presumably the Caps can trade him for a fifth-round pick.

  8. Tracy Tran says:

    You nailed it. You could possibly have Hal Gill and Volchenkov on our team, instead we’re stuck with Schultz. We’re not saying Schultz is a bad player, but he doesn’t help out Green a whole lot.

    Also, people are saying this Caps team needs to stay intact for the future and create a dynasty. First, there are no more dynasties in hockey anymore with the salary cap and second, most of our role players are free agents, you expect all of them to sign “below average deals”? The Detroit Red Wings can do this because they have a great GM and coach who know to win Stanley Cups, pick their spots, and have a strong minor league system. The Caps know how to win Calder Cups, but can they win Stanley Cups? Doesn’t look like it.

  9. Joe bagadonuts says:

    good summation, but consider this. siging volchenkov for six years probably means not signing alzner/carlson or another young player coming of an ELC. would you rather have an oft injured volchenkov (with a no trade clause) at 30+ years old or a young guy like alzer/carlson. thats the rub and the risk you take in those long term deals.

    i’m with you on the caps needing help on d. i would be willing to bet that these are not the same six/seven guys who will suit up on d for the playoffs much less opening day. i think it is smart of GMGM to be cautious pending the outcome of arb meetings with Fehr and Flash.

  10. TG says:

    Fine, the Caps could have had Gill. Tough guy. Hits people. Blah blah blah. But he wouldn’t have fit on this team. He’s slow. Not a great passer. Doesn’t shoot the puck. A somewhat bigger Erskine.

    He would have been like Nylander. On paper, a decent addition. But how many times would we be screaming for him to be benched as someone swooped down around him on the wing and broke in on the goalie unimpeded?

    You want Gill/Volchenkov? Then the coach has to change his strategy for them to fit. And it looks like that’s not happening.

    You want Gill/Volchenkov just for the playoffs? Then how hard will it be for a team to change the way it’s played for 82 games (and the past couple seasons as well)?

    This is the style of play they’ve chosen. This is the way they’re going. How many of Detroit’s rearguards scare you or are truly physical? They play the “can’t score if you don’t have the puck” style. Sound familiar? And can’t complain about their success the past few years.

    Tom Boswell once wrote a column about how teams that have stability cheer every time one of the other teams changes coaches/managers/etc. because that meant that that team would have to then spend a few years retooling personnel for the style of the new person in charge.

    Unless/until Boudreau gets fired, this is the style they’re going to play, this is the team that they want and these are the personnel that are going to play it. You want crease clearers and the like? Then find a coach that plays dump and chase and find the personnel to fit THAT style, not the run and gun style.

    Think Erskine looks bad/out of place on the ice with this team? Gill would look 10x worse. On the flip side, Erskine would certainly fit in nicely with Montreal or other trap-style teams that don’t have an emphasis on speed, passing, etc. from the defense.

  11. Ursus Veritas says:

    So the numbers other people like, the ones that directly relate to out-scoring the opposition, are no good and shouldn’t be relied upon, but the number of times our D hit someone is more relevant? What a joke. A complete and total hack job.

    Also, way to conveniently ignore that Schultz had more hits in the series than Gill did.

  12. Geo says:

    I like Sarge and think he should’ve been re-signed. But I’m STILL with those who wanted one shutdown and/or veteran D-man added to the mix. We don’t know how Poti’s going to recover from that brutal eye injury. We don’t know for sure that this will be King Karl’s year to prove he belongs in the NHL.

    Still if the only reason fans think the Caps lost a pair of 2-1 playoff games was “lack of a shutdown D-man,” it seems misguided.

    At this point, I guess I’d be more curious what D-men might be trade deadline fodder in the upcoming season. If you only want the Caps to get a brute D-man for next year’s playoffs, that seems like the last hope for that.

    Letting Brian Pothier go last year seems like an utter waste even if he wasn’t Superman.

  13. Thaddeus Guy says:

    Funny…Most of you seem to be glossing over the fact that the biggest PoS, overhyped, lazy, out of position, soft, pathetic, pot-smoking playoff flop we’ve got is the $5.5M jackass standing next to Sarge.

    Sarge is fine. He’s not too overpriced and he’ll get better, but in my opinion, Green should be ridden out of town on the same rail we use to dump Semin and Flash.

  14. Poog says:

    Interesting rounding on the salaries re:cap hits. #55 is $2,750,000 for 4 while Volchenkov is $4,250,000 for 6. Little bigger stretch than 3 and 4 with no regard to longevity. And two-time Stanley Cup winner Larry Murphy was a curse on the Capitals too, I suppose?

  15. The Reds says:

    I am willing to take my chances with the judgment of GMGM. He has put together the best team in the league. He thinks Schultz is an effective, top-level defenseman, and there is a lot of evidence he is right. (Last year’s plus/minus for starters, not to mention the Caps overall success.) From all accounts, Volchenkov is a top defender, but his average salary is a third higher and for a longer term and he has a history of injuries, so it is hardly apples to apples. Schultz is a much better player than many Caps fans seem to realize.

  16. trekronor says:

    @ Ursus Veritas: Outscoring the opposition is not what the Caps do in the playoffs, which is the only time that matters and is point of this superb article. Our D-men scare no one. What forward do you think thinks twice before taking on Schultz? I doubt anyone. The most telling statistic for the Caps is the penalty kill percentage – which clearly shows weak defense, both from the rearguards and our forwards. I am pretty sure the Caps ranked around 27th last year on the PK in the regular season! This failure offsets a lot of the pretty regular season power play goals (many coming against the weakest teams in the league anyway). I’m paying a lot of money for my season tickets and am fed up with this organization’s failure to make even the slightest change in personnel and strategy. It’s really a joke. All I see is more of the same – home-ice in the first round (that is if Tampa doesn’t come on with a proven Cup winner like Yzerman running the show) and one and done.

  17. jsnyd says:

    The only stat for a Dman that matters is how often the puck goes in while he’s on the ice, and for Shultz, that translates to both the lowest goals against on the team for both 5v5 and 4v5 hockey.

    This “we needz moar HITTERz!!1!@!!” meme is old and tired.

    Also, as far as getting a vet dman this offseason, it wasn’t going to happen just based on the way the market went. All the contracts signed on July 1st were albatrosses.

    GMGM would have been out of his freaking mind if he picked up Volchenkov for 6 years with a no move clause (or any other of those overpriced contracts that were signed July 1st). I’d also rather have Shultz right now for 4 years at 2.75per than old, slow ass Hal Gill for 2.25; how much upside does he have?

  18. Wrong Wrong Wrong says:

    Number of goals scored by the Capitals offense in games 5, 6, and 7 of the Montreal series:

    1, 1, 1

    So clearly it was defense that cost them the series rather than, say, Ovechkin’s inability to recognize that a defense knows that he’s going to pull the exact same move every time no matter what and take it away from him, or the coaching staff’s total inability to react and adjust to another team’s game plan, or Flash and Semin’s inability to do anything at all during a playoff game.

    If you want to talk about soft players with little to no hockey sense, you need to start up front.

  19. Ari says:

    I hear you, man. I don’t disagree with you in so far as I just don’t think it matters. You’re right it’s an 82-game exhibition season, last year proved that conclusively. But lots of teams with good players failed – the Pens, for example. And no one picked the diminutive Habs to be playoff giant-killers. So Volchenkov or no (and yeah, he might have been nice), he was no magic bullet.

    The post is angry, and I get that, but after 30 years of Caps fanship, after this season, I’ve stopped being angry and have moved on to acceptance (phases of grief?). The Caps are who they are. They are great in the regular season and suck in the playoffs. No player or combination of players is going to change that. You think if an Ovechkin- and Backstrom-led team couldn’t get past the first round, a Volchenkov one would? No way.

    For me now, it’s rooting for another SE championship, a presidents’ trophy, for lots of goals I can cheer for so I get my money’s worth from my season tickets, and for some individual awards. That’s what we get from the Caps. I’ll be planning my vacation for May next year as well, not worrying about missing anything important.

  20. NHL Observer says:

    The one point being missed here is revisionist history. The team COULD have had Hal Gill last year, IF it had Cap room. It didn’t have Cap room at the end of training camp and lost Chris Bourque to waivers because they couldn’t free up $20K. Where was the $2Mil for Hal Gill gonna come from? Nylander couldn’t yet be moved. They had to wait to find a taker for Chris Clark. They couldn’t move Jose Theordore. What TWO/THREE low priced guys would you send to Hershey for the season to make room for Hal Gill’s Cap hit? Flash, Fehr and Schultz sent to Hershey would have covered Hal Gill’s cap hit. Forget about what might have been last summer, the team spent the money on Knuble (who worked out well) and Morrison (not so much). The team addressed needs at that time that they thought needed to be addressed. There wasn’t enough money left over for a stay-at-home defenseman last year. Maybe their saving up for another run at Zdeno Chara next year.

  21. MadCap2007 says:

    I am all for upgrading the D in a smart way (NTC for Volchenkov wouldn’t have been smart on that long term), but as someone else referenced, it was hardly the D which was responsible for this year’s early playoff exit. The Caps couldn’t put the puck in the net for most of Games 5 thru 7 — what was deficient was the PP/a consistent presence in front of the net on the OFFENSIVE end of the ice.

  22. Morris says:

    Amen, it’s the same message I’ve preached. If we fail to learn from our past we’re bound to repeat. The curse wil continue to live.

  23. Ral says:

    Geo and madcap are spot on. Let’s not hate on Schultz because McPhee is extra careful about FA splashes, the only one of which which has really paid out are Hossa and Campbell.

    And Willie Mitchell is still out there.

  24. GoCaps says:

    Let’s be honest folks…The Capitals were NOT the best team in hockey last year. They play in the worst division, and collect a lot of wins against bad teams. I say this not to insult them, just to make opur expectations more realistic. The Blackhawks had 2 defensemen make the gold medal winning Canadien hockey team, while Mike Green didnt get within a whiff of that team. That meant that the Hawks THIRD best defenseman was Brian Campbell. Does anyone really think we would have beaten the Hawks??? Toews and Kane don’t score the number of goals that Ovie and Backstrom and Semin do…but they are made to win in the playoffs. Even the Flyers added defensive help this off-season, even with Pronger and Timmomen. It pains me to say all of this…because I would give my left nut for the Caps to win the Cup.

  25. Muffinarm says:

    From watching Vancouver games I can only tell you that Willie Mitchell is not what you need.

    Excellent article and really summarizes some of the problems facing Washington this year. From reading the comments, I think it is important to make a distinction between hitting and playing physically. It is not really so important to have fearsome hitters in your rearguard, but it is vital to have players with a physical presence. These players help clear the crease, protect their goalie, improve the PK and can possibly put a bit of intimidation into weaker opponents. Outside of Poti, who I view as our best true defensemen, we really have nobody to accomplish this task.

    This team is all sizzle and no steak until it develops a personality that translates well to the playoffs, where the style of play so vastly changes. I frankly do not see that happening under either BB or GMGM.

  26. SethB says:

    I honestly feel dumber having read this article. The Caps were knocked out of the second season due to the inability of the coaching staff to adjust to playing a trapping team, not because of having “soft” defensemen. Furthermore, if you want to call out the worst D-man in the Habs series, that was clearly Green who was a defensive liability and contributed next to nothing on O either.

    A quality 2nd line center who is responsible in his own zone is a much higher priority for the team this year than crease clearing
    D-man.

  27. Ral says:

    If Mitchell can play in the top-4, I’m fine with that.

    Gocaps–Washington played the other five divisions at around a 110 point pace if I remember correctly (I did the math a while ago). The thing I’d be concerned about is the weak divisional schedule heading into the playoffs. Also, the expectation for the defending President’s Trophy winner should be a deep playoff run–we say the regular season means nothing, but to accumulate 121 points you do have a really good team with lots of talent (I also think we should come to terms with the fact that Jaroslav Halak was Patrick Roy-hot for one playoff series if not two this playoffs).

    Muffinarm–don’t blame GMGM. He has assembled a good team and hasn’t handcuffed the Caps either. The Pens and Hawks won way ahead of schedule, so to speak. I can’t remember a “young” team winning the championship outside of those two since…1995 maybe? (I think those were the Avs, maybe the Devils, I always get the two mixed up). As for BB, I do think he has to learn as well that he can’t outtalent teams like he could in the minors since the difference among NHL teams is a lot thinner.

  28. GoCaps says:

    RAL—I hear you…and i appreciate the Caps winning the Presidents Trophy….I respect them very much and I thoroughly enjoyed the regular season. And I know we did well against all divisions…I just think our schedule turned a great season, into a presidents trophy season. And I don’t think people can say the team with the most points is automatically the best team, since the schedule is not balanced.

    I also feel bad for the players, because I feel like the coaching staff gave them no help in trying to win the Montreal series.

    Can anyone imagine, Joel Quinville or any other top notch coach, when a series is over and done with….saying “they wanted it so bad they were holding their sticks too tight”?????

    we need a coach that can tell our guys how to get better, and tell our team how to win…not just roll the puck out, and write autobiographies after making it to the second round of the nhl playoffs.

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