Caps Contemplate Massive Off-Season
May 15, 2012 in Playoffs
Last year at this time, the Washington Capitals were contemplating what went wrong after the Tampa Bay Lightning swept them right out of the conference semifinals. They vowed to get better, be more responsible, and play a better two-way system.
Here we are a year later, and the Caps lost (again) in the conference semifinals. They played better defense, but their offense was clearly weakened. Last year, they averaged 2.56 goals per game over nine playoff games, slightly better than the 2.07 goals per game they averaged in 14 games this postseason. Additionally, they gave up 2.67 goals per game in the playoffs last year, and that number dropped to 2.14 goals per game this time around. (This, of course, was a huge drop from the 3.14 goals per game they averaged during the 2010 playoffs, but then again, they lost in the first round that year.)
The offense has looked more stagnant each year and the defense has gotten more solid. What has changed, though, is the attitude of the team (at least in public). The players all spoke about putting team before self, and players were genuinely upset when Dale Hunter decided not to return as coach.
GM George McPhee’s first major decision of the off-season is deciding who should stand behind the bench next season. And he needs to do something he hasn’t done: find a coach who has won a Stanley Cup.
Four of the five coaches McPhee has hired as GM never coached an NHL game before leading the Caps. Only Ron Wilson, his first coach, had NHL coaching experience. Otherwise, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, and Hunter all coached their first NHL game with the Caps. But that also follows the franchise’s historical trend. Over the course of the Caps’ 38 years of existence, only nine have included time with an experienced head coach – and eight of those nine years were eaten up by Wilson and Jim Schoenfeld. Otherwise, every other Caps coach was plucked from the minors (or juniors, in Hunter’s case).
But finding a new coach is only the tip of the iceberg. McPhee needs to find more players who will commit to a two-way style of play. There are clearly players who will do this that already are on the roster: Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Matt Hendricks and even Joel Ward (to some extent).
With Alex Semin pretty much bidding “do svidaniya!” to the Caps, the franchise has $6.7 million in cap space to find more players. Although they didn’t make as much, Keith Aucoin, Jeff Halpern, and Mike Knuble also could be gone.
Defensively, the two biggest question marks are Mike Green and Dennis Wideman. The former is a restricted free agent coming off a four-year, $21 million contract who has missed a significant number of games the last two seasons due to injury. His next deal will be smaller, and I imagine McPhee could give him a one-year deal to prove himself (which would bring him to unrestricted free agent status, I believe). Wideman was acquired at the trade deadline last season, and had an uneven campaign. Since he made almost $4 million this past season, he might be gone simply so the Caps can commit money elsewhere.
Uber-stud defenseman John Carlson is a restricted free agent and is in line for a huge raise and long-term extension. Dmitry Orlov is still young and learning, and probably will get more time with the Caps next season.
Some of the Caps’ positional requirements haven’t changed. They still need a second-line center and will now need a top-six forward with Semin’s departure. If Wideman leaves, they’ll need a pretty good defenseman, especially because Jeff Schultz and John Erskine aren’t reliable (and may not be tradeable).
McPhee has done pretty well in trades over the years, and the biggest prize this year is Columbus captain (and winger) Rick Nash, who does understand defensive responsibilities. If that doesn’t happen, there are a few other players out there could fit the bill. But nothing can happen until a new coach is hired, which will be McPhee’s most important acquisition this summer—and maybe over the entirety of his tenure as the Caps’ general manager.