Is The Window Half Closed Or Half Open?

With the trade deadline now less than a week away, the hot stove is really starting to heat up as media outlets turn their focus toward all things trade, SBN's NHL trade deadline page goes live, significant deals start trickling in, and CapsNation discusses what, if anything, the Capitals ought to do.

Of course the biggest concern for the Capitals is how to balance any improvement of their current roster with the loss of talented young players and/or draft picks and the subsequent weakening of future rosters, a point expounded upon quite well by D'ohboy in the comments of this Fan Post.  So are the Capitals in a position where it makes sense to simply go for broke, even if it means mortgaging a significant portion of their future?  Edward Fraser of The Hockey News thinks so:

Success can be a fickle beast. Just ask followers of the Penguins, Senators, Lightning and Ducks.

Deep playoff runs ignited by overachieving performances result in higher, and often unrealistic, salary demands from players in both starting and supporting roles.

Take the Steeltown’s Flightless Birds. After a somewhat surprise run to the Cup final last season, Pittsburgh was, among other examples, unable to re-sign key cog Ryan Malone, who wound up with $31.5 million over seven years ($4.5 million per season) in Tampa, and then overpaid impending unrestricted free agent defenseman Brooks Orpik to the tune of $22.5 million over six ($3.75 million per).

With so much cap space tied up in so few players (Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Staal, Whitney), the Pens were and are forced to fill their roster with "affordable" (a nice word for less-skilled) skaters, which has ultimately led to their current non-playoff position.

And the Capitals are destined to end up in the same sinking boat.

Uh oh.  No one wants to end up where Fraser describes the Penguins as being right now. But is that a realistic expectation for the Caps?  Here's Fraser's reasoning:

Assuming Chris Clark remains on long-term IR, Washington has approximately $29 million in cap space dedicated to just eight players (four forwards, four blueliners) heading into 2010-11. The assumption is the cap will drop following next season, but let’s be extra generous and say the ceiling only falls to $55 million, leaving the Caps $26 million to fill in the minimum 12 roster spots.

Both Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom will be restricted free agents looking for enormous raises, let’s charitably say they’ll get $6 million each, and the Capitals will need to find a No. 1 goalie, which at the low end will run you $4 million.

Add it up and you get $10 million left over for six forwards, two blueliners and a backup goalie. D’oh.

Even if Washington is able to rid itself of Michael Nylander and his near $5 million and Simeon Varlamov, with a salary just less than $1 million, establishes himself as No. 1 netminder, that still only provides $18 million for 10 players, or an average of $1.8 million each.

If you pencil in prospects John Carlson and Anton Gustafsson as roster players for 2010, it still doesn’t leave you with enough resources to fill out a lineup with quality players. Keep in mind these cap and salary projections are generous, too.

[...]

If any high-end or depth forward or blueliner becomes available, McPhee should pounce. Even if the asking price is a first round pick, a prized prospect like Karl Alzner, or a combination of the two, McPhee should lean toward the here-and-now side of the equation.

The only thing thing that immediately raises an eyebrow here is the absence of Karl Alzner's name in the 2010-11 discussion, though he is referenced as trade bait. As Capitals fans we may not like it, but this team is going to have to make some tough personnel decisions in the near future.

That fact alone does not mean the Capitals are doomed to mediocrity, however.  The key in the post lockout NHL is obviously value per dollar, rather than total value and the easiest way to get great value for the dollar is to have young, cost-controlled players (particularly guys on their entry deals) who can come up and provide help for the big club.  George McPhee and his scouting staff have done a great job of scouting and drafting recent years and the Capitals farm system has a lot of guys who stand a good chance of being, at a bare minimum, serviceable NHL players.  To further that point, let's take a look at how the Capitals 2010-2011 roster might shape up if they don't move any significant assets at the trade deadline.  First off, it's important to note a few things:

  • It is assumed Michael Nylander is bought out after the 2008-09 season.  In this case, the buyout amount would be $5,666,667 and the 2010-11 cap hit would be $1,416,667.
  • It is also assumed Chris Clark is bought out after the 2008-09 season.  The buyout amount would thus be $3,433,333 and the cap hit $858,333.
  • It is assumed Alexander Semin is traded for some combination of depth, prospects, and draft picks.  Ultimately someone's going to have to go and Semin's penchant for bad penalties, inconsistency, and durability issues, coupled with the fact the team could get a good return on him, make him a good option.

With those caveats in mind, here's how the roster could shape up for that 2010-11 season [cap hits in italics are estimates, and we've tried to err on the side of caution, rather than giving players unreasonably small contracts]:

Forwards

Alexander Ovechkin  $9,538,462
Nicklas Backstrom $6,250,000
Tomas Fleischmann $3,250,000
Eric Fehr $2,500,000
Brooks Laich $2,066,667
Matt Bradley $1,000,000
Jay Beagle $920,000
Anton Gustafsson $875,000
Boyd Gordon $850,000
David Steckel $850,000
Oskar Osala $850,000
Francois Bouchard $850,000
Chris Bourque $725,000
Andrew Gordon $675,000
Total (14) $31,200,129

That's fourteen forwards (five centers, nine wings) for $31.2 million dollars.  Of course, there are no sure things and the odds of guys like Francois Bouchard, Oskar Osala, and Anton Gustafsson not being ready are pretty high, but for the purposes of this discussion, that's okay.  The point is that, given who the Capitals have right now, they can field a competitive groups of forwards without breaking the bank.  Now we turn to...

Defensemen

Mike Green $5,250,000
Tom Poti $3,500,000
Jeff Schultz $1,950,000
Karl Alzner $1,675,000
John Erskine $1,250,000
John Carlson $875,000
Josh Godfrey $845,833
Total (7) $15,345,833

The defense corps comes in at $15.3 million. What's nice about this set of numbers is that, aside from Jeff Schultz, all these contracts are already in place and less guesswork is necessary.  Of course, to round things out we have...

Goalies

Simeon Varlamov $821,667
Michal Neuvirth $821,667
Total (2) $1,643,334

If the Capitals two young netminders can indeed be ready to be NHL regulars at the start of 2010-11, it would be a huge boost for the club when it comes to salary cap management.

In total we have twenty-three players, proportionally distributed among positions, coming in at $48,189,296.  Add in the $2,270,000 in buyout commitments and the Capitals are looking at $50,459,296 in salary cap commitments, $4,540,704 below Fraser's guesstimate of a $55 million cap.  That $4.54 million dollars is more than enough to sign decent player or two to fill out the roster in case some of the youngster don't pan out (which, realistically, is all but inevitable).  It's also more than enough to sign a quality goaltender if neither Simeon Varlamov nor Michal Neuvirth is ready (or still here), to shore up depth, or to make a big splash if the team needs it.  Or even to keep Alexander Semin under contract for one more season.

In short, unless the team makes some very bad personnel decision(s), the Caps should be competitive for the next several years. Sorry, Mr. Fraser - the window in Washington may be small, but that's because it's just now opening.

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