Is Anton Volchenkov The Answer? Depends on the Question

The NHL's postseason is only in the second round, the draft doesn't get underway for seven weeks, and even that precedes free agency by a week.  Of course, none of that has stopped people from planning on behalf of the Capitals, speculating as to what the team's going to do, or flying into blind rages demanding massive turnover because heads must roll after the team's first round playoff exit. 

Amid all the discussion, one of the more popular names thrown around is Anton Volchenkov (seriously, look how often his name comes up on this very site), the 28-year-old stay-at-home defenseman who has spent his NHL career to this point with the Ottawa Senators .  But is Volchenkov the answer?  Well, that depends on the question.

Volchenkov's appeal isn't simply due to his general skill set, but the result of how his skill set fits in the with the Capitals as currently constructed.  Capable of playing big minutes against stiff competition, Volchenkov would immediately become Washington's best defensive defenseman and could serve as one half of a legitimate shutdown pairing.  His physicality would bring an element largely lacking in the current Capitals lineup that sports size, but doesn't take as much of a toll on its opponents as it could.  Volchenkov also has the ability to help the team beyond his immediate contributions by aiding in the development of prized prospects Karl Alzner and John Carlson, if not by mentoring them an player to model their defensive games after, then by at least eating up minutes and allowing the youngsters to be eased in to bigger roles.

But the area Volchenkov would seem help to help the most is the team's biggest area of need: the penalty kill.  In the 2009-10 season, Volchenkov's 4-on-5 GAON/60 was 3.89; no defenseman on the Capitals was better than 6.06.  In 2008-09 Volchenkov's 5.88 4-on-5 GAON/60 was better than all but one Capitals defenseman (Mike Green).  Factor in his shot blocking ability (Volchenkov has blocked 13.7% more shots than anyone else since the NHL began keeping the statistic in 2005-06) and the fact his presence would decrease the minutes skated by weaker penalty killers, and it's not hard to imagine the PK unit getting noticeably better just via Volchenkov's acquisition...right?

On paper, it sure seems like it.  In practice, things might not be so simple.

A significant portion of what makes Volchenkov so effective when his team is down a man is his aggressiveness; the way he puts pressure on opposing forwards, gets in passing lanes, and throws his body in front of shots.  The Capitals penalty killing system, on the other hand, is decidedly passive.  It's possible the Capitals change their system next season - and it's certainly something they should, um, consider - but if Volchenkov's stuck in a system that doesn't allow him to play the type of game that has made him successful, his impact will likely be lessened.

 

That aggressiveness presents a potential wrinkle when you're talking about even-strength play, too, according to Silver Seven blogfather PeterR, who had this to say:

Anton Volchenkov is the league's best shot-blocker, and has a great physical aspect to his game (we call him the A-Train because he packs a punch, although not in a fight... ). But to be his most effective at blocking shots and throwing big hits, he's prone to over-committing on plays and falling out of position occasionally. With Ottawa, this wasn't an issue; he was backed up by Chris Phillips, who was rarely out of position. If he's paired with a blueliner who takes chances offensively, and expected to keep things under wraps at home, he won't be nearly as effective. He'll still be blocking shots, and he'll be able to stay responsible, but he won't be the player he has been while playing alongside Phillips.

While that means the Capitals options on what to do with Volchenkov would be limited somewhat (i.e., don't play him with Mike Green), it doesn't mean he couldn't anchor a defense pairing with, say, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, or Tom Poti.  But it does raise a question as to whether Volchenkov is truly an elite defensive defenseman or whether he's a very good one benefiting from playing in a system and as part of a defense pairing that accentuates his strengths.  And the answer goes a long way towards determining what type of contract the Capitals should be comfortable with.

Make no mistake about it - Volchenkov sounds like he's going to hit the free agent market in July, and he's going to get paid.  Mike Komisarek's five-year, $22.5 million deal is likely to be the starting point of discussion and, given that Komisarek had a sub-par year before he hit the free agent market, whereas Volchenkov had an excellent season (and showcased his grit and shot-blocking prowess in the postseason) in 2009-10.  We'd expect a five year deal, give or take a year, with an annual cap hit somewhere between $4.5 and $5.3 million.

Is Volchenkov worth that to the Capitals?  Next year, he probably is.  As it stand now, the Caps have about $18 million in cap space, and 15 expected NHLers under contract.  Even if you factor Nicklas Backstrom's inevitable huge raise, and more modest increases for players like Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, and Boyd Gordon, the Capitals could have as much as seven million dollars left in cap space - more than enough to add Volchenkov, although perhaps not enough to add Volchenkov and the second-line center the team so desperately needs.

Down the road is where things get dicier.  Two years out, the Caps are committed to more than $19 million in salary for six players; once Backstrom signs that figure will be more like $26 million committed to seven players.  Three years out means guys like Alzner, Carlson, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, and Tom Poti will either have to be re-signed or replaced and, as good as people think the Capitals' farm system is, not all the new guys are going to be on cheap entry-level contracts. 

Four years down the road and beyond means current blueline core members Green, Schultz, Alzner, and Calrson will be either in the midst of or entering their prime while Volchenkov - whose game lends itself to wear and tear and whose injury history including a variety of shoulder problems and concussions (he hasn't played more than 68 games in a season in any of the past three campaigns) - will be in his early thirties.  At that point is Volchenkov a crucial asset or a luxury?  A top-pairing key piece or an oft-injured third-pairing guy whose contract prohibits the team from making the moves it needs to make to be at it's most competitive?

At the end of the day, is Anton Volchenkov a player who's going to give the Caps a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup for several seasons to come, or is he a expensive bauble paid for by a team still hurting after a devastating postseason loss? 

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