The Second-Line Center Rehab Project

We all know who the best UFA centers out there are, and names like Matthew Lombardi, Saku Koivu, and Olli Jokinen have been thrown around on the Rink recently.  Even if we talk RFAs, the situation remains the same: the Caps are unlikely to sign any high-end name in free agency because they will command too high a salary for them to fit within the salary cap, too many years in term, and it's super unlikely for these free agents to produce points commensurate with their salaries.

So what if the Caps do the same thing they did last summer: pick up a second line center who’s available at a bargain-basement salary and short-term, either due to injuries or unproductive seasons? They could do this on the UFA market with a player who other teams have given up on, or they could do it by trading for a player whose value is low because of a bad season.  The short-term would give the Caps an option to use that center as a bridge to a future second line center (e.g. Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson). Given these constraints, what options do the Caps have?  Who do you think would make a good rehab project (or longshot, for that matter) for the Caps?

I present a few, in no particular order, after the jump.

Pavol Demitra
  • Why it would work: While he played wing for the Canucks this past season, he has significant experience as a center.  He has put up some huge numbers in the past (he has a couple of 80 and 90 point seasons under his belt).  He would fit in with the Caps  to the extent that he’s fast and decently sized.  He’d also be a good fit on the second line with Semin, as he’s much more of a playmaker than a goal scorer. And he showed that he still had some wheels at the Olympics in Vancouver.
  • Why it wouldn’t work: He’s fragile.  He missed a large part of last season with a shoulder injury.  He’s also somewhat soft, and wouldn’t add a whole lot of grit to the second line. He’s not great defensively, and the Caps could use someone with more of a two-way conscience on their second line.  Also, his cap hit over the past couple of seasons was 4 million or so, so he could end up being a bit expensive.  Oh, and he’s 35, so even if he retires, his cap hit won’t come off the books.
  • What it would take to get him:  Given his age, injury history, and somewhat declining production, I’m guessing the Caps could pick him up for two or three years at $3.5 million or less a year, with $1.0 million of that coming in reasonably achievable performance bonuses.
  • Do the Caps want to pay that? Nuh uh.  The injuries are a turn-off. Also, he’s going to be looking for something long-term enough that he can retire at the end of it, and I get the feeling we don’t want to wait that long for a shove-off.  Plus, he’s a little soft, and we could probably use someone a little grittier on the second line.  While putting some of the salary in the form of performance bonuses would help ease the pain if he didn't work out, it's still two years, $2.5 million a year.  Plus, he seems like a pretty likely candidate to go to the Middle-Aged-European-Hockey-League KHL.

Kyle Wellwood

  • Why it would work: Lost in all of the fat jokes from Down Goes Brown is the fact that Wellwood managed to put up 45 and 42 points during his first two seasons with the Maple Leafs.  His production dropped the next season.  After that, he was picked up on the waiver wire by Vancouver, where he ended up playing third and fourth line minutes with the likes of Steve Bernier, Jannik Hansen, Rick Rypien, Tanner Glass, etc. none of whom are tremendous goal scorers.  He had a pretty good playoff run with Vancouver this year (2 goals, 5 assists in 12 games).  He has good playmaking instincts and he still sees the ice well, even if he does sometimes trend a bit towards the chunky side. He’s defensively responsible, and had the second lowest GAON/60 of any center in the NHL with more than 50 games played.  Oh, and did I mention he’s 26, a UFA, and isn’t likely to fetch a terribly high price on the open market?
  • Why it wouldn’t work:  It’d be a gamble, for sure. There’s no guarantee that he’d put up more than the 25 points he put up in Vancouver this season.  Or the 27 points he put up before that.  Or the 21 points the season before that. He’s small.  He lacks grit.  He’s not a great skater.  Oh yeah, and he’s had weight issues.
  • What it would take to get him:  No more that $2 million per year for three years.  $2.0 million for two would be a pretty significant raise over what he made last year (1.2 million cap hit).
  • Do the Caps want to pay that?  Probably not.  Wellwood is a high-risk, moderate reward signing.  I doubt that his ceiling, even when playing with two talented wingers like Semin and Laich, would be greater than 50 points.  And that’s a huge stretch.  More likely is that he puts up 30-40 points like he did in his best years in Toronto, and in no addresses the Caps’ lack of size down the middle.  He's a 3C with potential 2C upside; there's no way he could substitute in for a top line center in the case of a Backstrom injury, which makes him significantly less attractive.

Vinny Prospal

  • Why it would work: Prospal played as Marian Gaborik’s setup man as a left winger and center last year, and racked up 55 points in the process.  He can play center, he’s strong on his skates, carries the puck well, and is good with highly-skilled goal scorers (e.g., Vinny Lecavalier, the aforementioned Gaborik).   He can also be an agitating presence, which is something the Caps don’t really have on either of their scoring lines.  And, since he was bought out of a three-year contract by Tampa Bay last year, he can be expected to take a little less money.
  • Why it wouldn’t work:  The Rangers seem fairly likely to bring him back, for one.  He can take a lot of bad penalties, for two. He’s over thirty-five, for three, so any deal that he makes won’t come off the Cap if he’s buried in the minors or retires.
  • What it would take: He signed last year for one year, 1.6 million. Word is that he’s looking for a raise this year.  Perhaps two years, $3.25 million per, with some portion of that 3.25 million coming in performance bonuses?
  • Would the Caps want to do that? Maybe?  It’s an awfully high price for a shorter contact, and you could probably pay the Saku Koivu the same amount of money and get a better player (though Prospal is a little more durable than Koivu has been over the past couple of seasons).

Trade Market

Tim Connolly

  • Why it would work: There are a large number of reasons, but the big one is that he’s a true offensive talent who can turn into an assist machine when he’s playing well.  He’s been a point-per-game player in Buffalo for the past two or three seasons, and he’s been tremendously successful playing with talented wingers like Thomas Vanek.  He’s got decent speed and a good defensive conscience, and he’d likely be a good fit with someone of Alex Semin’s goal scoring talents.  He’s also a decent penalty killer.
  • Why it wouldn’t work: "Connolly Suffers Injury" is the hockey headline version of "Dog Bites Man."  And his cap hit (4.5 million for next year) is a little pricey for the Caps.
  • What it would take to get him: A prospect or two – and we’ve got a cupboard of moderately talented ones we could spare (e.g. Kyle Wilson or Francois Bouchard).
  • Do the Caps want to pay that? Again, this is a high-risk, high-reward sort of situation.  Someone of Connolly’s talent could really make the second line click offensively, but then again he could get injured after 20 games and therefore bring nothing to the table.  Probably not.

David Backes

  • Why it would work: Backes is a gritty, hardworking player who can put up 20 goals and 25 assists per year.  He’s got good speed, good hands, a nose for the net, and he can be incredibly physical.  He’s got good size and decent, though not tremendous, defensive conscience. He’s a UFA after 2011.  St. Louis has too many centers and not enough wingers, so they might want to trade for a winger, of which we have an excess.  And his cap hit – 2.5 million a year – is super reasonable.

    To a certain extent, Backes doesn't belong on here because a) Backes was St. Louis's second-leading scorer last year and b) more of a wing than a center. But his goal totals declined from 31 in 2008-2009 to 17 in 2009-2010, and his point totals decreased from 54 to 48.  However, he was also St. Louis's second-leading scorer.  With their young players coming into the lineup and demanding a greater role, Backes looks a little more expendable.
  • Why it wouldn’t work: He takes a lot of penalties – not necessarily good ones – and gets in a fair number of fights.  As such, he might not be the greatest fit for the Caps, who have their own discipline problems in the first place, and having him in the box for five minutes could really neutralize one of our scoring lines.  The Caps took the fewest fighting majors last season, and there’s some doubt as to whether a player like Backes would really fit in with that sort of team mentality.  Also, it’s unclear whether St. Louis would be willing to trade him away early in the season, as he’s definitely someone they regard as part of their future plans.  Then again, if he doesn’t have an extension lined up by deadline day, he’ll likely be out the door unless the Blues are in playoff contention.
  • What it would take:  A first-round draft pick next year, plus maybe a middle-weight to high-end forward prospect (Bouchard, Perreault, Mackan, etc.) or the rights to Tomas Fleischmann prior to his election of arbitration.  To a certain extent, this trade would make sense, in that St. Louis has way too many scoring centers (i.e., Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, Brad Boyes) who are playing on the wing, and not enough natural wingers (and yet, isn’t it odd that they play Backes at center when he’s more of a right wing?).  A solid defensive team like St. Louis would likely cover Flash’s deficiencies a little better than, say, Washington, and he would get regular top six minutes and a scoring role.  St. Louis may also need to shed salary (they’ve had a major investor pull out of the team recently) or they may need to get cap space (they have a lot of young RFAs to resign, like T. J. Oshie, Alex Steen, David Perron, Erik Johnson, etc.).  That, and Fleischmann’s rights – even if you don’t resign him – are likely worth at least a second-rounder from anyone who offer-sheets him, and a first- and third-rounder if Kevin Lowe offer-sheets him (rimshot). 

    However, St. Louis will likely be wary of trading Backes to a contender, even on an east-coast team.  Further, the Caps would have to deal Flash before he elects arbitration, as that would pretty much sink this deal, and Flash couldn't be traded after being signed out of arbitration.  That being said, St. Louis is much less likely to trade Backes unless they can’t trade Brad Boyes (who is up next!).
  • Do the Caps want to pay that? If we could swing this trade, yeah. Backes could provide a bridge to any future second-line centers at a reasonable price, and he’d likely add a whole lot of grit to a team that doesn’t have quite enough.

Brad Boyes

  • Why it would work: He’s put up good offensive numbers in St. Louis, Boston, and Toronto, but last season, he was fighting to get time as a center and ended up playing as a third-line right wing.  Even though he put up less than thirty points last year, he’s put up 70+ seasons prior to that.  He’s durable, and has played 82 games in 4 of the past
    5 seasons.  He would fit as a second-line center with some offensively skilled players (he’s played well when centering guys like Paul Kariya, T.J. Oshie, or David Perron).  And, as covered above, St. Louis has an excess of centers.
  • Why it wouldn’t work: To call his offensive production inconsistent would be an understatement.  His stat lines, going back through 2003, are as follows: 14-28-42 (2010); 33-39-72 (2008); 43-22-65 (2007); 17-29-46 (2006); 26-43-69 (2004).  He can play a little bit of a peripheral game from time to time, which would only exacerbate the problems with our second line.  He has a little too much of a sniper’s mentality to fit in with a player like Semin.  And he’s not tremendous defensively.  His cap hit is also a bit high for the Caps ($4.0 million) and for a bit too long (until 2012).
  • What it would take: See above regarding Backes, though I think you might be able to get away with a lower-round draft pick given the cap hit and the length of Boyes's contract.  Given the length of Boyes contract, however, and his potential to be a seriously productive player for St. Louis, however, they may ask for a little bit more.  Further, they may be wary of trading Boyes to a contender, even on an east-coast team.
  • Do the Caps want to pay that? Again, if we could swing the trade, yeah, it would probably be a net benefit for the Caps.  Boyes would not only give the Caps a seriously good second line center, but also yet another sniper with which opposing defenses had to contend.

Michal Handzus

  • Why it would work: Handzus is big, defensively conscious, drives hard to the net, plays well with skilled players, and knows how to win a faceoff or two.  He’s a solid asset in LA on their third line, behind Jarrett Stoll, while putting up nearly as many points.  His contract is also expiring next year, and L.A. likely won’t bring him back, as they’ve definitely got another young prospect in the cupboard to take his place.
  • Why it wouldn’t work: He’s never put up more than 45 points in a season, except for one shocking year in Philly when he put up 58, though he's usually good for 42-44 points.  Then again, he has a cap hit of $4.0 million to put up that much production.  If we don’t think he’ll put up much more, that means his cap hit is roughly 90,000 per point. Yikes.
  • What it would take: Good question.  L.A., like us, has a solid collection of young prospects, and keeps acquiring more draft picks and prospects.  They need a solid scoring winger to play with Kopitar, but they probably need someone better than Fleischmann, and trading away Semin for Handzus would be an overpayment to say the least. That being said, Fleischmann for Handzus might work in that it’d give them a solid second line winger plus some cap space to sign a certain Russian sniper.  Maybe throw in a lower-round draft pick.
  • Do the Caps want to do that?  Handzus would provide yet another option for a penalty killing forward, but his offensive production really leaves something to be desired.  And if the Caps just wanted a second line center who could kill penalties well and put up 40 points, they’d resign Eric Belanger for half the price.

Any other crazy or outlandish options that you think the Caps could land?

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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