We're now almost two weeks out from the beginning of the NHL's free agency season and, as you may have heard, the Capitals haven't really done much of anything. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't change the fact the team has pretty sizable holes at center and on defense. Consequently we figured we'd take a look at what blueliners might be available, with a focus on the Vancouver Canucks, whose offseason acquisitions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard have given them eight NHL caliber defenseman - and put them right up against the salary cap.
What that means is that veteran Willie Mitchell isn't going to be brought back and a roster player is almost certain to be traded, with the most likely candidates being Kevin Bieksa and Shane O'Brien. For that reason, we've chosen to look at those three, with a bit more information on each after the jump.
#8 / Defenseman
Apr 23, 1977
Unrestricted free agent; earned $3,500,000 in 2009-10
Pros: Mitchell's a rarity in today's NHL - a legitimate shutdown blueliner. Only three of the League's defensemen - Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara, and Marc Staal - had higher quality of competition ratings and were on the ice for fewer five-on-five goals than Mitchell, and his 5.94 GAON/60 rating in 4-on-5 situations would have been the best among Capitals rearguards. Just as important is the fact that Mitchell has shown he can skate top pairing minutes, averaging between 22 and 23 minutes per game each of the last three seasons, and has the skating quality to be paired with a player like Mike Green.
Cons: Mitchell only played in 48 games in 2009-10, his season coming to an abrupt end when an Evgeni Malkin hit left Mitchell with a serious concussion. Although Mitchell says he's healthy and has been able to complete fairly strenuous workouts with any trouble, there are going to be questions until he's symptom-free on the ice in an NHL game (or at least an NHL training camp). Of course, the Caps have had some success seeing a guy beat the odds and return from concussion issues before.
Beyond the concussion issues, there are the concerns you have with just about any 33-year-old. How will his skating hold up over the next couple of years? Is he capable of playing the same minutes he has in the past? Is he more injury-prone as a result of his age? In Mitchell's case none of these factors should be a deal breaker, or even a red flag, but they're still ones that need to be taken in to consideration.
#3 / Defenseman / Vancouver Canucks
Jun 16, 1981
Cap hit of $3,750,000 in 2010-11; UFA after
Pros: Bieksa's not the defensive player Mitchell is, but he's a more well-rounded one. He brings a decent amount of offense from the point (28 goals and 119 points in 242 games since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2006), possesses a heavy slap shot, and is a solid skater. Bieksa's also a markedly physical player who led the Canucks in hits in 2009-10 and has had five fights in each of the last two seasons. And tell me the Caps couldn't use a guy who's willing to stick up for his teammates like this:
Cons: There's a reason Bieksa's fallen out of favor in Vancouver. Though he's generally a solid defensive player, he does have a tendency to make high-profile defensive errors, and he has a tendency to go too far in the physical game at inopportune moments and put his team at a disadvantage. There are some also some injury questions around Bieksa, who has only played in more than 72 games once in the last five years and has averaged 54 over the last three, although the vast majority of the time he's missed have come as the result of two separate calf lacerations, one in 2007 that caused him to miss 47 games, and one last season the resulted in him missing 27.
#55 / Defenseman / Vancouver Canucks
Aug 09, 1983
$1,600,000; UFA after
Pros: An impressive physical specimen who plays with an edge, O'Brien would seems the ideal defensive defenseman - on paper. He has size and isn't afraid to use it, isn't a bad puck-mover, has shown some offensive ability at the NHL level, and is more than willing to drop the gloves (though perhaps not as much as the Canucks would like). Despite all this, O'Brien's never been able to put it all together at the NHL level for an extended period of time. Of course, that might actually end up being a good thing for the Capitals. O'Brien will be 27 at the start of the 2010-11 season and while he's not going to become an elite player, it's possible he could still develop enough to be considered a legitimate top four defenseman, making him a potential bargain in the long term.
Cons: O'Brien comes with than his fair share of knocks. His skating's not all that great, particularly in terms of agility. Like Bieksa, he has a tendency to take bad penalties (though he did have fewer than half as half penalties minutes in 2009-10 as any of his other NHL seasons). Last season he had trouble staying within his playing weight and at one point was "exiled from the dressing room for a week and scratched from four games" after showing up to a practice late. All things considered O'Brien would be an upgrade over John Erskine and Tyler Sloan - but would he be enough of one to warrant giving up an asset to acquire him?
So, Caps fans, who would you most like to see George McPhee pick up? Vote in the poll, and be sure to let us know why in the comments section.