One Fan's Plan: How the Capitals Can Be More Like the Blackhawks and Bruins

Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

How close are the Caps to the top teams in the League? Closer - and further away - than you might think.

[Ed. note: The following guest post comes to us via our good buddy D'ohboy. The opinions expressed herein are his... unless you really like them, then they're totally ours. Take it away, D'oh...]

The recently concluded Stanley Cup finals offered an excellent glimpse of two elite hockey teams playing at the top of their game. Fans of teams other than the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, aside from marveling at the outstanding display of skill, got to observe two great teams, which leads to inevitable comparisons to their own teams. In the case of Washington Capitals fans, they wonder how close the Caps are to the level of elite play we just witnessed. After watching the Cup finals, I think, "both closer and further away than I previously thought."

This post analyzes the Cup finals, with an eye toward the implications of that analysis for how the Capitals ought to restructure the roster during the upcoming offseason.

Before beginning, I wouldn't expect any team to play at the level we just witnessed over the long run. By the time teams reach the Cup finals, they've been playing together for much, much longer than teams that miss out or get dropped in the first round. Their passes are crisper, their systems play is more exacting, their positioning is better, etc. etc. There's a reason the finalists made it that far, but they've also had more time to gel.

Next, I'd like to point out that I leave goaltending out of this analysis. It's not that I think it's irrelevant or unimportant. Quite the opposite - to win the Stanley Cup, a team has to get elite-level goaltending. It's a sine qua non of success. Therefore the following analysis treats elite goaltending as an assumption, sort of like the gravitational constant.

With that being said, the biggest difference between the Blackhawks and Bruins (and you can include the Los Angeles Kings here, too) and the Caps is defensive depth. Boston wasn't quite as deep as Chicago on defense, and ultimately I think that's what decided this series. Boston leaned too heavily, and for too long on both Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg; Chara played nearly 30 mins a night, and Seidenberg played 26. For contrast, Duncan Keith played 27:40 while Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook both played around 23:00 per night. Toward the end of this series, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Bryan Bickell heavily tilted the ice against the Chara/Seidenberg pairing, and the Bs gave up tons of goals with their "stud" defensemen on the ice. I'd wager a lot of that had to do with fatigue. Chara just looked exhausted from Game 4 on, and so did Seidenberg, whereas Keith, Hjalmarsson, and Seabrook all looked relatively fresh.

To put this in the context of the Caps, the #6/7 D on Chicago (Nick Leddy, Sheldon Brookbank), Boston (Adam McQuaid, Wade Redden, Dougie Hamilton), or LAK (Matt Greene, Alec Martinez) would likely be the #4 defenseman on the Caps. John Erskine and Steven Oleksy wouldn't even sniff the depth chart of either of those teams. Jack Hillen is somewhat analogous to Leddy, Torey Krug, or Martinez--a smaller, speedier offensive specialist--so he might make it as a #6 D, but that leaves two gaping holes in the depth chart. To make matters worse, Mike Green (the Caps' clear #1) simply can't handle prolonged stretches of playing more than 25:00 per game without wearing down or becoming injured. This means that the Boston strategy of putting their #1 and #2 (Chara and Seidenberg) out for nearly half the game isn't available to the Caps, which only exacerbates the Caps' lack of depth. Moreover, Karl Alzner is a steady defensive defenseman, but his defense isn't (yet) good enough to offset his complete and total lack of offense. John Carlson has shown flashes of brilliance (the 2012 playoffs most recently) combined with stretches of mediocre play (the 2011-2012 regular season).

If the Caps are going to contend, they'll need Green to stay healthy, Alzner to improve, and Carlson to play like he did in the 2012 playoffs. . . but they'll also need a massive upgrade at #4D. The other day, JP and Rob argued over #4D vs. #2C; watching this series made it clear that #4D is a much, much more important upgrade. And that'd not just because of the defensive depth of Chicago and Boston.

Chicago won the Cup with an underwhelming offensive performance from Jonathan Toews (#1C) and with Michal Handzus as their #2C. This is not to say that depth at center is unnecessary, since three out of the four semifinalists had very good center depth (the Kings had Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter; Boston had David Krejci, and Patrice Bergeron; and Pittsburgh had Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Brandon Sutter). But it demonstrated that a team with decent center depth can compete. . . provided they get excellent play out of their defense and their wings, which the 'Hawks did. Kane, Patrick Sharp, Bickell, and Marian Hossa were the 'Hawks leading scorers.

Roster-wise, I think this means that the Caps are both closer to (at center) and farther away from (at defense) a Cup-winning roster. As much as I'd like to see the Caps have two solid centers, filing the #2C hole may be too expensive, and the Caps simply don't have any cap flexibility with $23m tied up in just three players (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green). By contrast, the 'Hawks have $18m tied up in their top-3 (Kane, Toews, and Sharp), while the Bs have slightly less than $18m in theirs (Chara, Milan Lucic, and Tyler Seguin). If Michal Handzus can be the #2C on a Cup-winning team, I think Brooks Laich could do it, too, provided the Caps improve their defensive depth and get superior play out of their wings.

As far as wings go, however, I'm not sure Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer match up with Kane, Bickell, Sharp, and Hossa, or Jaromir Jagr, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton. Ovechkin is, at least statistically in terms of goal-scoring, head and shoulders above the rest, but after that there's a sharp drop on the Caps' depth chart. And while Ovechkin may be the best pure goal-scorer among the aforementioned forwards, Patrick Kane is the better playmaker, and both Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are better two-way players. Erat is a solid two-way player (in the mold of Hossa and Sharp), but in his career with the Nashville Predators, he has never scored like they are capable of. Brouwer is a big body who can score, but he doesn't have the goal-scoring track record of Horton or Jagr, nor the physicality of Bickell or Lucic. Out of all twelve of these players, Johansson sticks out like a sore thumb. He has good wheels and he puts up decent boxcar statistics when he plays on the top line, but it's difficult to imagine him beating a single player from either the Blackhawks' or the Bruins' roster in a one-on-one physical battle.

The depth forwards on both teams also highlighted the flaws in the Caps' current roster. The Caps' third line of Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, and Joel Ward or Eric Fehr matches up well with Chicago's third line of Brandon Saad, David Bolland, and Andrew Shaw, but I think Boston's Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, and Tyler Seguin line is superior. Once you reach the 4th lines, however, the Caps' weakness really shows. The line of Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, and Aaron Volpatti is significantly inferior to Viktor Stalberg, Marcus Kruger, and Michael Frolik, and equally worse than Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton, and Gregory Campbell. If Ward or Chimera dips down to the 4th line, that disparity is decreased, but it doesn't disappear.

This Stanley Cup Playoffs, like those that have preceded it since the 2005 lockout, rewarded teams with depth. Chicago seems slightly anomalous among recent Cup-winners, given that their roster was relatively weak down the middle, but they compensated with outstanding two-way play from their wings and a defensive corps that was solid one through five (Leddy was a bit of a weak link). Boston was likewise deep, although their depth was greater at center and weaker on defense. Broadening away from the Cup finalists, the teams that advanced past the first round tended to be the teams with greater depth than their opponent: Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Detroit, and New York all demonstrated greater depth than their first-round opponents (Ottawa seems like a bit of an anomaly in this regard).

This leaves the Caps and their general manager George McPhee in a bit of a conundrum. The Caps' roster is extremely top-heavy, with approximately $23m, or 36-percent of the salary cap devoted to three players. As good as those three players might be, these playoffs--and particularly the Boston-Pittsburgh series--showed that great defensive efforts can shut down or at least minimize the impact of a few outstanding players. Great, Cup-winning teams have enough depth to weather scoring droughts from their top players. Unfortunately, that sort of depth is difficult to acquire when well over one-third of the team's salary cap is taken up by three players, and when great free agents at key positions (center, defense) command top dollar on the free agent market.

The Caps roster structure therefore leaves McPhee with precious little room for error if he wishes to assemble a deep squad with "only" $41.3m to spread around between 20 players. This is why seemingly "minor" contracts like the John Erskine extension can have major impacts. This is also why "great" teams like the Blackhawks in 2010 and 2013 have relied on contributions from younger players on entry-level contracts or their first restricted free agent contracts. Building Cup-winning depth is nearly impossible without the high performance-to-cost ratio of younger players.

Unfortunately for Caps fans, the Erskine extension is by now a sunk cost, and there are precious few young players in the development pipeline that appear able to fill important roles as early as next year. Tom Wilson and Michael Latta could inject some youth into the lineup, but since Wilson was a first-round pick, his salary would actually be an increase over the Caps' current fourth-line players, and Latta would not be much cheaper than Jay Beagle. Dmitry Orlov would save the Caps $1m over John Erskine, but he's more expensive than either Jack Hillen or Steven Oleksy, and the same applies to both Cameron Schilling and Nate Schmidt.

This means that the Caps have no "easy" means of assembling the sort of deep roster needed to succeed in the playoffs. Per CapGeek.com, the Caps have 20 players under contract for next year and $5,658,483 in cap space. Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson are both due raises as restricted free agents. Even with optimistic projections for their salaries, the Caps will have little cap room to add depth. Take a look:

CAPGEEK.COM USER GENERATED ROSTER
FORWARDS
Marcus Johansson ($1.500m) / Nicklas Backstrom ($6.700m) / Alex Ovechkin ($9.538m)
Martin Erat ($4.500m) / Brooks Laich ($4.500m) / Troy Brouwer ($3.667m)
Jason Chimera ($1.750m) / Mathieu Perreault ($1.050m) / Eric Fehr ($1.500m)
Michael Latta ($0.786m) / Jay Beagle ($0.900m) / Joel Ward ($3.000m)
Aaron Volpatti ($0.575m) / Garrett Mitchell ($0.588m)
DEFENSEMEN
Karl Alzner ($3.000m) / Mike Green ($6.083m)
John Erskine ($1.963m) / John Carlson ($3.967m)
Jack Hillen ($0.700m) / Steven Oleksy ($0.542m)
Jeff Schultz ($2.750m)
GOALTENDERS
Michal Neuvirth ($2.500m)
Braden Holtby ($1.850m)
------
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled with the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $63,907,628; BONUSES: $195,000
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): $587,372

That roster is essentially unchanged from this year, although it assumes that the Caps do not re-sign either Mike Ribeiro or Matt Hendricks. Even still, the Caps are left with well under $1m in cap space. This roster assumes that Karl Alzner gets $3m per year (with the Caps buying out 2-3 UFA years), and that Marcus Johansson sees a raise to $1.5m per year. McPhee then fills out the remainder of the roster with young AHL players like Michael Latta and Garrett Mitchell. This roster is likely a pretty large downgrade over the current team, and it leaves absolutely no cap room for improvement.

Looking at the current roster, it's clear Jeff Schultz doesn't fit into the team's plans. Jeff and his agent acknowledged as much when they requested a trade. Assuming the trade brings back no salary, that gives the Caps $2.75m more in cap room, leaving them with $3.34M, but they'll need to acquire another defenseman.

Based on the foregoing analysis of the Cup finals and the Caps' roster, let's assume that McPhee does the logical thing and seeks to acquire a #4D to push Erskine down the depth chart. With $3.34 m in cap space, he might be able to acquire a decent #3 or 4D. According to the excellent work done by timmyv38, the average #3D makes about $2.85m, while the average #4D makes about $2.5m. Mind you, that's only for an "average" player; to make it deep in the playoffs, the Caps will likely need better than average. Furthermore, that average includes players on cheap entry-level contracts. At the same time, this list of potential UFA defensemen isn't exactly rife with talent. And remember, given Adam Oates' predilection for matching lefty-righty, the defenseman in question must be a lefty. Andrew Ference seems to fit the bill as a left-handed #4D, and perhaps he'd be available for around $3m, but it's not clear that a 34-year old defenseman will contribute more than Dmitry Orlov over the life of his contract. In essence, the Caps would be hard against the salary cap and the roster would be little improved over the team that lost to the Rangers in seven games:

CAPGEEK.COM USER GENERATED ROSTER
FORWARDS
Marcus Johansson ($1.500m) / Nicklas Backstrom ($6.700m) / Alex Ovechkin ($9.538m)
Martin Erat ($4.500m) / Brooks Laich ($4.500m) / Troy Brouwer ($3.667m)
Jason Chimera ($1.750m) / Mathieu Perreault ($1.050m) / Eric Fehr ($1.500m)
Michael Latta ($0.786m) / Jay Beagle ($0.900m) / Joel Ward ($3.000m)
Aaron Volpatti ($0.575m) / Garrett Mitchell ($0.588m)
DEFENSEMEN
Karl Alzner ($3.000m) / Mike Green ($6.083m)
Andrew Ference ($3.000m) / John Carlson ($3.967m)
Jack Hillen ($0.700m) / Steven Oleksy ($0.542m)
John Erskine ($1.963m) /
GOALTENDERS
Michal Neuvirth ($2.500m)
Braden Holtby ($1.850m)
OTHER
Buyout: Jeff Schultz ($0.000m)
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CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled with the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $64,157,628; BONUSES: $195,000
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): $337,372

If McPhee wants to significantly upgrade the Caps' roster (and he should), he'll need to get creative, and he'll likely need to shed some more salary. Though some in the local commentariat have suggested that the Caps might use an "amnesty" buyout on Martin Erat (and therefore save $4.5m in cap savings), one has to imagine that he's relatively untouchable less than three months after the Caps traded their #2 prospect for him. Others have suggested that McPhee might want to use a buyout on Jason Chimera. Problematically, however, Chimera makes only $1.75m next year, and his absence would leave a gaping hole down the team's left side after Johansson and Erat.

Instead, the Caps should look to move Joel Ward. This is a very difficult call, as Ward has become a fan favorite and is undoubtedly a positive contributor to the team. Unfortunately, Ward also makes $3m/year and is a borderline 4th-liner at a position of relative depth (Ovechkin, Brouwer, Fehr, and Wilson). $3m depth players are a luxury the Caps can ill afford with such a top-heavy roster. Additionally, McPhee should seek to trade the rights to Marcus Johansson, or attempt a "sign and trade" deal. Johansson turned his season (and his career) around after being placed on a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, leading some to view him as a long-term part of the roster. Johansson's play improved, but he's still an extremely soft player that disappears during the playoffs. While he's young and cheap, he's also a long-term weakness at the top of the roster come playoff time. The Caps should cash in on Johansson now, as his late-season surge will likely convince some other team's general manager that he's a valuable player. McPhee should--of course--attempt to trade John Erskine, but that's extremely unlikely, so we'll assume that the Caps are stuck with him.

Trading (or buying out) Ward and moving Johansson saves the Caps $4.5m (assuming no salary comes back and Johansson gets $1.5m on his RFA contract). Assuming that the Caps also buy out or trade Schultz, and do not acquire Ference, that leaves the Caps with $7.84m in cap space and three roster spots to fill: two forward spots and a defenseman. How could McPhee spend $7.84m on the free agent market to improve the Caps' chances of winning a Cup? (I'd go through potential trades for Ward, Johansson, and Schultz, but this is already a long Fanpost, and the potential permutations are endless.)

  1. Sign Toni Lydman for two years at $2.25m/year. The flashier move might be to go for Rob Scuderi, Michal Rozsival, or Andrew Ference with their recent Cup experience, but Lydman is likely just as good, and he's going to be much less expensive on account of having had two poor years' worth of boxcar stats. His advanced stats are solid, however, and he's a solid penalty killer. Of course, he's also left-handed.
  2. Sign Ryane Clowe for three years at $4m/year. It's possible that Clowe will get more than this, but after his disastrous 2013, he might be available for a bargain. Despite his down year, Clowe has been a positive possession player for the last several years. At 6' 2" and 225lbs, he'd bring some much-needed size and physicality to the Caps' roster; he'd be like a younger, better version of 2010 Mike Knuble. The Caps should be willing to go as high as $4.5m/year for Clowe.
  3. Sign Boyd Gordon for two years at $1.25m/year. The Caps have missed Gordo since he left, and he's exactly the kind of cerebral, detail-oriented player that should thrive under Adam Oates. He would instantly upgrade the Caps' penalty kill, as well as the fourth line.
CAPGEEK.COM USER GENERATED ROSTER
FORWARDS
Ryane Clowe ($4.000m) / Nicklas Backstrom ($6.700m) / Alex Ovechkin ($9.538m)
Martin Erat ($4.500m) / Brooks Laich ($4.500m) / Troy Brouwer ($3.667m)
Jason Chimera ($1.750m) / Mathieu Perreault ($1.050m) / Eric Fehr ($1.500m)
Aaron Volpatti ($0.575m) / Boyd Gordon ($1.250m) / Michael Latta ($0.786m)
Garrett Mitchell ($0.588m) / Jay Beagle ($0.900m) /
DEFENSEMEN
Mike Green ($6.083m) / John Carlson ($3.967m)
Toni Lydman ($2.250m) / John Erskine ($1.963m)
Jack Hillen ($0.700m) / Steven Oleksy ($0.542m)
Karl Alzner ($3.000m) /
GOALTENDERS
Michal Neuvirth ($2.500m)
Braden Holtby ($1.850m)
------
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled with the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $64,157,628; BONUSES: $195,000
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): $337,372

This roster would be a significant upgrade over the 2012-2013 edition of the Washington Capitals. The additions of Lydman and Gordon would improve the Caps' atrocious penalty kill while bolstering two areas of glaring weakness in the current roster: defensive depth and center depth. The addition of Clowe would have several benefits. First, it would make the Caps infinitely more difficult to play against, and particularly in the playoffs. The semifinalists in this year's playoffs all had players like Ryane Clowe on their teams--big, physical forwards that play with an edge. More importantly though, it would take some pressure off of Alex Ovechkin to be the physical presence on a nightly basis. Over time, that should allow Ovechkin to save his energy for when it matters. Here, via Hockey Abstract, is a 2013 Usage Chart for some of the key players mentioned above:

Usage_medium

The downside of this roster is four-fold:

  1. Even with the addition of Lydman, the bottom defensive pairing would still be pretty weak. Hillen, Oleksy, and Erskine are fringe NHL players best suited to being #7 defensemen.
  2. Between Clowe and Erat, the Caps would have two left wings that tend to get injured. Add in Eric Fehr on the right side, and Boyd Gordon as the #4C, and suddenly this could be a fragile roster. The loss of Ward will put additional pressure on Fehr to hold up as a #3RW, because once he goes down, there's not much behind him. On the other hand, it's not as though Johansson and Ward were the pictures of health this year.
  3. The Caps are still relying on Brooks Laich as a #2C, which will put even more pressure on players like Erat and Brouwer. The loss of Johansson removes another potential option at center, which would mean that another injury to Laich would force Perreault into the #2C slot, Gordon into the #3C, and Latta or Beagle into the #4C slot.
  4. There is almost no room to make any other moves. This is likely a single-year constraint, as the salary cap is likely to increase in 2014-2015, but for at least one year, the Caps would be unable to make any significant moves without shedding salary.

Despite these downsides, I believe the Caps desperately need this sort of "re-tooling" if they hope to compete in the reconstituted Patrick Division, let alone compete for the Stanley Cup.

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