Our first question this week is about what the Caps have and who might have what they need:
@japersrink With the MoJo contract, Vogs said "deal involving a F wld not be a surprise." Do you agree? If so, who are good candidates?— Brouwer Rangers (@brouwerrangers) September 9, 2013
Which forward do you trade and for which defenseman? Or do you do nothing? #JapersMailbag— Xaroc (@XarocRF) September 9, 2013
It's always difficult to try to speculate on trades (though that rarely stops anyone from doing so) because we have such limited information, but given the clear need the Caps have in the second defensive pair, we can at least identify some teams that might get some phone calls from George McPhee if he wants to upgrade the defensive corps.
We started by looking at the teams that have eight or more defensemen signed to their rosters and then looked for lefties that are on one- or two-year contracts (the logic there being that the Caps wouldn't be too excited about committing long term to a player from outside the organization, and that any player on a long term deal is already in the future plans of their own team so would be harder to pry away). After looking through the rosters and identifying the players that fit our criteria, here is a list of potential options:
Not a lot of great options on that list. Coburn is my favorite, but the Flyers don't look like they need to shed salary anymore (recall that Chris Pronger will come off that cap number), and there is no way they'd move a player of his caliber inside the division. Schlemko is intriguing, as he may be an undervalued asset, but my buddy Carl from Five for Howling tells me the Coyotes want a left wing to play in the top-six, so that price may be too rich for a player that has had lots of trouble staying in the lineup (maximum 46 NHL games played in a season). Sbisa is riding on his draft stock and doesn't provide the defensive chops to play top-six competition. Willie Mitchell didn't even play last year, and Diaz is more likely to get a teammate killed than help shutdown the opposition. Hejda has long been a favorite of mine, but he has two more years left on a four year contract and nothing indicates the Avalanche may be willing to move him... just our dreams.
So that's the list, but it's only half of the equation. We'd still need to figure out what would go back in the other direction.
Circling back to the questions above, the position of greatest depth for the Caps is right wing. However, after Alex Ovechkin none of the right wings on the team are clear cut top-six players. Brouwer (who has a modified No Trade Clause), Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward all can and have played in the top-six, but they are all complements in that role, not drivers (which is fine), and none of them are head-and-shoulders above the other two. In addition to that trio of right wings, Jason Chimera could be an option, as he was rumored to be in play at last year's trade deadline.
Finally, a dark horse trade candidate, if the Caps are really sold on Brooks Laich as a center (and his health...), is Mathieu Perreault. He's unlikely to satisfy a team that needs help in the top-six, but a team could take a flyer on him and see if he can keep up his bargain-priced production in a larger sample. Each of these players has different pros and cons when it comes to a potential move (if the Caps are looking to shed salary, Brouwer and Ward make the most sense; if they're looking to simply ship a body out to make some room on the roster, the other three would likely be easier to move and, so on), and would be valued accordingly by rival general managers.
As for what those potential trade partners that we identified might want back, we can glean a few things from the rosters. The Kings have a stocked forward roster, and probably don't have much interest in what the Caps have to offer (especially on the contracts). Edmonton is loaded with young talent up front, but may want a veteran presence with a Stanley Cup (Brouwer) or a guy who can play tough defensive minutes to free up the young guys to play offense (Ward). The Canadiens love to get players from Quebec, but having just signed Danny Briere it's unlikely there'd be a spot for Perreault. They might go after one of the RWs for depth, but they don't have a ton of cap room and they have some young players that performed well last year so they most likely want to keep giving those kids ice rather than bring in veterans to challenge them.
As noted above, the Coyotes want a top-six left wing, but unless they see Perreault filling that spot there isn't a fit in terms of what the Caps have to offer. The Jets have some room in their top-nine, possibly their top-six, but they've already passed on Fehr and look to be in rebuilding mode so they'd rather give their young prospects ice time than commit dollars and term to veterans that will be gone before they are competitive. Anaheim seems to be a potential option, with Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu on their last legs they'll need to figure out how to round out their roster going forward. They do, however, have a few quality forward prospects that are ready for NHL ice, and Bruce Boudreau never seemed to love Fehr, Perreault, or Ward (and their potentially-available defenseman aren't all that great) so I don't see it happening. The Sabres are in full rebuilding mode so they won't want to take on Brouwer or Ward's money. They might be interested in Perreault because he's cheap, though.
Looking at the potential partners, what they have to offer, and what the Caps have to offer, I don't see a good fit. More to the point, I don't see anything that makes the Caps better in a trade (at least nothing that is at all likely or predictible). And even more to the point, I don't see why the Caps would trade for any of the defensemen listed above, giving up some forward depth, when a guy like Ron Hainsey is still available (and with no leverage) without having to move assets just to acquire him (other than those they might lose on waivers to create room on the roster). If the Caps signed Hainsey, they'd have to clear some space, but waiving a guy like Aaron Volpatti is easier and more palatable than moving an everyday player for a less-talented defenseman. All told, none of the (obvious) options describe above seem likely, so the Caps are probably going into the season with the roster as it currently stands... or really surprise us.
Speaking of the roster as it currently stands... next up, another question on how to potentially upgrade that second defensive pair:
@JapersRink Expand on strengths/weaknesses of the 4/5/6 D Caps. I know Orlov should be an upgrade over Erskine, but isn't Hillen as well?— ksreinke (@ksreinke) August 27, 2013
We'll focus this discussion on the left-handed D because the focus of the question is on replacing John Erskine. In that respect, it's not so much a question about the 4/5/6 D in the sense of the 4th-6th best D on the team, but more of a question about the second, third and fourth left-handed defensemen on the team. Right now Caps fans are all aware that Erskine is the incumbent on the second defensive pair, inheriting the fortune of lots of ice with John Carlson. We've had plenty to say on that matter, none of it particularly positive. With Mikhail Grabovski and Marcus Johansson now on the books, it looks increasingly likely that either Erskine will be Carlson's defensive partner again, or the replacement will have to step up from within the organization.
Jack Hillen missed half of last half-season, but Caps fans did get to see a little bit of what he can do. He's an exceptionally smooth skater with nice acceleration. He has good poise with the puck, capable of making solid first-passes, but unlike Mike Green he's not likely to lead rushes up ice or be a prolific scorer (which isn't much of a knock, as that same statement could be said about the vast majority of NHL defensemen). On the defensive end, his size makes it difficult for him to battle with the NHL players that generally play in the top-six, and he's never been known for his defensive positioning or instincts.
Despite coming out of relative anonymity (to local fans, at least), Hillen had played in 230 NHL games before joining the Caps, the vast majority of which came on a not-competitive New York Islanders game, and (like Mike Green) he's had trouble staying in the lineup. The most games he's played in one season is 69 and his average over an 82 game schedule is about 55. Part of that is because he's been pretty replaceable for most of his career (of the 188 blueliners who have played 3,000 minutes at five-on-five since Hillen entered the League, he's 176th in Corsi percentage, though again, he's been on some pretty bad teams), but he also missed half of last season after Vincent Lecavalier caught him with a vicious check below the goal line and broke his collar bone. Whether it's durability, or the fact that he wasn't even an 82-game player for the 2008-11 Islanders, it's unlikely that Hillen is the answer to the second defensive pair over anything but a short stretch.
Dmitry Orlov seems to be the fan-favorite to supplant Erskine, and that's understandable. From the day the Caps drafted him in the second round he was highly touted as a potential steal (and we recently ranked him as the fifth-best player in the organization under the age of 25). He then went on to play a major part of the 2011 Russian World Junior Championship team, with Pierre McGuire comparing him to Sergei Zubov (as only Pierre can). Orlov has a great skill set, and it's easy to envision him in a top-four defensive role someday. He's a great skater, maybe not as quick or smooth as some of the other players on the team, but very strong on his feet. Despite his short stature, he's built solidly and has absolutely no problem throwing his body around. On top of that, Orlov has a cannon of a shot, and is a good passer. He seems to have the tools for a two-way game, capable of physically handling top-six NHL forwards and also helping the top-six forwards on his own team move up the ice and score.
Of course, if that were all there were to say about Orlov there wouldn't be a question as to who was the final piece of the top-four defensive puzzle. But it's not. Orlov is not a naturally great defender, with positioning and judgment lapses at times (including some of those hits we all love). Last season Orlov suffered a concussion, and never really seemed to recover from it on the ice. He seemed tentative, and that's no way to play NHL hockey. He'll need to overcome that tentativeness and play with confidence if he'll realize his potential. It is worth noting, however, that Adam Oates got a good look at Orlov down in Hershey during the lockout and didn't seem too enamored of the player so even returning to his pre-concussion form may not be enough. And, on the topic of Hershey, it's worth mentioning that Orlov is the only one of the three D being discussed that can be sent to Hershey without having to pass through waivers.
The final lefty to discuss is the one Caps fans are most familiar with: John Erskine. As much grief as we've given Erskine, he's a veteran NHL player, having dressed in over 400 games. He'll likely hit 500 this season, and that's no small feat. However, most of Erskine's time has been spent on a third defensive pair, and that's where he truly belongs. Playing with Carlson, the ideal partner would be able to contribute to moving the puck up ice and helping the talented Caps forwards get opportunities to score. Whether it's puck carrying or passing, you just are not going to get that from Erskine. Pucks dumped into his corner are not headed for a quick breakout, and aside from the odd blast from the point, he's not going to add much when the puck is in the offensive zone. Forget about him rushing the puck through the neutral zone.
By all indications Erskine is a great teammate. He is willing to fight, but he's already racked up some concussions in his career so maybe bare knuckle punches to the face and head are not a great life plan for him. Plus, if you are going to put a player on the roster to serve as a resident enforcer, it should be a fourth line forward, not a defenseman (much less a second-pair defenseman). He's tough, physical, and I've never seen another player handle Sean Avery's antics as well as Erskine. But Avery is out of the league, and being tough and physical isn't worth much when you can't catch the players you are defending, or win a race to a loose puck. In sum, to call Erskine one-dimensional would mislead the reader by implying there is an area of his game that is particularly strong.
Taken together, today's questions highlight the biggest roster question the Caps are facing as they enter the season, namely how are they going to plug the hole at fourth defenseman? And, by all indications, that's a question that we're going to be asking for the foreseeable future.
If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. It's a long summer and there are a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.