Ah, vacation. Whether in Sochi, an island in the Carribean, back home or parts unknown, the Olympics are providing fans and players alike with a break from the NHL season. But one person who probably isn't taking much time away from the game is Caps general manager George McPhee.
With just 23 games remaining in the NHL's regular season, McPhee's Capitals are one point (plus tiebreakers) out of a playoff spot, having entered the Olympic break on a 5-2-1 run that followed up an ugly seven-game losing streak and 3-8-5 stretch. The Caps are only on an 87.6-point pace and have a brutal March schedule awaiting them (which includes five road games against four of the NHL's top-seven teams), but should be getting two key pieces back in the lineup soon after play resumes back on this side of the pond in Mike Green and Mikhail Grabovski.
The NHL trade freeze runs through February 23, and then it's not even ten days until the (March 5, 3:00 p.m. ET) trade deadline and a mad dash to the playoffs. The big question - should the Caps approach the deadline as buyers or sellers?
Rob: The Caps are just a point out of the playoffs, and history tells us that George McPhee (and/or Ted Leonsis) doesn't blow up teams that are close to the playoffs. He didn't do it in 2012 when he had a bevy of highly skilled players on expiring contracts. He didn't do it in 2013 when the team looked dead in the water early in the season. And, really, it's not particularly realistic to think that he might this year. We can talk about how poorly the Caps have played and what kind of points-pace they need to play on to make the postseason, but the reality is they're right there, and look at how they finished last season. You simply don't run away from the playoffs for the opportunity to move up a few draft slots (certainly when the difference in draft slots won't net you a Grade A stud, in all likelihood) and to add a couple more assets to the prospect cupboard.
With that being said, McPhee needs to make this team better if they are going to have that hot run or if they are going to do any damage if they make the playoffs. If the goal is a chance at another one-and-done season, then the Caps can stand pat. But we all know that's not the goal, and the current roster is not going to win a playoff series, given where they'd likely slot-in.
The Caps need help on the blue line. They've needed it all year. McPhee might be able to recreate the third-round pick and throwaway prospect trade that brought Dennis Wideman to D.C., but in all likelihood the Caps are going to need to move more than that to make sufficient upgrades on this roster. Last year McPhee showed he has no problem bringing in a guy with term left on his contract if he thought it was a guy that could help the team win going forward. This year, McPhee needs to take that approach again, but apply it to the defense. This team isn't a contender, short of a drastic change. Ask Buffalo what it would take to get Christian Ehrhoff, for example. Go big or go home.
JP: Go big or go home? How about go big and go home? Because that's essentially what they did last year, trading one of the very best prospects in hockey (#3 in one expert's estimation, for those of you keeping score at home) for a $4.5-million player that the head coach still hasn't figured out how to best utilize, a prospect with bottom-six upside and seven playoff games. How do you pull the trigger on a mortgage-the-future deal with that one still looming large and the team showing no real signs of being close to contending?
Obviously I agree that the roster needs to be upgraded, but I suppose I'd put myself in the "soft buy" camp. If a guy like Tom Gilbert is available for a third-round pick, go for it. Maybe there's more depth out there that can be had on the cheap. But I would be very reluctant to move any asset that projects to be an NHLer for a short-term upgrade right now, especially in the annual "seller's market" that is the trade deadline. This team is where it is more due to systems play and coaching than roster construction, and adding a piece or two won't change the underlying problems any more than chewing a stick of gum cures chronic halitosis. There are decent pieces there, for the most part - the coaching staff just needs to get more out of them.
I'd note further that being a "soft buy" wouldn't preclude me from trying to trade some of the more onerous contracts on the team (I'm not naming names, but a couple of sweater numbers in the low-20's come to mind) for cap relief and whatever else you can get. Add in that there may be jobs on the line, and this is setting up to be an interesting deadline.
Rob: Look around the league, teams that are considered contenders have multiple great-to-elite players. The Caps have, what, three? Four if we want to be generous? Tom Gilbert is a nice player, and we've advocated picking him up (and changing his stick...) in the past. But this team is more than a Tom Gilbert away. If a guy like Thomas Vanek is available, if Ehrhoff can be pried away from Buffalo, then the Caps need to inquire. Whether it's now, in the summer, or in the draft, this team needs to start collecting impact-talent.
Obviously the Erat trade is the elephant in the room, and it went south. Quickly. But it's a sunk cost and dwelling on that experience isn't going to move the team forward. McPhee can't abandon the trade market because the last one didn't work out, just as he was wise not to trade all their young talent when Semyon Varlamov fetched a more-than-fans-expected return. The team needs to be evaluated based on where they are today, and trades need to be evaluated on their own merits, not based on fears of past mishaps. The team today lacks depth in the top-six forwards and top-four defenders, despite getting another otherworldly scoring performance from Ovechkin. Don't let Ovechkin's effort and production go to waste. Bring in some help and try to make a run. We can't evaluate any hypothetical trade right now because we don't know what it would cost, but we do know you have to give something valuable to get something valuable (and that does not mean trying to ship out some less-than-favorable contracts, as nice as it would be). The Caps need to go find some valuable players to bolster the top of their forward and defensive corps. If the Erat experience has you skeptical that McPhee can pull it off, welp, then there's only one conclusion left...
JP: Alright, so as long as we're talking about going big and impact players, how about the biggest name that's been linked to the Caps - Ryan Miller - and the biggest impact players in the Caps' pipeline currently, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. The Caps' goaltending may finally be emerging from two shaky months, but it's hard to see them making the playoffs without better netminding than they've gotten since Thankgsgiving. Make it and anything can happen, especially with guys like Miller and Ovechkin taking the ice every night. If Buffalo asks about one of Kuznetsov and Burakovsky and the Caps' choice of Braden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth, what do you tell them?
Rob: I think the easy call there is to give them Neuvirth. Based on what we've seen so far and statistical probability, it's more likely that Holtby is an above-average NHL goalie than Neuvirth. Plus, if the Caps get Miller, and Miller is elite, then that would give the Caps two elite goalies since Holtby actually has a better five-on-five save percentage than Miller this year and through their respective careers prior to this campaign. Given the marginal upgrade that Miller provides (statistically) over Holtby, I don't think it makes sense to give up what it will almost-certainly cost to get Ryan Miller.
As for Kuznetsov? The guy who hasn't signed a contract, has had several significant injuries, and who by all appearances has regressed since his incredible performance in the World Junior Championships? Count me in the group of "I'll believe it when I see it." If he comes over, he'll need to learn the NHL, break some bad habits, and demonstrate that he's healthy enough to stay in the lineup before we can talk about him being an impact player. And even if he does all that, he'll need to prove to Adam Oates that he's a better fit for the top-six than, say, Brooks Laich is. I'm not counting that chick, yet. Burakovsky hasn't shown anything to distinguish himself from any other mid-First round prospect. He's played well in favorable situations (i.e. on lines with incredible talents), but he's doesn't look like he's going to be NHL-ready in the near-future (although given some recent decisions as to what the organization considers "NHL-ready" maybe I'm wrong...) and certainly not an impact player for some time yet. Make the team competitive while Ovi is still scoring at an elite pace. The team, and its fans, will regret every wasted year of Ovechkin's historic scoring.
JP: So you're up for pushing either of those chips into the pot?
Rob: Yes, exactly. Kuzya, Bura, Riley Barber, a future first-round pick - whatever it takes to bring an immediate impact player. The reality is most prospects never reach the full potential fans and teams envision when they are still prospects. We compare teenagers to some of the game's greats (Dmitry Orlov is still working on becoming the next Sergei Zubov, right?) completely overlooking (or consciously ignoring) the fact that these kids almost never live up to those lofty comparisons. If Kuzya or Bura ever live up to their potential/expectations, it won't be for a few more years. We've already seen how quickly the elite production can fade, and the team has already kicked the can too far down the road. Another kick isn't going to bring this team any closer to the ultimate goal. It's time to bring Alex Ovechkin the support he needs to win rather than continuing to pin hopes on kids that have never worn an NHL sweater.
JP: Well, I still say this isn't the hand on which to go all-in, but as far as buyers and sellers go, I think we can probably agree that you should be a buyer... of the next round.