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Dainius Zubrus's Spring Break

Back in November I touted Dainius Zubrus as the Caps' Most Valuable Player to date, in part because of his exceptional play up to that point and in part because of his talent level relative to the other centers on the Caps' roster. Now here we are in February and both of those factors have changed somewhat. As the trade deadline approaches, the question has been posed as to whether the Caps should trade Zubrus, a free agent at year's end, or re-sign him to a long-term deal. My answer? A qualified "yes" - they should trade Zubrus and sign him to a long-term deal. Here's why:
  1. Let's face it - the Caps probably aren't going to make the playoffs this year. A lot of teams are (sixteen or so). The top "need" on most of those teams' lists is either another center or another defenseman. Thus the market for Zubrus is as high as it will get on the demand side, and with few options out there that aren't either risky (Peter Forsberg, Jozef Stumpel), prohibitively expensive (Mats Sundin) or old (all of the above, Bryan Smolinski), the supply is limited as well. Add in the fact that Zubrus has far better numbers than most of the rest of the centers on the market, and you've got the perfect storm for a seller - high demand, low supply and a relatively high-quality product.
  2. Zubrus is not a true number one center, despite the lip-service the team pays to asserting that he is (and don't for a second think that the team believes it when they say it). Ideally, Zubrus would center the third line next year (with a free agent signing as the number one center and Nicklas Backstrom as the number two), or be shifted back to right-wing on the top or second line. Zubrus will, of course, ask for first-line center money and years as a free agent, but certainly isn't worth it. If he demands, say, $4.5 million per year over five years, he's delusional, and the team would be better off spending that money on a true number one center (like Scott Gomez or Chris Drury). My advice? When Dainius comes in with his next offer, have him center the third line for a game or two and then see if he still thinks he's worth top-line money and not largely a product of a certain superstar winger (similarly, a trade to a playoff-bound team would have the humbling added bonus of showing Zubie exactly where he fits in on a contending team). Bottom line: it would be a shame to have such a potentially-valuable commodity and lose it for nothing in the offseason when you rightly refuse to pay him what he thinks he's worth.
  3. Zubrus is much more valuable to the Caps than his on-ice numbers indicate and more valuable to the Caps than he would be to another team. He has helped the young Russians come along and he's a good leader. He's been through the lean years and deserves to be here on the upswing. The team (which, incidentally, employs his brother as a "Senior Regional Sales Manager") should re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent this summer, even at slightly above-market price. But, again, not on first-line center terms.
  4. As the Penguins and Blues continued to rebuild last spring, they traded two impending unrestricted free agents (Mark Recchi and Doug Weight, respectively) to the Carolina Hurricanes. In the offseason, both Recchi and Weight re-signed with the teams that had traded them just months prior and brought back shiny rings and the experience of having won hockey's ultimate prize. Without question, those stories and experiences have been beneficial to their current teams (to say nothing of the down-the-road potential of the return their teams got by trading them). The Pens and Blues lost their players for a little more than a month, and gained prospects, picks and invaluable experience in return. Sounds like a good deal to me.

So let's review: if the Caps trade Zubrus now, they likely get an above-value return and perhaps a re-invigorated Dainius Zubrus, fresh off a potentially-deep playoff run for next year. If they don't trade Zubrus now, they likely get contentious contract negotiations and the very real possibility of losing a key player and getting nothing in return. Can it really be that cut-and-dried?