Early success earned Capitals GM George McPhee a reputation for discovering and fulfilling "reclamation projects." There's no fixed definition for the scope of that category of player, but my working definition would be: acquisitions of established NHLers once known or projected as being at least modestly gifted and who, following either significant injury or prolonged struggles, or both, are given another chance to demonstrate that they've got something left in the tank.
More so than ever in the salary cap era, when nearly every contending franchise must push its payroll near the cap ceiling to accommodate the varied needs of a would-be champion, a successful reclamation project, ideally one that entails limited financial risk, is a key component of a winning team. It's almost as important as astute drafting and trade deadline swaps.
So, we've compiled a list of McPhee's top five best reclamation projects, and top five busts. First, the busts.
5. Sergei Berezin - Left Wing
Berezin's arrival in Washington, at the 2002-03 trading deadline, and subsequent performance encapsulates all of the ways in which the "Jagr plan" went horribly wrong in D.C. He fit squarely into the same category as the offensive corps of skilled but one-dimensional forwards seemingly just past their prime, adding to the developing "country club" atmosphere in Washington.
Dealt by Chicago for the Caps' 4th round selection in the 2004 draft (defenseman R.J. Anderson, who never played in an NHL game), Berezin's acquisition otherwise cost the remainder of his season's salary. And, with the Blackhawks, he began to regain the scoring touch for which he was known in Toronto, when he potted 37 goals in the 1998-99 season. He scored a goal in each of his first three games as a Capital and looked like he could be a real playoff force. But a mysterious arm ailment dogged him in April, and he was invisible in the post-season, tallying only a single assist in the disastrous first round playoff exit versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. He never played in another NHL contest after that, instead signing with CSKA Moscow the following December.
|2002-03 (Caps only)
4. Joe Murphy - Right Wing
Murphy can lay claim to two of the most prized accomplishments of a hockey player's career: (i) being selected 1st overall in an NHL draft (Detroit, 1986) and (ii) winning a Stanley Cup (Edmonton, 1990). And he didn't get his name engraved on the chalice by accident: he scored six goals and 14 points in 22 playoff games that championship spring, on the "kid line" with Adam Graves and Martin Gelinas. In this respect, he was quite a successful reclamation project for then-Oilers GM Glen Sather, who rescued the "talented misfit" from an impatient Red Wings fan base. After reaching an offensive peak two seasons later, his career began to unravel. He played for four different teams and, in November of 1999, was suspended by Boston for insubordination.
McPhee took a chance and signed him in February of 2000, but he proved uncoachable. And uncontrollable.
In December of 2000, an injured Murphy accompanied the team to New York City for a match with the Rangers. After the game, he and some teammates went out for a team-sponsored dinner and according to court documents drank a lot of beer and vodka before moving on to a club and drinking more. At the end of the night, Murphy tried to convince a woman to get in his limo, only to get cracked across the head with a bottle by the woman’s male companion. Days later, Murphy was assigned to the team’s minor-league affiliate in Lowell, Mass.; Murphy refused to report to Lowell, was suspended by the team, and never played professional hockey again.
He even filed a workman's comp claim for injuries sustained as a result of that altercation, as long time Rink readers may recall. Read and enjoy.
1999-00 (Caps only)
3. Stephane Richer - Right Wing
Richer, who colorfully wore #44 throughout most of his 421 NHL goal career, is a legend in both Montréal and New Jersey, winning the Cup in both locales. Not so amongst the Capitals faithful. McPhee inked him in late August of 2000, looking to fill a perennial scoring hole in the lineup. He didn't make it out of camp, deciding instead to retire, and accrocher ses patins. Or did he? One year later, he signed with Pittsburgh and scored 13 goals and 25 points in 58 games, before being dealt to New Jersey for a final twirl in the Garden State.
2. Andrew Cassels - Center
Bereft of capable bodies to pivot a scoring line coming out of the lockout, particularly one to dish to rookie Alex Ovechkin, McPhee signed a Hartford Whalers legend in Cassels to a one year, $1.5 million deal. Things started out well enough for a team just looking to compete on a nightly basis, but the faster post-lockout game was a bit too much for the former 1st rounder (Montréal, 1987). He was released by January of 2006, registering only two assists in his final ten games as a Capital, and as a NHLer. Though the salary cap was far from an issue for the Caps in those days, McPhee and Cassels negotiated a full release, obviating the need for the player to report to the American league or the team to pay the remainder of his salary.
1. Jeff Friesen - Left Wing
Like the Cassels signing, Friesen was acquired by trade in September of 2005 with New Jersey (for Washington's 3rd round selection in 2006 -- Kirill Tulupov) to bring some scoring punch to a squad largely stripped of offensive skill prior to the lockout. Another winger with Devils Stanley Cup pedigree, McPhee thought Friesen had another 20-goal campaign in him. Instead, inconsistency and groin troubles limited him to 33 games, and just 7 points, in a Caps uniform through March. Perhaps worst of all, he wore (and was permitted to wear) #12.
The salary cap-strapped Devils were able to dump his salary on Washington, but McPhee managed to essentially turn a 3rd round pick into a 2nd rounder (Keith Seabrook), when he, in turn, dealt Friesen to Anaheim.
After a final, dismal 2006-07 campaign in Calgary, Friesen retired in February of 2008, at the age of 31, Cup ring on hand.
|2005-06 (Caps only)
Now, we turn the corner. And two of these five "best" are yours to enjoy on the current roster.
5. Matt Bradley - Right Wing
With his recent heroics at the Garden, it's fitting that we start with Brads. We appreciate that including Bradley in a list of "modesty gifted" skaters may be a bit of a stretch. His Legends of Hockey bio does refer to him as "an offensively gifted forward," and he tallied 33 goals and 83 points in his final junior season. So there's that.
Signed in the frenzied days of August 2005, as teams such as the Caps scrambled to ice a competitive team following a pre-lockout purge, Bradley has emerged into a fixture on the Caps' checking line, part folk hero, part timely playoff goal scorer, all buzzsaw charging down the wing. The Professor is one of those glue guys, the heart-and-soul, whatever you want to call him. He's a bridge between the collective memory of hard-working Caps teams that wore the "old school" stars and stripes and the offensively explosive squad of today. And he's inspiring a new generation of fans.
|2009-10 to date
4. Sergei Fedorov - Center
The Legend was relieved from Columbus Blue Jackets purgatory by McPhee at the March 2008 trading deadline and helped guide the franchise to its first playoff appearance in five years. He was the cultural liaison for the dynamic duo of the Alexes, credited particularly with guiding Alex Semin toward becoming a more complete player (if not instilling in him a greater conservatism and hockey sense). And Fedorov's goal alone in Game 7 of the first round series last April against the Rangers, propelling Washington to its first playoff series win in over a decade, was perhaps worth his $4 million salary for 2008-09.
2007-08 (Caps only)
3. Brian Bellows - Left Wing
Lodged in my memory forever is Steve Kolbe's warbly shout over the radio waves in overtime of Game 6 of the 1998 first round playoff series, versus Boston: "Brian Bellows caught Bryon Dafoe napping! It's a five-hole goal!" McPhee signed the former North Star great in late March of that spring, when he was toiling for the Berlin Capitals. His production had dropped precipitously since 1993-94, but McPhee's signing gave BB a second life. He played 21 games in the playoffs during that one and only magical Cup run, and tallied six goals and 13 points. Among those 6 post-season tallies was a GTG in the third period of Game 3 of the Finals, knotting the score at one, and sending the Verizon (née MCI) Center crowd into a frenzy, the volume of which this fan has heard matched, possibly, only by the roar of the home crowd watching 2008's first-round game seven against the Flyers.
That following season of 1998-99, however, was a bust for just about every player in a Caps uniform.
2. Brendan Morrison - Center
This one of our "best" is, admittedly, still a project in progress. But so far, B-Mo has exceeded most everyone's expectations. He's developing into, quite literally, a pivotal role player on the power play. And in scoring at least a point in 13 of 21 games to date, anchoring the second line, he's providing legitimate second pivot production befitting a Cup-contending club.
|2009-10 to date
1. Ulf Dahlen - Center
After striking oil with Brian Bellows, McPhee went back to the European well again, signing another former North Star standout in center Ulf Dahlen in August of 1999. Dahlen was skating for HV 71 Jonkoping in the Swedish Elite League, and hadn't played in an NHL game since the spring of 1997. Dahlen anchored a checking line with Jeff Halpern and Steve Konowalchuk, a trio that some in Caps land have declared the greatest checking unit in franchise history. While not translating into any playoff success, Dahlen dazzled fans during the 1999-00 season with his impressive ability to cycle the puck deep, and his trademark open pivot skating style around the net, en route to a 26-7-8 team record at home. And he almost never committed a bad penalty, instead drawing many himself.
So there you have it. You win some, you lose some. Interestingly, there are no defensemen on this list.
Did we miss any? Disagree on the ordering? Hit us up in the comments.