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With Mitchell off the Market, What's the Caps' Best Move?

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With the core of their team intact, a shallow group of players available, and limited salary cap space available, no one expected the Capitals to be major players in this year's free agent market.  Nonetheless, it seemed somewhat plausible the team would try to address one of their most glaring weaknesses via the free agent market by adding a defenseman.

But, one by one, the legitimate top-four blueliners came off the market.  Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder to New Jersey.  Paul Martin  and Zbynek Michalek to Pittsburgh.  Pavel Kubina to Tampa Bay.  And, finally, last week, Willie Mitchell to Los Angeles.

For the Capitals, that means the prospect of adding a defensively responsible player who can chew up eighteen minutes a night, play in one of the top two pairings, and contribute on the penalty kill has evaporated.  It also means the club's next move is uncertain.

This much we know: there are major risks in entering the season with the depth chart as it stands.  For the moment, the team's planning to use John Erskine and Tyler Sloan as their sixth and seventh defensemen, and while each brings positives - Erskine's a tough customer and a physical presence on a team that could use some grittier play; Sloan's a good skater - neither looked ready to be an every-night player last season.  After Sloan and Erskine, the situation gets even dicier.  

Patrick McNeil and Zack Miskovic had solid seasons for Hershey last year, but neither has played in an NHL game, and each is far from a blue-chip prospect.  Sean Collins is still with the organization, but it took an emergency situation to get him to the NHL in 2008-09 and he didn't get a look with the big club last season.  In short, the instant an injury or two hit, the Capitals are going to in some serious trouble on the back end.  At the very least, some sort of insurance policy is needed.  But should the Caps be looking for more than that?

Even now, there are available free agent defensemen capable of being in the lineup on a nightly basis for a Cup contending team.  Chief among them is Mike Mottau, who has averaged more than twenty minutes for the New Jersey Devils over the last three years, including time on the penalty kill.  As In Lou We Trust notes, Mottau might come cheap - and end up being a bargain:

Last season, Mottau was put on shifts in New Jersey's end often (second largest differential behind Colin White); and played a ton of minutes, specifically an average of 22:15 per game (second behind Andy Greene), 19:19 per game at even strength (led the team).  Per Behind the Net, Mottau had a good quality of teammates at even strength (0.081), but also faced a good quality of competition (0.033, second most among defensemen).

Back in May, in comparing Paul Martin's advanced stats with his teammates, I found that Mike Mottau actually compared quite well among defensemen in the league in terms of shots against per 60 (an important area to be good at for a defenseman).  Plus, as noted in the defensive zone post earlier this month, Mottau managed an unadjusted positive Corsi (meaning, more meaningful puck possession for NJ when he was on the ice) despite not being offensive, playing next to an even-less-offensive Colin White, and having started in his own zone over 80 more times than in other team's end of the rink.  That's pretty impressive.

As Tom noted a few days ago, Lemaire utilized Mottau quite a lot on the penalty kill last season; adding to his minutes and responsibilities. Tom wasn't as bullish on Mottau's PK performances, but he wasn't stinking it up on the ice either.

Given that Mottau made all of $762,500 last season, that's getting a lot of bang for your buck.

Of course, Mottau does have his limitations - he's not a big, or physical, player, and he was probably overextended getting so many minutes in New Jersey (there's a reason Lou Lamoriello signed Volchenkov and Tallinder this offseason, even beyond Paul Martin leaving).  But there's also nothing in his skill set or numbers that should make the team anxious about sending him out for a regular shift in a postseason game.

Another option in the same vein would be Kim Johnsson, a chronically underrated player who has been a productive NHLer for more than a decade.  Johnsson offers the advantage of bringing some additional offense from the point with a solid shot and good puck-moving skills, and averaged nearly a point every other game before finding himself in an offensively conservative Minnesota Wild system.  

The biggest issue with Johnsson, who was good enough for the Chicago Blackhawks to add at last year's trading deadline, is the same combination of health and age that gave teams pause about Willie Mitchell.  Like Mitchell, Johnsson's 2009-10 season ended early as the result of a concussion and, at 34, he's old enough for teams start wondering about a decline, concussion or no concussion.  Johnsson undoubtedly carries some risk but, as is the case with Mitchell, he should be a solid contributor on a nightly basis, provided his health holds up.

Another remaining defender who might be looked to as a top-four player, is Paul Mara, who has played that role for most of his career, averaging better than 21 minutes a game during his 11-year NHL career, including seven season of better than twenty minutes a game.  The question with Mara is how much he has left in the tank.  He was never a great skater, and the post-lockout rule changes, coupled with the toll his physical style has taken on his body, mean he's not as effective as he was earlier in his career.

More realistically, Mara might be straddling the line between guys who would be regulars in the postseason and guys who, while an upgrade over Sloan and Erskine and valuable as depth players, might ideally be sitting in the press box come April.  That list includes guys like Jay McKee, who has the same skating and wear-and-tear issues as Mara, Christoph Schubert, whose consistency means he's never reached his substantial potential, and Garnet Exelby, who's a slightly better version of John Erskine.  We're not in love with any of those guys, but if history's any indication, the Caps are going to need ten (or more) blueliners throughout the course of the season.  Given that at this moment that means substantial ice time for Erskine, Sloan, and combination of McNeil, Collins, and Miskovic, a Jay McKee starts to look pretty appealing.

Of course, the fact the Capitals' defense corps is underwhelming as current constructed doesn't necessarily mean the team needs to go out and make an acquisition, especially since what really matters is who's on the team after the trade deadline. Still, making an addition or two in the summer has its advantages - more time to let players develop chemistry, a better chance to assess your needs, an opportunity to give guys like Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, and Tom Poti less ice time and ease in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, and the fact that you're not bidding against other teams in an exchange of assets.  Summer's the time to figure out what your team's weaknesses are and address them; the deadline's the time to upgrade the team if the right trade's there to be made.

Mitchell's off the market, but there are still players out there who help the Capitals by serving as an upgrade over the current personnel and by adding depth.  Right now, it makes sense to go after at least one of them.

Make the jump to see side-by-side statistics.

Mike Mottau 79 2 16 18 4 41 0 2 74 2.7 22:15 0:37 2:18
Kim Johnsson 60 7 10 17 10 30 3 1 94 7.4 22:27 2:50 2:14
Paul Mara 42 0 8 8 -16 48 0 4 30 0.0 18:43 1:39 2:10
Jay McKee 62 1 9 10 6 54 0 0 42 2.4 15:26 0:02 2:45
Christoph Schubert 47 2 5 7 -6 69 0 0 73 2.7 15:46 0:04 2:14
Garnet Exelby 51 1 3 4 -8 73 0 0 14 4.1 10:05 0:02 1:22

GAON/60 GFON/60 DIFF/60 Rating QComp QTeam 4-on-5 GAON/60 BLKS/60
Mike Mottau 2.46 2.38 -0.08 -0.46 0.033 0.081 5.62 3.6
Kim Johnsson 2.45 2.86 0.42 1.11 0.004 -0.005 7.28 3.0
Paul Mara 3.23 1.51 -1.71 -1.84 -0.078 -0.197 3.49 5.6
Jay McKee 2.78 3.09 0.31 0.13 -0.065 0.108 6.47 7.3
Christoph Schubert 3.06 2.20 -0.86 -1.29 -0.068 -0.021 7.90 3.9
Garnet Exelby 3.13 1.77 -1.36 -1.42 -0.100 0.021 5.20 -