August's last 'Bag portends a season growing near. Let's do this:
We've used this space in the past to express concern over the Caps' depth on the blueline, especially beyond the top-six (where fringe NHLers like Ryan Stanton and Taylor Chorney reside along with youngsters like Connor Carrick and Madison Bowey). Another legitimate NHL defender back there sure would be comforting, and a guy like Cody Franson certainly would fit the bill (and would carry less risk than a guy like Christian Ehrhoff, whose concussion history is troubling). Alex Ovechkin's "buddy" Ilya Nikulin would also likely fit the bill, although he's obviously a lesser known commodity.
The issue, of course, is cost. If Nikulin wants to play for $800,000 or so, by all means (and I'd still have acquiring a good third-line center as a higher priority). And if Franson wants to sign a short-term "show me" deal, that could work too. But not long ago he was looking for more than $5 million per year and term (and seemed poised to get it), so how much of a commitment would the Caps have to make? It's hard to see Franson coming in at $1.45 million, or even $3.45 million with term, so moving Dmitry Orlov probably doesn't get the team where they need to go.
As of today, the Caps have a solid top-six (assuming Brooks Orpik is healthy come October), and while a guy like Franson or Nikulin would be a great luxury to have and would improve the team, the cost might be too much to make sense. Rather than spending that $1.4 million now, the Caps may be better off banking that cap space and making a bigger splash later in the season.
Without going into agonizing detail over what happened last May, the gap wasn't much before the summer and the Caps got better. The Rangers? They swapped Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem, had Martin St. Louis retire, traded Cam Talbot, added Jarret Stoll and shuffled the front office a bit (while guys like Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle continued to age, as we all do). Are they better? Probably not. So yeah, the gap has closed some. Are the Rangers even the best team in the Metro (on paper)?
Also, for what it's worth, the Bolts are the best team in the East, and it's not close.
Eric Lindros was a near-generational talent who should be in the Hall of Fame, so it would take a miracle for Tom Wilson to be anything remotely close to that sort of talent ever, much less next year. As for Mike Knuble, when he was Wilson's age, he was still at the University of Michigan, and it wasn't until his 26-year-old season that he topped seven goals in the NHL. So there's some perspective.
But to answer the question more generally, Wilson is doing a lot of things fairly well, but he's never going to be a big playmaker (like Lindros, who finished top-10 in assists in three of his first seven seasons), so he needs to get to the net without the puck and cause some commotion when it gets there. Wilson's personal shooting percentage is just under five percent for his career right now, while Knuble's was 13.9% for his career. Why? Because you could probably lay the total distance of Knuble's 2004 career shots end-to-end and barely make it from one end of the ice to the other. Wilson, on the other hand, is taking too many shots from too far from the net... at least that's what you'd probably think. And you'd be wrong. Take a look at the even-strength shot charts for the available seasons (which includes Knuble's last four campaigns, 2009-10 among them), via Sporting Charts:
Wilson's average shot distance is actually a few inches less than Knuble's, but Knuble scored at a much, much higher rate. Better hands? Sure. Better luck? Likely. But we were curious so we ran some numbers. It turns out that over the past two seasons, 324 players have registered as many shots on goal as Wilson at five-a-side (146 by our count). Of those 324, 57 have a smaller average shot distance than Wilson's 27.5 feet. Of those 57 not one has a lower shooting percentage than Wilson's 4.1 (the Devils' Stephen Gionta is closest at 4.6 percent). And as points of reference, three Caps teammates fit the "as many shots from as close or closer" criteria - Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle - and they have shooting percentages of 9.4, 7.5 and 9.5, respectively. Heck, John Carlson and Karl Alzner both have higher shooting percentages with an average shot distance of over 51 feet.
Tom Wilson may not have great hands or finishing talent, but that 4.1 percent is absurd and almost certainly unsustainably low. I'd be willing to bet that if Wilson keeps doing what he's doing, that shooting percentage will rise dramatically in 2015-16... to a more Knuble-like number.
Is it a cop out to say "depends on the deal, but no one is untouchable"? Because that's my answer. That said, I get the impression that while the Caps will be appropriately aggressive if they see a good chance to better the team (as they did when they moved Pheonix Coply in the T.J. Oshie trade), recent deadline deals like Martin Erat or even Curtis Glencross (to say nothing of deals made around the League) probably have them a bit wary when it comes to moving assets, whether they're prospects or picks.
On the plus side, barring injury, the Caps readily identifiable roster weaknesses (third-line center, bottom-six forwards, depth defensemen) are the types that typically can be rented on the cheap. But for the sake of dreaming big, here's a list of next year's unrestricted free agents (a.k.a. potential rentals). Most of them will be re-signed well in advance of the deadline... but who would your dream acquisition(s) be (keeping in mind that the Caps would need the cap room to complete a trade)?
#JapersMailbag If Vrana gets called up sometime this year, plays great and sticks, how would you set the lines with a healthy roster?— Brian Drake (@Stimpy1962) August 25, 2015
After finishing his Swedish Hockey League season in Linkoping last April, 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana joined the Hershey Bears and made an immediate impact, tallying five assists in three regular season games before potting two goals and four helpers in ten post-season matches and seeing time on the top line with elimination looming.
But where would he fit on a healthy Caps team in 2015-16? He's a left wing, and a top-nine talent (if, as you stipulate, he "plays great"), so I'd probably want to see what these lines would look like to start:
That lineup gets Wilson off the fourth line (critically important in a critically important season for him) and provides a decent balance of youth and experience, skill and defensive awareness in each of the top-three lines (though that third line could conceivably give Barry Trotz fits). The Caps are likely to take it slow with Vrana, but if they don't, they could have a pretty stacked top-nine.
Stan Galiev is the only one of the three who has to clear waivers to be reassigned to Hershey (and he might not), so it'll be him, most likely, in a fourth-line role.
If Nick Backstrom isn't ready to go when the season starts (and it sounds like he might not be), I'd imagine the first line on opening night will find Evgeny Kuznetsov (or, conceivably, Andre Burakovsky) in the middle, and I'd further imagine that if the Caps have a late lead in that game, Trotz will put Jay Beagle out for some top line shifts in order to give the team (in his mind) the best chance to protect that lead. So I'll say around the 8-minute mark of the third period of Game 1.
T.J. Oshie did his country proud and cemented a reputation as Mr. Shootout (I don't know if anyone's ever called him that, but whatever) with his performance in Sochi against the host Russians. And it's a well-earned reputation at that - per NHL.com (whose new stat page is difficult to navigate and impossible to direct-link), Oshie has the most game-deciding shootout goals in NHL history (tied with four other dudes at 16), the 10th-most goals (31) and a stout 52.5% success rate (Alex Ovechkin, as a point of reference, is 27-for-92 in his career, with half as many game-deciding goals).
So if the Caps have an average number of shootouts (projected at one every nine games or so, so let's say nine total), and Oshie scores in just over half of those (so let's say five), maybe he's worth an extra point or two in the standings (since the guy he's bumping out of the shootout rotation probably scores on two or three of nine).
And even though you didn't ask, my top-three for the shootout (in no particular order) would be Oshie (31-for-59 career), Kuznetsov (8-for-15) and Backstrom (19-for-53).
PP1: Carlson at the point, Ovechkin-Oshie-Backstrom across the middle of the diamond and Johansson down low
PP2: Matt Niskanen, Ovechkin-Justin Williams-Burakovsky, Kuznetsov
PK1: Laich-Beagle, Orpik-Carlson
PK2: Backstrom-Chimera/Oshie, Alzner-Niskanen (but, like we've said before, this team is short on penalty-killing forwards and likely needs someone to step up or come in there)
How about Jason Chimera? No?
The Caps have bigger needs than third-line left wing. I'd hold onto my money for now and hope Laich can rebound or Chimera can play like he did in the playoffs.
Not only did they lose Troy Brouwer (56.9%), but Eric Fehr (52.0%) as well, and those two took more than 1,300 draws last year. I'd look for Beagle to take more (especially a lot of the right-dot face-offs that Brouwer took), and that's not a bad thing in and of itself - he won 56.5% of his draws last year. But it's definitely a concern, with guys like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Johansson and Laich all in the 44% range last season. Looks like a continued heavy workload for Backstrom (53.6%) and a bigger role for Beagle is likely... unless and until the Caps go out and get that true third-line center.
I don't care who it is - I'm just happy we can further erase the memory of this stiff:
All of them could, because tomorrow is never a guarantee. All we are is dust in the wind, dude. Dust. Wind. Dude.
Punish them by giving your dollars to someone else. Heck, you probably should anyway - it's an overrated style and there's much better stuff out there (that said, I do dig Dogfish Head's take on it, and bless them for holding its release until right around September 1).
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. As always, there are always a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.