Many thought that the Caps would be well on their way to a fifth straight Southeast Division title but that hasn't been the case. They find themselves two points out of a playoff spot and two points behind the Florida Panthers and haven't lived up to the expectations that pretty much everyone had for them. You can spend all day pointing figures at who is to blame for this but in the end, the Caps struggles are the result of injuries, nearly everyone in their forward corps under performing and some poor patience and decision making from general manager George McPhee.
Back in December of 2010, the Caps were going through a horrible losing streak which was mostly due to poor goaltending and awful luck and McPhee decided not to do anything drastic despite people calling for head coach Bruce Boudreau's head. In November of this year, the Caps went through a similar slump but this time, McPhee pulled the plug on Boudreau and replaced him with Dale Hunter. At the time, the Caps were one of the best team's in the league at controlling possession and were being dragged down by awful goaltending and special teams. Ever since Hunter took over, their goaltending has improved, their special teams has stayed relatively the same but their ability to control possession has fallen drastically. They are controlling only 49.12% of the Fenwick events (shots + missed shots) at even strength now and have been below .500 ever since Hunter took over.
Clearly, the Caps are having issues adjusting to Hunter's system, which is expected because you have a team that's geared for the playoffs being led by someone who has never coached in the NHL before. It isn't exactly a recipe for success and the Caps place in the standings is a reflection of that. They are only 17-15-4 under Hunter and have been getting outshot regularly ever since he took over, which has caused pessimism to reach a new high in DC.
Can they still make the playoffs? Absolutely. The Southeast is a three team race right now between them, Florida and Winnipeg and neither team has looked dominant so the door is still open for the Caps. What will it take for the Caps to develop some consistency, though? After the jump, I'll explain that and look at what moves McPhee might make over the next week.
McPhee hasn't made too many moves this season and the ones he did make were minor.
Traded Francois Bouchard to the Rangers for Tomas Kundratek
Bouchard wasn't developing at the rate that the Caps had hoped, so McPhee elected to trade him to the Rangers because their AHL affiliate in Hartford needed defensive depth. The Rangers have had to use quite a few call-ups this year, so getting an experienced player for the farm system is always good. Kundratek has actually played a handful of games for the Caps with protected minutes and it's probably best that he isn't playing come playoff time. Although, with Washington's luck that might happen.
Signed Joel Rechlicz to a one-year/$600k contract
Rechlicz is an enforcer and has played for five different AHL teams over his career. He's been in Hershey for the last two years on a minor-league contract, but the Caps apparently wanted to add some "toughness" into their lineup and signed him to a two-way deal. He's played three games with Washington and hasn't seen much action at all. Signing a guy to play less than two minutes a game isn't what I would call "money well spent."
Traded Danny Richmond to Avalanche for Mike Carman
Washington traded the former Carolina Hurricanes draft pick to Colorado which I guess is an attempt to help Hershey with the amount of call-ups they've needed to use this year. Carman isn't exactly an impact player at the pro level but the Caps obviously had no future plans with Richmond and saw him as expandable. Richmond has always been good at the AHL level but I guess they had enough depth in Hershey to trade him.
Traded Matt Ford to Flyers for Kevin Marshall
Marshall is a servicable AHL defenseman who can be called up to fill a 5/6 role and Washington clearly needs that, so this trade makes sense for them. However, Ford is a very productive AHL player and has put up good numbers there for the last couple of years. He has six points in seven games with the Phantoms and could play a big role there. Still, I like this trade for Washington since Marshall can at least be used at the NHL level if needed. Although, if he sees the ice then that means Washington has a plethora of injuries, which wouldn't be good.
With Nicklas Backstrom's concussion recovering coming along at a slow pace and Mike Green's health being an uncertainty, the Caps might need to make a few trades to have a cup run. The problem is that they have little to no cap space right now and might need to move a big contract or two. They have a lot of money coming off the books after this year and we could see a new crop of players come in if this year is a total bust for them and they don't make the playoffs.
Here's how they look after this year:
Top 3 Forwards: Ovechkin, Backstrom, ??? - $16,238,462
Middle 6 Forwards: Laich, Ward, Brouwer, Chimera, ???, ??? -$11,725,000
Top 4 Defensemen: Hamrlik, Poti, ???, ??? - $6,375,000
Bottom 9 Players: Johansson, Hendricks, Schultz, Erskine, Alzner, Orlov, ???, ???, ??? - $8,160,000
Goaltenders: Neuvirth, ??? - $1,150,000
$43,648,462 in 15 players (8 forwards, 6 defensemen, 1 goalie)
UFA: Semin, Knuble, Halpern, Wideman, Vokoun
RFA: Perreault, Beagle, Green, Carlson
Washington has a big decision to make on whether or not they want to keep Mike Green and Dennis Wideman around next year. They have some leverage with Green since he is only a RFA but his injury history make re-signing him a big risk. Either way, they probably want to shore up their defense corps since Tom Poti's career is likey over and Erskine has barely been used at all this year. I expect Green, Carlson, Perreault and possibly Wideman to get new deals and that's going to eat up a good chunk of cap space. Then comes the question of whether or not they will re-sign Alexander Semin and the general consensus is that he is KHL-bound after this year so there's that. The Caps also need to sign another goalie but recent history suggests they will go the cheap route for that
The Caps have some money to spend this off-season but they are going to need to approach the deadline with caution. They have a little more cap space than it appears because both Backstrom and Poti are on LTIR and no one knows if they will return this season. That frees up around $8 mil. in space. Still, I have to think another big contract will be going the other way if the Caps do make a trade.
For next year, some of those lower forward spots can be filled with younger players like Cody Eakin and Evgeney Kuznetzov but they are going to be looking for another top-six forward if Semin leaves. The question is do they go after one now or wait until the summer? You could say that Semin will be traded this deadline but finding a suitor for him and his $6.7 mil. salary will be tough.
Here's what the Caps current depth chart looks like as of right now.
Ovechkin - Johansson - Knuble
Chimera - Perreault - Semin
Hendricks - Laich - Brouwer
Ward - Halpern - Beagle
Carlson - Alzner
Orlov - Wideman
Hamrlik - Schultz
Backstrom (out indefinitely)
Poti (out for season)
The one striking need for the Caps is depth at center. Marcus Johansson has been dominated territorially against middling competition and has shown that he isn't ready to center the top line. This need becomes lessened if Backstrom returns but who knows if he will return this year? That's what makes this deadline very complicated for McPhee and the Caps. Do you place hope in Backstrom's health or make a move to get someone to take his place for the next few months? Doing that will require moving salary and possibly future assets and I don't know if McPhee will take that kind of gamble.
Other than center, the Caps also could probably use some depth at LW even though their lineup is kind of jumbled at the moment. They probably want someone better than Jason Chimera for their second line and finding someone to kill penalties could help them too. I'm not exactly sure who they can give up, though because they need to send some salary the other way to acquire almost anyone. Jeff Schultz is an interesting trade piece and so is Mike Knuble but I have to think that both of their values are at new lows.
Bottom line is that I can't see Washington being sellers this deadline and McPhee will look to strengthen his team for a playoff run because he's been a "win now" kind of guy for the past few years. His hands are tied by the salary cap but McPhee has never been one to just sit back on deadline day so I think a few moves are coming.
The Caps aren't exactly heading in the right direction this season but the window of opportunity for them to be contenders should be open for awhile even when some of their core leaves. I can't say that I am do confident in their chances this year, though but whatever McPhee does at the deadline could have a significant impact....that's if he does anything.