The man expected to replace Ribeiro won’t be here until March. That’s 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps’ first-round pick three years ago. The Caps would like to have him here for training camp but he has a $3 million buyout with the team he plays for in Russia and, by rule, the Caps can’t help him pay that off. He will be in Washington as soon as his season ends in March, and McPhee believes he will give them another quality player — with some speed — up front.
But that’s not enough, and McPhee and Coach Adam Oates both know it. Kuznetsov for Ribeiro is, at best, an even swap, as is Volpatti for Hendricks. The Caps need a healthy Brooks Laich this coming season, not only because of his on-ice skills but because he is, in many ways, a captain. That’s not a knock on Alex Ovechkin, who wears the ‘C,’ but Ovechkin is never going to be a vocal leader and — even after winning his third MVP last month — remains something of a question mark, at least in terms of being a truly great player in postseason — when it matters most.
There is no doubt that he responded well to Oates as a coach and made the adjustment to right wing very well as the season wore on. But he didn’t score a goal in the last six games of the Rangers series and, if the Caps are ever to play deep into the playoffs, that simply can’t happen.
Which is why the Caps have to add a big-time scorer up front. The question is how to do that. There is no one in the free agent market — or likely to come on the market by being an amnesty cut — who McPhee and Oates are dying to get. Vincent Lecavalier might have been a possibility if he had been willing to sign a three-year contract for as much as $4 million a year. The Philadelphia Flyers signed Lecavalier for far more than that — five years, $22.5 million on Tuesday. Former Flyer Danny Briere is also available but will probably be priced too high for someone about to turn 36.
That means a summer splash is unlikely. Which means the key to the Caps’ playoff chances next spring might be Michal Neuvirth.
Yes, the backup goalie. McPhee believes Neuvirth still has huge potential. He’s still only 25 but has never been able to stay healthy enough to either be a true No. 1 or a big-time trading chip. If Neuvirth can stay healthy and play well and if Braden Holtby, who won’t be 24 until September, continues to improve, McPhee might be able to put together a pre-trade deadline package that includes one of the goalies who will bring him the big-time scorer the Caps need.
McPhee has always believed that trade deadline moves are often the best ones because sometimes a desperate team will give up too much. “Of course you have to be careful,” he said. “You don’t want to be the one who makes a move out of desperation because then you can mess things up for the short term and the long term.”
The Caps have enough good young players in their system that they could afford to give up some draft picks, a goalie and perhaps one of their young defensemen to get a true scorer. If it is the right player, that wouldn’t be a desperate move, it would be a smart one.
As McPhee says, the summer splash isn’t what matters — the length of the spring fling does.
That is reality.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.