What a whirlwind past few days it’s been for the Washington Capitals. George McPhee and company have made a splash into free agency that would even make Vinny Cerrato proud. The additions to the Caps may not have improved their regular season potential — they are still going to be roughly a 110-point team — but, they are, without a doubt, a grittier bunch that will be harder to play against come playoff time. So without further ado, let me write about what I liked, didn’t like and a few questions to think about.
What I Like:
Signing Tomas Vokoun, one of the best and most underrated goaltenders in the world, for $1.5M is an absolute steal. The Caps have a bonafide, clear-cut number one starter in net, a talent who can provide a consistent level of goaltending the franchise hasn’t seen since Olie Kolzig’s run in the late 90’s/early 2000s.
— If the first-round pick received for trading away Semyon Varlamov turns out to be a top-10 pick, the trade was truly a heist in the Caps favor. If it turns out to be a mid-first rounder, it was still a good trade, but not outright theft as some publications have implied. Varlamov has the potential to be a consistent top-10 goalie, provided he’s healthy. If he gives the Avs six-to-eight seasons of 50 games each, they won’t miss that first rounder much.
— I love the Jeff Halpern signing. The Caps bring back a friendly face, one who was (and still is) a crowd favorite, and the first local product to play in the NHL. On the ice, he can fill the hole left by the now-departed Boyd Gordon, taking face-offs and being a solid checking forward. More importantly, he fills a leadership role. Halpern previously wore the “C” for the Caps, was a vocal player in his tenure here and has an excellent work ethic. But as much as it’s his job to keep opposing players from scoring, the other role he has is to help change the culture and mindset of the team. Whether he can get his message across will remain to be seen, but he’s an upgrade over Gordon in that regard. Great signing!
— I also like the Joel Ward signing. The much maligned Bottom Six just got tougher to play against. Replacing Marco Sturm, Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley with a Halpern, Ward and Troy Brouwer, makes the Caps tougher, more sandpapery and more offensive. That last adjective is important. I thought too much blame was placed on the Caps’ third and fourth lines following this past playoffs. Yes, they absolutely didn’t match Tampa’s Bottom Six output, but for years their job was to simply keep the opponents off the scoreboard, not score. Guys like Bradley and Gordon were the epitome of that sort of skill. Halfway through the 2010-11 season the Caps moved to a defensive system, the Top Six stopped scoring as much and the Bottom Six all of a sudden was expected to shoulder a larger offensive burden. They couldn’t because they didn’t have that skill set. The Caps definitely needed to upgrade personnel there, but the blame for what happened in the playoffs doesn’t remotely rest at the skates of Gordon, Bradley, Sturm or Matt Hendricks. That said, the new Bottom Six is much better configured to do what the Caps need them to do: play defense, play physical, but also chip in with goals.
What I Didn’t Like:
— Although I certainly understand the decision, I’ll miss Matt Bradley. The guy bled for this team. Literally. Standing ovation first time he steps onto the ice in a Panther uniform.
— I’m not all that fired up about the Roman Hamrlik signing. It’s by no means a bad signing, but it’s not a slam dunk. Sure, Hamrlik’s good, but he’s aging (37) and he’s not the best defender in the defensive zone. I know McPhee covets puck-moving defensemen who can play solid in all three zones, and he now has four that can do that (Hamrlik, Mike Green, Dennis Wideman and John Carlson). But I do see a lack of defensive shut-down studs on the team. Alzner fits the bill and the 2009-10 version of Jeff Schultz does, but is that enough? We’ll see.
— The second-line center issue was still not addressed. I remain unconvinced that Brooks Laich is the Caps 2C of the future and, just like last year, I do not feel Marcus Johansson is going to be ready for that role in the playoffs in only his second year in the League. Unless McPhee has a few more surprises for us, it looks like McPhee will gamble that a Johansson/Laich duo can handle the 2C chore. It’s a roll of the dice. And I think the Caps ability to win a Cup hinges on it.
Some Things to Ponder:
By singing Vokoun to a one-year deal, are the Caps basically telling Neuvirth that ‘you are not the one’ and that the Vokoun signing is a one year bridge to get to the Braden Holtby era? Or was Vokoun at $1.5M simply a gift falling into McPhee’s lap that he couldn’t turn down? McPhee has said all the right things in the press about it, but it does make you wonder.
Is Tom Poti’s career over? The Hamrlik signing signals that it just may be.
Should Jeff Halpern automatically inherit a “A” on his jersey due to his previous role on the team and what he means to the locals?
How will the Caps get under the cap, considering they haven’t signed Alzner and Brouwer yet?
Ultimately, the question that’s on everyone’s mind is whether this team can win a Stanley Cup. The answer is that it’s way too early to make that decision. We don’t know how the team will gel with all of the new faces, who will depart to get the team under the cap, how they’ll respond to Bruce this year, whether the Young Guns will finally gain the mental toughness to compete in the playoffs, or how the second-line center situation will play out. The talent is no doubt there, it’s just a question of whether it’s the right mix.
Lots of questions, few answers, but definitely an intriguing off-season up to this point.