Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Better Today Than Yesterday

Well, after sitting on the sidelines in 2009, apparently the Washington Capitals and General manager George McPhee decided that they needed to add a few more pieces to the puzzle in order to go deeper in the playoffs and possibly compete for a Stanley Cup. While many other teams stood pat, the Caps were the big "buyers" on Deadline Day. And, without question, the NHL points leaders are a better team today than they were yesterday. Best of all, they didn't do anything to really disrupt the team chemistry.

In: Tough, gritty and battle-tested winger Scott Walker from Carolina; hard-working and skilled two-way center Eric Belanger; former Cap d-man Milan Jurcina; and Joe Corvo, a potential top-four defenseman.

Out: Two second-round draft picks, a sixth- and seventh-round pick; defenseman Brian Pothier and Hershey forward Oskar Osala, a former fourth-round pick.

The big question is: Where do these guys fit, and who might be packing his bags? The good thing is that bringing in solid two-way players will send a message to some of the forwards who haven't been playing both ends of the ice. With such a large advantage in the division and conference races, bringing in some quality forwards will create competition and a sense of urgency among the players who have been here and might have become complacent.

Here are some additional thoughts:

Eric Belanger is too good to not be in the lineup. Many see him as a hair away from being a legitimate second-line center. This season he has 35 points in 60 games and ranks seventh in the NHL in faceoff percentage. Belanger is a solid two-way player. While the Caps' defense has been widely criticized of late, you have to understand that all five players need to play defense in hockey, and the Caps' forwards often have been as guilty on the defensive end as the d-men have. One player not pulling his weight creates a huge disadvantage in your own end. Puck possession and winning faceoffs are huge in the playoffs and when short-handed, so expect Belanger to see critical ice time when the team is protecting a lead and possibly to help bolster an average penalty-killing unit. Could Belanger see some second-line minutes to help that unit defensively? Maybe. Taking a look at the line combinations, we might see something like this:


This leaves Quentin Laing and Boyd Gordon as the odd-men out. The Gordon, Steckel Bradley line has been a great fourth line, but Gordon has kind of been in and out of the doghouse at times this year and struggled with some injuries. Chimera was hurt during the break, so Walker provides insurance. Not having to play Fleischmann out of place at center makes the Caps stronger up the middle and gives them four legit faceoff guys who are committed to playing both ends of the ice. Center is the most critical forward position when it comes to two-way play. While neither Belanger nor Morrison is a true second-line center, they both are high-end third centers and are interchangeable, bringing different attributes to the table.

This lineup has tremendous flexibility and can match up with any team on a nightly basis. Want to go up-tempo and stretch the ice against a slow, plodding defensive team? Plug in Chimera and Fehr. Want to batten down the hatches and go toe-to-toe with a grinding team? Plug in Walker and Chimera and sit Fehr. And, one thing the caps have been missing is another tough guy to do some of the dirty work. Walker fits that bill and will take some of the load off of the often-overmatched Matt Bradley while easing the burden on John Erskine.

Looking at the defense, you also have an abundance of styles to choose from. At the beginning you are probably going to see something like this:


The X-factors: John Carlson and Karl Alzner

Clearly, after the solid Olympic performance of Jurcina, McPhee felt that Pothier was expendable. A good locker-room guy who moves the puck fairly well, Pothier just isn't the physical presence the Caps need in the corners or in front of the net. He's much more finesse than flash, and really the team doesn't need another Tom Poti. So, to take a chance that a guy like Corvo, who has been a legit top-four d-man throughout his career and has a plus-41 rating during that span, in return for a player like Pothier makes all the sense in the world. When the Caps struggle, they often get bogged down in their own end and have trouble moving the puck, which is something at which Corvo excels. He also provides mobility and can be paired with a larger, more physical player like Jurcina or John Erskine or a more traditional stay-at-home player like Shaone Morrisonn.

That leaves Poti, also not a real physical presence, to pair with one of the other bigger, tougher defensemen. I just don't see the Caps benefiting by having Morrisonn and Poti on the ice together, and if Corvo steps up and performs, quite frankly one of those guys could at times be on the outside looking in. More likely, however, with the addition of tougher guys like Walker and Chimera in recent months, the Caps will give Erskine and Jurcina 20 games or so to prove themselves and earn a consistent spot in the lineup. And if Corvo, Erskine or Jurcina can't step up to do the job, Alzner and Carlson are not bad options. In 1998 an injury forced a young Brendan Witt into the lineup, and he was part of a memorable run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The expectation is to see a bunch of combinations during the next 10 games or so and then a settled lineup to develop chemistry over the final 10 contests heading into the playoffs.

At the end of the day, the Caps didn't give up a ton (the extra second-round pick for Corvo is a bit bothersome if he doesn't work out, but if he returns to form the deal is a steal) and have added toughness, character, defensive-mindedness and a bit of skill. Several "experts" have called them the big winners today, but in reality we won't know that for hopefully 2-1/2 months or so. If they are, we'll all be celebrating...

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