Welcome to the inaugural edition of "Capital Letters," where I will answer any and all questions regarding the local professional hockey team.
There might not be a better time to debut this series, considering that we have been sportless for two days and are stewing in our own juices as the heat rises over 100 degrees. Winter cannot come soon enough, so in the meantime, your questions.
This is something that I've been thinking about/discussing on a fairly consistent basis since the season ended. The Capitals'
yet-to-be-named division -- the prevailing thought seems to be that the newly-realigned division names will be unveiled with the schedule, which was expected to be released this week once the NHL officially announces its Olympic participation-- features the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets, who are finally making the move out East after spending the first 12 years of their existence in the Western Conference.
This we know:
"Division D" The Metropolitan Division will certainly pose a greater challenge to the Capitals than the Southeast Division (though they actually had better postseason success before the Southeast came into existence in 1998; in 14 Southeast seasons, Washington won seven division titles, but only three playoff series, while in the 14 years before that, it won nine playoff series and made its only appearance in the Stanley Cup Final).
The way I see it as of now, the Penguins are the class of
"Division D" the Metropolitan Division and are the presumptive favorites, while the Capitals, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders and Blue Jackets will all jockey for position somewhere in the middle. None of those teams are pushovers, which could make for a season-long logjam that does not dissipate until April.
The two teams that I am fairly confident will finish worse than the Capitals next season are the Hurricanes and Devils (now that Ilya Kovalchuk has bolted home to Russia).
Under the new playoff format, the top three teams in each division will automatically qualify, while the final two spots in each conference will be awarded to the next two highest-placed finishers, regardless of division. That being said, Washington will also have to keep an eye on the other Eastern division, which features stalwarts like Detroit and Boston as well as Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.
If you stuck it through all five paragraphs to finally reach the point, I appreciate that. To summarize, the Capitals' seventh-consecutive postseason appearance is far from guaranteed next season.
I preface this answer by saying that if you have not watched "Naked and Afraid" on Discovery Channel, I suggest that you catch at least one episode (P.S. Sundays at 10 p.m.). It is appointment television at my house...okay, modest Arlington apartment.
Anyway, Reed poses an interesting question. I think I would eliminate Mike Green first based on the fact he apparently has no books on his bookshelves (as gathered by his recent condo listing), which means that we would have nothing to read except for maybe the issue of Cosmopolitan that named him "Sexiest Hockey Player."
As for Karl Alzner, his impressive beard growth makes me feel as if though he could survive on an island for nine weeks without a care in the world and that he could take in and raise an orphaned grizzly bear, but I will go with Adam Oates because his passion for offering his players advice about the dimensions and curvatures of their sticks could provide us with the best possible spear to catch fish.
Before discussing general manager George McPhee's less-than-stellar decisions -- I made my thoughts on his managerial portfolio clear in a column I wrote in May -- let's discuss his better ones. Let's just say that locking up Karl Alzner for four years at less than $3 million per year last week was a steal, while signing Braden Holtby to a two-year, $3.7 million contract -- he will make $1.7 million next season, or around $57,000 more than what the Flyers are paying goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov NOT to play for them for the next 14 years -- was also worth a pat on the back.
Now, to those iffy contracts. Boy, do the Capitals have some of those. Brooks Laich's contract (four years left at $4.5 million per) ain't so good. Joel Ward's (two years left at $3 million per) ain't so good either. Michal Neuvirth's (two years left at $2.5 million per) is not as bad as it seems considering the Capitals will employ the NHL's youngest average goaltending tandem for only $4.35 million next season.
Hands down, the worst contract currently on the Capitals belongs to John Erskine, who signed a two-year, $3.925 million extension last season while in the midst of arguably the best season of his career. That took a turn for the worst real quick though, particularly in the postseason, when Erskine was on the ice for eight of the Rangers' 16 goals in the first round.
(Let me tell you, that Ryan Callahan third-period goal in Game 7 does not get any easier to watch over two months later.)
Erskine's position -- the left side of the Capitals' second defensive pairing -- is the team's biggest weakness entering next season (some may say "second-line center," but I trust that Laich can play that position more competently than Erskine can his). I do not believe that Erskine will become the next Jeff Schultz and spend most of his time in the press box while being ostracized by his own fans, but Washington needs a more solid defenseman to fill the role that he did last season.
There's always a chance. That being said, I feel like the chance of signing Mikhail Grabovski is pretty slim. He certainly would help bolster the second line, but McPhee is adamant that Laich can fill the void left by Mike Ribeiro, claiming that only five or six teams in the NHL have better second-line centers. Yeah...
I believe that Grabovski will simply demand more money than the Capitals can afford to spend to keep enough salary cap space open for other potential moves, like retaining Tom Wilson if he makes the team during training camp or finally acquiring Evgeny Kuznetsov's services if and when the elusive Russian arrives in the NHL.
(By the way, Adam Proteau's recent column in The Hockey News about the Capitals' questionable decision to stand pat through free agency is worth your time.)
Of course the Capitals will re-sign Marcus Johansson, their last remaining restricted free agent (contract negotations between the two sides were expected to resume this past Monday). It is now simply a matter of when and how much.
The latter has conjured up interesting conversations regarding Johansson's worth. Personally, I am of the belief that Johansson will earn somewhere between $1.5-$2 million, while more extensive research suggests that he will command at least $2 million and possibly $3 million.
I can only imagine the incredulity that Capitals fans will exude if Johansson's contract is worth that much. I'm sort of looking forward to it actually.
Well, about time for me to be hitting the old dusty trail...
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