Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NHL Trade Deadline Approaches

With the NHL trade deadline (February 26th) less than a week ago and the league's general managers meeting in Florida, trade speculation is ramping up around the league and will probably only grow more rampant now that armchair GMs won't have the fun of guessing what team Peter Forsberg is coming back to (the answer: none). For Capitals fans it's nice to a buyer, rather than a seller, for the first time in five years. So then, Caps fans, let's take a look at what the Capitals might look to do at the deadline.

Acquire a top six forward

This is probably the most obvious need the Capitals have right now, and has been ever since it was announced Michael Nylander would miss the remainder of this season with shoulder surgery. The top six caliber forwards the Capitals do have are solid: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov, Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann (as a number six forward and provided he continues to play as he has of late). However, Backstrom is the lone natural center, both Semin and Fleischmann have been inconsistent this year, and the group as a whole doesn't have as much grit or defensive acumen as a coach or general manager would want. It's not essential for the Capitals to get a center, since Kozlov can play the position, but it would be ideal. It's also not impossible that Eric Fehr or Matt Pettinger could step up their play and solidify the top two lines for the rest of this season.

The Capitals also have to take Chris Clark's condition into consideration. If he's able to come back, the winger has exactly what the Caps are looking for: grit, hustle, defensive play, leadership and the ability to chip in on offense. If Clark can successfully come back from his groin injury this season, the Capitals would get a boost similar to making a deadline deal, only without having to give up anything. Other options include Darcy Tucker, Martin Lapointe and Michael Ryder. Olli Jokinen and Patrick Marleau are the cream of the crop, but the Capitals won't want to pay the price necessary to get either of them.

Prediction: I think the Caps will stand pat with their forwards for several reasons: they have options in Fehr, Pettinger and Chris Bourque, they're still hoping to get Clark back, and almost every team in the league is looking for secondary scoring right now, so price of legitimate top six forwards is probably going to be much higher than what the Capitals want to offer.

Acquire a stay-at-home defenseman

While a top six forward may be the Caps most obvious need, this is their most pressing one. When the Capitals are healthy they have a deceptively strong defense corps, the only problem is that most of their better defenders are offensively oriented: Tom Poti, Mike Green and Brian Pothier are all better on the attack that they are in their own end. On the other end the Caps' defensive defensemen, Milan Jurcina, Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, all have significant holes in their games. Erskine lack skating ability (particularly agility) and puck handling skills, Schultz is not as physical as you'd like a stay-at-home defender to be and Jurcina is maddeningly inconsistent. Shaone Morrisonn is a very good stay-at-home bluelier but he can't carry the load himself. The Capitals would certainly benefit from another defenseman who could anchor the penalty kill and match up against other team's top forwards.

The cream of the crop among potentially available stay-at-home types is Adam Foote, but the Blue Jackets seem like they'll only move their captain for the right offer and since the Capitals probably don't want to give up too much, it's unlikely they'd be able to pry him away. There are, however, several other solid options, including fellow Blue Jacket Ron Hainsey, Minnesota's Nick Schultz, Florida's Branislav Mezei, and Los Angeles' Brad Stuart. Rob Blake is not a realistic option, as he'd both be expensive and unlikely to waive his no-trade clause for a trade to a team as far to the east as Washington.

Prediction: The Caps will make a move here. Between players and picks they can dangle, the need to upgrade their blue line and the relatively low price for defensively minded defensemen, McPhee will be able to pick up a player. My money is on a team that would be interested in what the Capitals can give up, young talent and draft picks, so I think Hainsey, Stuart and Schultz, are the most likely in that order.

Which Caps are on the block?

The two most obvious are Steve Eminger and Matt Pettinger, both of whom have underperformed this season yet are young and talented enough that they could turn things around and be productive NHL players in the coming years. The Capitals depth defensemen (Jurcina and Erskine) could also be had in the right deal, since given that 29 of the 30 teams in the NHL are within eight points or less of a playoff spot there will be a high demand for players who can play in the NHL right now, even if it's in a supporting role. Draft picks are also available, given the depth the Capitals have in their organization right now. I wouldn't bank on McPhee letting go of any first rounders but a second rounder (or two) could be thrown in if it's what it takes for the Capitals to get their man.

Broader Prediction: McPhee makes two trades. In one the Capitals acquire a defenseman for Steve Eminger and either a second round pick or Matt Pettinger. In the other McPhee trades either John Erskine or Milan Jurcina for a mid-round (third-fifth round) draft pick.

I'd Like to See: (1) The Caps refrain from picking up a forward unless it can be done on the cheap because otherwise the cost would far exceed the benefit, (2) make a strong push for Nick Schultz who I think is underrated and will come ever cheaper because he is an unrestricted free agent come July and (3) make a trade for an enforcer who can hold his own in the NHL should Donald Brashear get injured. Candidates for this include Kip Brennan, B.J. Crombeen, Ryan Flinn, Darryl Bootland and Peter Vandermeer.

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