Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Gut Reaction: The Trade The Morning After

Before the season started, I sat at a table in the upper level between two ice rinks at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. The Caps were having their media luncheon and John Keeley, founder and writer of On Frozen Blog, sat next to me and we talked shop. He asked me questions about how the Caps would fare, if this was a championship team. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I don't think George McPhee is done, I think they are working on something."

Turns out, I was right. Since August, the Caps have been pursuing a trade using Tomas Fleischmann to possibly beef up their defensemen.

The Capitals were thin on the blue line, there was no doubt about that. While it was nice to see rookies Karl Alzner and John Carlson make the opening night roster, there were questions about the young defensive core and fans griped that it was not experienced enough to go far. McPhee had more than enough room in the salary cap to pursue someone, we just did not know who he was after.

The season would start with no help coming (although we thought the Edmonton Oilers sending Sheldon Souray to Hershey was a possible trade in the mix). Fleischmann's name was splashed on every rumor mill before the opening night face off as the Caps seemed to shop the winger around. But like Souray's time in Hershey, nothing really significant developed.

Young as they may have been, the defensive core turned out not to be that bad. Through 25 games, the Caps' core of defensemen dealt with injuries to veterans Mike Green and Tom Poti and had to fall on Tyler Sloan and transient Brian Fahey to man post. They were able to maintain enough stability to win 17 games, and register a 2.68 goals against average putting them smack in the middle of the league (13th overall). They ranked tenth in the league in shots against per game at 28.7. Not that shabby.

It turns out the Caps did want Scott Hannan before the season started. Perhaps recent injuries to the Avalanche's forward lines convinced them that they could do with out Hannan's services to get scoring back on track. Caps get a veteran defensemen, Colorado gets a talented forward that is on the verge of having a break out year. Now more so since Flash is outside the shadow of Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, and Nick Backstrom.

Fleischmann never panned out the way the Caps had hoped. They wanted Flash to become a 30 goal scoring threat on the second or third line. They moved him from center, to wing, to center again and again. He would drift from line to line and even miss out on some big games in the playoffs because of his, at times, under-achieving play. He would have a career season last year, posting 23 goals and 51 points in 69 games played. Most of those scored early in the season when he posted a nine game point streak. This year he has struggled to get just 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in 25 games.

In return, the Caps get a sandpaper defenseman. Hannan, not known for any sort of puck support or offensive threat (in 81 games last season he only posted 2 goals and 16 points), is an agitator as well as a tough guy on the back line. Not so much as a fighter, but a good stay at home defenseman with veteran experience and savvy. Looking to bolster the blue line with a consistent pro, the Caps will most likely use him like a security blanket to Green's rushes up ice.

But Hannan comes at a heavy cap price, nearly soaking up what ever was left of the space McPhee has stored up going into the season. A hefty price tag for a defenseman that is considered marginal when it comes to the NHL defensemen league-wide.

It remains to be seen if this is the final move McPhee is going to make. With Semin's impending contract negotiations, the Caps are looking to squeeze every last drop of their salary cap this year to bring a championship to DC. It is the first time the Capitals have gone outside the organization for a defensemen since they traded Carolina for rental player Joe Corvo.

The move itself is a good one, and the timing seems to be perfect for both sides involved. Hannan adds grit to a blue line that is struggling to stay healthy. Avs get a talented forward that could flourish outside an organization that is deep in talented forwards. Hannan should help the Caps especially in front of the net as more and more teams are looking to create traffic in front of young goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.

We will see if this is the last move McPhee makes, but I tend to think he has a lot more he wants to do more before the deadline in March.

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