The NHL Trade Deadline quickly approaches on April 3rd and what will the Washington Capitals do two days from now? These aren't the same Capitals that started the lockout shortened season, but they are the same Caps that have sputtered in the playoffs with a few exceptions. A traditional slow franchise start returned to a team that had some conditioning issues much like most teams this season, but also had the honor of learning yet another system from another first time head coach behind the bench. Months later, conditioning aside and player's adaptation to a new system GM George McPhee is confronted with one simple decision to make: Buy or Sell?
A case can be made for McPhee to buy or sell. The team has distanced itself from the cellar and with an eye toward the final playoff spot. If you're a fan of the Caps and believe that anything is possible in the post season or if you still believe that personnel changes aren't necessary...that the window is still open for the composition of the same roster full of playoff failure then adding a key asset without mortgaging the future would be the direction to go or at least stand pat.
On the other hand, if you believe that the Capitals are the same organization that said rebuilding and forced losing was necessary to become a better team than selling some assets like a 33 year old Ribeiro for prospects may be the appropriate course of action, because the better question to ask is: Are the Capitals better than seven other Eastern Conference teams should they make the playoffs so they can return to the Stanley Cup Finals? Again this is the same team that decided to trade Lang, Jagr, and Bondra when the team still could have limped into the post season another year or two.
So if selling a prospect or current player to bolster the post season position isn't the answer for the long term then could standing pat really be better? Yes and No. First an answer must be made regarding Ribeiro. He's been productive but he's already 33 and is most likely not going to duplicate too many more seasons statistically like the current season. If a sound reasonable extension can't be made then trading for prospects and getting something now when you'll get nothing in the offseason as he becomes a free agent pushes you towards that direction, but devil's advocate would say differently...that trading Ribeiro in a playoff push would undermine the fragile status of the locker room and it would be better to let things play out on their own.
This roster isn't like the 1998 Stanley Cup roster. Do any fans or management feel the magic of something great? Are the Caps on fire heading into the post season? Would a minor tweak like adding a Bellows or Tikkanen help this squad? Not really.
What's been one of the true highlights of this Caps season aside from Ribeiro starting to gel as a Capital? That's a simple answer. The Caps found their goaltender. His name is Holtby. No time or energy must be spent on goaltending going forward. Neuvirth is now tradable. A bonus was Hamrlik being waived and claimed by the Rangers as well as Poti is completing the final year of his contract.
As mentioned in the top of the article these are basically the same Caps. Green gets injured and misses time and Backstrom flourishes in open ice in a European hockey style environment. The team lacks a true physical talented center that will fight for loose pucks and skate the puck through the neutral zone. It also lacks a physical defenseman. Erskine is certainly physical and plays good defense but his lack of speed limits him against certain teams and forces him out of the lineup. The most talented Capitals still may be a season or two away in Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, and Tom Wilson. It's no coincidence that the Capitals have been trying to fill the second line center position for years (Fedorov, Morrison, Arnott just to name a few) and in almost every instance they became the top line center moving Backstrom to the second line as the physical prowess and talent lent itself better to Ovechkin's game (as well as the playoff style game.)
Keeping Ribeiro would be nice. It would certainly stabilize the top two lines to a degree, but only for a couple of years before his production significantly declines. But until the Capitals address the elephant sitting in the room that they lack a physical defenseman and physical talented center they're going to replay the same post season failure year after year. Standing pat may be the proper decision towards not offending the locker room. Becoming buyers may avert the fan base in a lockout season from becoming offended and disenchanted, but becoming a seller and coming to the realization that the composition of the talent on the roster isn't working in its current mix and a change may be the best long term solution.
The later assumes that talented prospects can be acquired for players like Ribeiro and that Wilson or Forsberg will be playing in a Caps uniform next season. It may still be too difficult for the Caps to stomach the notion that Mike Green as talented as he is may not hoist the cup over his head for DC. He's paid a lot for someone still in his 20s that can't stay healthy. Moreover, Backstrom is paid a lot for a player that doesn't dominate like his top line peers across the league in battles one on one. Sure he can handle himself in open ice, but that's not playoff hockey and that's not how most teams play the Caps. So something must give. Either talent must come from trades or drafts to demote these players into lesser roles that eases the pressure off of Green & Backstrom or they need to be replaced with equal or better talent in different areas of the game to make the team whole and allow Ovechkin, a winger not a center do what he's supposed to do as a winger...and finish plays off. So far the organization has needed Ovechkin to play defense and knock players off the puck, skate through the neutral zone and get past a myriad of defenders with little help to pass to as he takes on an entire team single handedly in many instances and is expected to score. Most of this responsibility usually falls upon a center...a center to play physical and win battles yet has the vision and talent to spring his line mates towards the path of success as well as a physical defenseman to win the battles that can transition a team from defense to offense and release the puck to the center to carry up ice.
It's a tough sell and a hard decision to make this season, but becoming a seller could be the first step in extending the window of opportunity for the Capitals by acquiring more young talent and then re-evaluate the current mix of talent on the team. The Caps still have a productive winger in Ovechkin as well as solid defensemen such as Carlson, Alzner, and Orlov. They also have their franchise goalie besides having a solid core of complimentary players. With Fehr back in the fold as a bonafide sharpshooter (when healthy) it provides the Caps with a shooter for the role players to chip in rebound and deflection goals. The decision McPhee makes on Wednesday will tell fans exactly what he thinks regarding the evaluation of the current roster and its future. In a shortened season with the salary cap shrinking with a bleak outlook for winning the cup let alone make the playoffs what better time would it be to shake up the roster and sell sell sell?