Too Many Players, Too Few Spots

Posted May 23, 2013

Who will join Ovechkin and Backstrom in the top six next season? (Photo by Alena Schwarz)

Going into the offseason, the Washington Capitals and General Manager George McPhee have a lot of decisions to make. The biggest one arguably is whether to re-sign second line center Mike Ribeiro. While his desired salary and age are part of that equation, that’s not all. What about the other top six?

Looking at the Caps’ roster, it is safe to say that right wing Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom will be staying at their respective spots on the first line. Restricted free agent Marcus Johansson, if re-signed, will likely have the first shot as the top line left wing based on his previous season, post-concussion. After those three, the Caps may have to figure out where to place Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, Brooks Laich and Ribeiro if he is brought back.

With the salary cap ceiling dropping to $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season, the Caps will not have the luxury of putting high-priced players on the third or fourth line. At the moment, the Caps have $5.6 million in cap space. Aside from Backstrom and Ovechkin, whose cap hits are $6.7 and $9.5 million and change, respectively, all of the top six possible players have a cap hit of higher than $3 million. Johansson, who has yet to be re-signed, will likely have a cap hit closer to, if not higher, then $3 million. Brouwer’s cap hit next season will be a little over $3.6 million, while Erat and Laich are both at $4.5 million. If Ribeiro returns, his cap hit is likely to be somewhere between $4.5 and $6 million.

The easiest move to make, ignoring cap hits, would be to put Laich on the third line as either the center or winger, positions that some think fit his skill set better than the second line. Moving Laich to the center bumps Mathieu Perreault down to the fourth line or more likely out of the lineup. After the season Perreault had, it would be hard to take him out of the lineup. Moving Laich to the wing bumps either Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera or Joel Ward to the fourth line, arguably below their skill and cap hit.

Another option would be to trade one of these mid-to-high priced players. While Erat recently joined the team, given his production in the past, his return value could exceed those of Brouwer or Laich. However, when acquired from Nashville for prospect Filip Forsberg, McPhee did not appear to view him as a rental player. He is offensively more talented then both Brouwer and Laich statistically, and could also be an option to be the first line left wing if Johansson falls back into poor form.

An easier option for McPhee would be to trade Brouwer. While the Caps would probably not want to part with him, and a certain fan duo would be very upset, his cap hit and production make him the easiest to move, with his skill set fitting in nicely on another team’s second line. Moving Brouwer likely puts Laich as the second line right wing, a risk considering Laich’s recent injuries. Unless they are confident that Laich can play close to a full season, or that Fehr can produce enough offensively, it is unlikely they would move Brouwer.

Another possibility would be to let Ribeiro sign elsewhere and go with either Laich or Perreault as the second line center. While neither has proved capable of this over a full season, if the salary cap becomes a serious issue, McPhee may be left with limited options. Laich’s best season in the National Hockey League was during the 2009-2010 season where he played 78 games and scored 59 points. Over the next two seasons, while playing a full 82 games, he has scored 48 and 41 points. Some of his drop in production could be attributed to the defensive philosophies of former head coaches Bruce Boudreau, in the latter stages of his time in DC, and Dale Hunter.

While it is unlikely, Perreault is the more interesting option. While his best season statistically in the NHL was 30 points in 64 games during the 2011-2012 season, Perreault has some room to grow. At age 25, he has more time than Laich to get better before his career starts to decline. However, according to Mike Vogel, the Senior Writer for the Caps official website, Perreault has stated that he feels the most comfortable as the third line center. It will then be up to Head Coach Adam Oates to decide if it is better to take Perreault out of a comfortable position to where he may succeed, or leave him where he knows he can.

One more option after Ribeiro leaves is to sign or trade for a new second line center. With the cap ceiling dropping, teams are going to be looking to drop quality talent to fit in under the new financial landscape. There may be options available that are not known at this time because they are currently under contract. This would not, however, fix the problem of having seven players vying for a top six role.

One final option that McPhee could go with is to keep all of the players, and move someone down to the third line. If this happens, it is likely that Ward or Chimera will find themselves traded or part of a compliance buy out. While Ward arguably has not earned his cap hit statistically, Chimera has a much lower cap hit at $1.75 million and is a free agent after next season. That could make him attractive to a rebuilding team looking to free up cap space by bringing in lower priced players that will not be under contract for very long. While the return for a player like Chimera may not be even, it may be necessary to free up even the slightest bit of cap space.

Depending on what the Caps and McPhee do this summer, it would appear that one player from last season that played a top six role may not be back with the team when training camp starts in September. Who it will be all depends on the salary cap, and how creative McPhee can be with it.