midseason review: the uncertain

(photo by Brian Murphy)

For those who missed it, we’ve dedicated much of this week to reviewing the first half of a memorable season for the Washington Capitals. First we covered the good. Yesterday, we tackled the bad. Today we’ll focus on a few lingering questions and things to watch from here on out.

This weekend, while left wing Alex Ovechkin is in Montreal for All Star weekend and the rest of the Caps are enjoying some time off, rookie defenseman Karl Alzner is keeping his skills sharp in Pennsylvania with the Caps’ minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

While the intent is to help continue his growth during his inaugural campaign, there’s a very real chance that Alzner might be kept down in the minors even after the Capitals resume play. Not because of anything he’s done on the ice, after all, he’s easily a top-four caliber defenseman at the NHL level right now. But he could remain temporarily demoted simply because Washington doesn’t have the salary cap space to keep him around.

Capitals defensemen Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn are set to return from injuries after the break, which means that Alzner and his $1.675 million salary cap number will likely be forced out of the lineup unless general manager George McPhee makes a move to clear room under the cap.

We despise fans who attempt to play fantasy football (or in this case, fantasy hockey) by jumping online and posting their ridiculously made-up trade scenarios, so you won’t find any of that here. But there are two players who would make sense for McPhee to attempt to move if he could find a suitable trade partner.

The first, center Michael Nylander, has been mentioned in trade rumors for much of the season. He’s 35 years old and has just four goals and 18 assists for 22 points in 45 games. His salary cap number this season is $4.875 million, ranking behind only Ovechkin ($9.5 million) as the biggest salary cap hit among Capitals forwards.

Three times this season Nylander has been a healthy scratch, meaning coach Bruce Boudreau benched him even though Nylander’s salary cap number is higher than center Nicklas Backstrom ($2.4 million), forward Tomas Fleischmann ($725,000) and Alzner ($1.675 million) combined.

Many of the folks who cover the NHL expected Nylander to be playing elsewhere by now, but there’s one major problem – his no-movement clause. While his on-ice situation may be less than ideal, Nylander’s family is apparently very happy to be in the D.C. area again and he’s not in a hurry to waive the clause to uproot them any time soon. So unless a compromise is reached, Boudreau and McPhee are stuck with Nylander until after the 2010-11 season.

The second player who the Caps should consider making a move on is forward Chris Clark. The 32-year-old right wing may still be listed as the Caps’ captain, but it’s obvious that the team is moving in a different direction. Clark has been a healthy scratch twice this season (when’s the last time you heard of a team benching its captain just because?) and has just one goal and four assists for five points in 31 games played. The entire world knows this is Ovechkin’s team, so why not give Clark a fresh start elsewhere and formally recognize your franchise player?

Depending on what the team would have to take back in a trade, making either one of these moves could conceivably free up enough space to keep Alzner around. His play alone warrants keeping him in town, but Alzner has also impacted those around him. Before Alzner’s arrival, defenseman Milan Jurcina was a big body with loads of potential, but not much else. Hopefully you know by now that potential is just another way of saying “ain’t done shit yet.”

Well, pairing Jurcina with Alzner calmed the big guy down and somehow transformed the 25-year-old into a legitimate NHL blueliner. Now he’s someone Boudreau trusts with increased responsibility. In fact, in recent weeks, Boudreau moved “Juice” away from Alzner and paired him with Jeff Schultz, who has taken Jurcina’s previously held title of “least dependable defenseman.”

In addition to Jurcina, the other most improved player on the Capitals is Fleischmann. People might not realize this, but the Caps acquired Fleischmann along with the 29th pick in 2004 (who turned out to be defenseman Mike Green) and a fourth-round pick in 2006 from Detroit in exchange for forward Robert Lang. It’s safe to say that trade worked out well for McPhee and friends.

In his first 118 games (spanning three seasons) in Washington, “Flash” recorded just 14 goals. In 39 games this year, Fleischmann has taken his game to another level, netting 15 goals, which is good enough for third on the Caps behind Ovechkin and Semin. Lately he’s been on the team’s second line with Semin and center Sergei Fedorov and is playing with renewed confidence as he’s seen his ice time increase. If Fleischmann and Jurcina continue to evolve as they become more comfortable being full-time NHL players it will only strengthen an already potent lineup.

The final area of concern for the Capitals, free agency, most likely won’t be addressed until after the season. Fedorov (39), forward Viktor Kozlov (33) and tough guy Donald Brashear (37) are all unrestricted free agents after the season. Each plays a key role on this team, but will the front office bring the aging trio back again next season?

Along the same lines, forwards Boyd Gordon (25) and Eric Fehr (23), as well as defensemen Morrisonn (26), Jurcina (25) and Schultz (22) are scheduled for restricted free agency. While it wouldn’t be surprising to see all five back in Washington next season, nothing is ever certain in professional sports.

1 comment

  1. Milhouse44
    January 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Great work, Murf……That was the most fascinating Trilogy since Star Wars……That’s right I said it.
    I’m just glad you didn’t do UGLY……Because it could have only been a 5-Hole retrospective.

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