Despite overcoming another two-goal deficit on the road and winning a game they absolutely had to have on Tuesday night in Raleigh North Carolina vs. the Hurricanes, the surging Washington Capitals must be sellers by the time the trade deadline passes today in the NHL.
Capitals General Manager George McPhee is not in as big a quandary as many are making him out to be before the 3 p.m. deadline approaches. Yes, McPhee has big decisions to make but if he plays his cards right, the Capitals could come out as winners for the rest of this season as well as into the future.
His team, following last night’s impressive 5-3 win, is now very much alive and in position to make their sixth consecutive postseason appearance. Once left for dead following a 2-8-1 start and sitting in the bottom of the Eastern conference, Washington has finally reached the 500 mark at 17-17-2.
They are now all alone in the tenth position in the eastern conference, just one point behind the NY Rangers for ninth and three points behind the NY Islanders for the all-important eighth and final playoff spot. Even more important, they control their own destiny.
With Tuesday’s win, the Caps maintained that destiny. After trailing the division leading Winnipeg Jets by as many as eight points two weeks ago, the Caps now trail the Jets by just two and hold two games in hand on Winnipeg and have one game remaining with the Jets. If they win those games and match whatever Winnipeg does otherwise, the Caps will finish ahead of the Jets.
Washington is now two points ahead of the Hurricanes, and although the Canes hold a game in hand, the Caps would finish ahead of Carolina if they win the one remaining game between the two teams this season while matching whatever else the Canes do the rest of the way.
Since the Caps began the season with just three points in 11 games, they have posted an impressive 15-9-1 mark (.596-point percentage hockey) and have done so by overcoming at times two and three goal deficits.
If they do not win their fifth division title in the past six seasons, Washington will likely need 53 to 55 points to secure a spot in this year’s playoffs. With 36-points and only 12 games left to play, the magic number should be eight. Winning eight of their remaining games would likely gain the Caps a playoff spot either way you slice the pie. And another division championship banner to hang at Verizon Center before realignment kicks in next season would be a nice way to go out, wouldn't it?
As impressive as the Caps have played over their last 10 games (6-3-1), they may need to be even more impressive down the stretch. This means that playing .650-point percentage hockey may not be good enough. Washington’s goal should be to post records no worse than 8-3-1 (.708) or 7-2-3 (.708) to finish the shortened 48-game campaign.
According to Sports Club Stats.com, which tracks teams up to the minute playoff percentages, the Capitals have a 49.8 percent chance to make the post-season tournament. The same site says the Winnipeg Jets are in big trouble. With only a slim two-point lead in the division and having played two more games than Washington, the Jets have a 34.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. In other words, the Capitals-- with their victory over Carolina control their playoff destiny.
In fact, Washington could go from a 10th seed in the East to a three seed and home ice in at least the first round of the playoffs if they overtake the Jets and win the division.
It also makes the April 23 game at Verizon Center versus Winnipeg extremely important. How important is it---- just think where the Caps might be if they had actually beaten the Islanders last week at home instead of losing 3-2. Speaking of the Islanders (39-points), they currently own the eighth and final playoff spot in the eastern conference but did the Caps a huge favor on Tuesday night by beating the Jets 5-2 on Long Island. It was Winnipeg’s fourth loss in a row and has their fans feeling déjà vu.
Last season, the Jets were considered contenders down the stretch until they lost 10 of their final 15 games causing them to miss the playoffs and spoiling the franchises return to Winnipeg. The Islanders, according to the website, own a 51.4 percent chance of making the playoffs with the New York Rangers, having played in 35 games, owning the best odds of the three teams, at 56.6 percent.
With all of that said, the Capitals can turn the trade deadline into a win-win situation by being big time participants. The Capitals possess the hottest commodity in center Mike Ribeiro, who has an expiring contract and is playing his heart out for a new one.
The team’s third leading scorer (11, 24) behind Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, turned 33 on Feb 10 and is looking for a contract that will likely finish his career. In this day and age and based on the numbers he’s accumulated this season, he’s likely to demand a four or five year deal worth $5 to $6 million per season. If you look at George McPhee’s track record, Ribeiro is likely to be skating somewhere else next season, the question is will he be skating somewhere else on Thursday and that answer, for more than just money reasons-- needs to be yes.
Since the 2004-05 lockout, McPhee has rarely signed a player in his 30s to a contract longer than two years. There have been a few exceptions but only one was older than 30. Joel Ward was 30 when he agreed to a four-year, $12 million deal as a free agent in the summer of 2011, center Michael Nylander was 34 in July 2007 when he signed a four-year, $19.5 million contract; and defenseman Tom Poti, was 30 in July 2007 when he agreed to a four-year, $14 million contract.
However, McPhee and head coach Adam Oates love what Ribeiro has done for this club during the tumultuous 2013 season and Oates may be Ribeiro’s biggest supporter in the organization in terms of giving him the long-term deal he seeks. The Caps rookie head coach may not have been behind the Caps bench during the past three seasons but he is well aware of how the Capitals experimented with several options at the center position on the second line.
Current Caps like Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson have all had a shot to solidify the position. Former Caps players, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Belanger and Brendan Morrison were also been given a shot but nothing helped stabilize the position for very long.
The many names reflect the Caps lack of success, as McPhee and Oates, as well as players like Ovechkin and Backstrom know Ribeiro has provided Washington with a worry free option at the second center position. Ribeiro has been especially key on the power play where his passing and play making has catapulted Washington from near the bottom of the power play rankings in the NHL to the top. Currently, Washington is second behind the Flyers (24.8) cashing in on 24.6 percent of their chances. They notched another power play goal on Tuesday and added a shorthanded marker for good measure. However, the Caps are struggling mightily on the penalty kill.
As good as they are with the extra man, is as bad as they are when down a man. Washington ranks next to last in the NHL in that category and must improve if they hope to make a deep run this spring. Making a move or two today could help do that for the Capitals. Another reason Oates may be against trading Ribeiro is because of what the Caps coach did as a player while wearing a Capitals jersey.
Traded to Washington by Boston with Bill Ranford and Rick Tocchet for Jim Carey, Anson Carter, Jason Allison and Washington's 3rd round choice (Lee Goren) in the 1997 Entry Draft back on March 1, 1997, Oates was 34-years old at the time and still had plenty of hockey to play in his career.
He notched 506 of his career’s 1,420 total points after he turned 34 and tallied 363 of them in the nation’s capital as a member of the Capitals. Considered a premier playmaker during his era, Oates would not be a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame if he did not score a quarter (25.5 percent) of his career points in Washington. As the Capitals key playmaker on the second line, Ribeiro has 13-points in 16 games since March 2 and has 11-goals on the season, five with the extra man. Therefore, it is hard to imagine that Ribeiro’s production would drop of very dramatically during the next two or three seasons.
However, it is not the first two or three seasons of a new contract that concerns McPhee and the Capitals. Its years four and five and Ribeiro is not in as big a win-win situation as he may think. His age is a huge hindrance. The Caps may not be the only team unwilling to give him a four- or five- year deal. Only 27 players age 37 or older have suited up for an NHL game this season. What McPhee must also consider is getting nothing in return for Ribeiro if the Caps keep him and cannot re-sign him.
McPhee did not need to look any further than across the ice last night in Raleigh at former Capitals great, Alexander Semin to be reminded of that scenario from one year ago at the deadline. McPhee held onto Semin, not happy with the offers but he could not come to terms with him during the offseason and watched as he signed with a division rival late in the free agency period this past offseason.
Semin has not hurt the Capitals yet, although he had two assists on Tuesday. Semi’s play is much improved this season. What did the hurt the Capitals was getting nothing in return for Semin’s services. It was strange yesterday to read an article on NHL.com lauding Semin for his attitude and work ethic this year in Raleigh. Old No.28 is second on the Canes with 36-points this season and in case you were keeping score at home, that would place him second in scoring on the Caps roster as well.
If you trade Ribeiro, you are likely to get immediate help in return and could ask for a high draft pick as well. Remember what McPhee pulled out of Colorado for Semyon Varlamov, that future Capitals player turned out to be Filip Forsberg. Pierre Lebrun of ESPN reported on his Twitter account on Tuesday that Ribeiro’s agent, Don Meehan spoke to the Caps on Friday and will do so again on Wednesday.
In the back of McPhee’s mind is last year’s LA Kings, who proved anything is possible regardless of where you finish during the regular season. The Kings were the first No.8 seed to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and did so in dominating fashion by winning 16 of 20 postseason contests. This stretch included losing just one game combined in the Western Conference semi-finals and conference finals.
In the end, are you willing to hang onto Ribeiro to make a playoff run that is likely to end in the first or second round for the sixth straight season? On the other hand, are you willing to possibly sacrifice the playoffs and add to a roster that has always been a player or two short of contending? At this point, the Capitals are likely to make the playoffs with or without Ribeiro, especially in the weak Southeast.
The Capitals, regardless of what they do today are still not good enough, or tough enough to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. It is time to start building at team that is capable of accomplishing that feat. The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing that with their rash of recent trades and it is time for McPhee to do it differently than he has in the past, which all Caps fans know is a broken record playing the same tune repeatedly.
This may mean parting with players that have become fan favorites such as Ribeiro and a few others with a bit more tenure in Washington. Speaking of the future and with realignment finally approved, Washington will rejoin the good ol boys from what used to be the Patrick Division, plus the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue jackets starting next season.
That’s right, the Great 8 and company will have to routinely worry about beating Sid and the Penguins, the Broad Street Bullies, the Blueshirts in Manhattan, those pesky New Jersey Devils, who seemingly win or appear in a Stanley Cup Final about once every three or four years-- and the NY Islanders, who are bound to be a good franchise again one day if they keep picking in the top 5 of the NHL Draft every year.
As it stands right now, the newly formed Atlantic division will force the Capitals into playing playoff type hockey in raucous atmospheres almost once or twice a week throughout the regular season.
Ask yourself one question Caps fans, if the core of this team has been unable to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs since their five year playoff streak began under Bruce Boudreau back in 2008, do you think this team can compete with the likes of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and even a growing Carolina for an entire the regular season going forward without shaking the core of this unit a bit.
With that in mind, McPhee may also want to consider trading players like back-up goalie Michael Neuvirth and see what the market dictates for defenseman Mike Green. What could Mike Green bring right now that he is healthy and scoring goals again? Capitals fans know that whatever success they are seeing with Green simply will not last long because he is bound to hit the IR again.
With five goals and six points in the last six games, Green’s value has increased. Despite missing 13 games, he is tied for third in the NHL for goals among defensemen with seven. Having Green at the blue line has translated into a lot of success for the Caps since his arrival in Washington almost eight years ago---but this success has been during the regular season and like many on this roster, that success has not translated into the playoffs
The Caps made two moves Tuesday, signing University of Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt to a two-year, entry-level contract. The Caps announced he will practice Wednesday.
Rosters expanded beyond 23 at midnight and just counting those at the NHL level, Schmidt now gives the Caps 11 defensemen, which could make trading one(Karl Alzner, Mike Green, John Carlson, John Erskine, Jeff Schultz, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, Tomas Kundratek, Dmitry Orlov and Tom Poti) of the ones they already have, a foregone conclusion.
Schmidt is a left-handed shot, joining Alzner, Erskine, Schultz, Hillen, Orlov and Poti. Hershey Bears defenseman Cameron Schilling is also a lefty. The 21-year-old Schmidt had nine goals and 23 assists in 40 games for the Gophers this season.
Pending restricted free agent goaltender Michal Neuvirth has appeared in just three of the Caps’ past 24 games, but his uncertain injury status could hinder things a bit today but McPhee is likely to try to sell Neuvy as a long term fix to ailing goaltender starved organization. With that said, McPhee will not accept just anything for Neuvy. The 25-year-old, who sees himself as a starter, is the obvious backup to Braden Holtby.
The Capitals seem to be heading in the right direction with Adam Oates in charge. Oates has made great strides with restoring the scoring punch of Alex Ovechkin, who scored two more goals against Carolina and is now tied for third in the NHL with 20 goals this season. Ovie also stretched his current scoring streak to nine straight games. He has totaled 10 goals and 15 points during the life of his current streak and is scoring from a multitude of areas and with a variety of shots.
The Caps also have a solid group of players waiting in the wings with the likes of the above-mentioned Forsberg as well as Evgeny Kuznetsov. Nevertheless, that isn’t making your team tougher in a division that will require a lot of grit as well as goal scoring to win in the future. When you consider the new playoff format for next season, playing well within your division will be huge and gone will be the days of playing in and benefiting from the soft Southeast.
I say McPhee needs to roll the dice and trust in the system Adam Oates has in place. Yes, Ribeiro is a huge part of the Caps power play success but Oates system, which the Caps have seemed to master, requires quick puck movement and a hard play down low, which is creating opportunities all over the ice while up a man.
The Caps are playing with confidence and are rebounding from crushing defeats like the one goal setback to the Islanders last week at home and the loss on Sunday in Philadelphia in which the Caps led by two goals with a little over seven minutes to play in the game. They just cannot afford to suffer such setbacks going forward.
Regardless of what happens today the Caps should be a playoff team. This means that McPhee has to roll the dice and make his team better for the future if the situation presents itself and given what Ribeiro offers, its likely McPhee could see a ton of offers before 3 p.m. that will allow him to do just that.
IN OTHER MOVES:
The Caps also reacquired enforcer Joel Rechlicz from the Phoenix Coyotes for minor league forward Matt Clackson. Rechlicz, who played three games for Dale Hunter last season, will report to Hershey of the American Hockey League.