Friday, January 9, 2009

What to strive for

I'm going to admit, this is much more of a Nats blog than the name suggests. I don't give the Caps nearly enough love, so here goes.

In July of 2001, the Caps traded for Jaromir Jagr and things were looking up. Peter Bondra was still in his prime, Adam Oates was an assist machine, Olie the Goalie was a beast and there was going to be plenty of secondary scoring from the likes of Sergei Gonchar, Ulf Dahlen, Chris Simon, etc. But they missed the playoffs by 2 points. Something wasn't clicking. 

The simple solution was to buy more, so they bought more. In the summer of 2002, they signed Jagr's ex-line mate Robert Lang. They fired their coach Ron Wilson, who just couldn't get the team over the hump and hired the supposed-phenom Bruce Cassidy. Early on in the season, they traded draft picks for Mike Grier. Later on, they traded veterans Andrei Nikolishin and Chris Simon for Michael Nylander and a draft pick. Things got a little better, as they at least made the playoffs in the 2002-03 season.

Then the wheels really fell off. Fan favorite defenseman Calle Johansson retired over the summer and a string of cast-offs, including Joel Kwiatkowski, Josef Boumedienne, Todd Rohloff and Jason Doig simply couldn't replace him. After a 6-1 victory over the Islanders to start the 2003-04 campaign, the Caps went into a tailspin, with an 8 game winless streak (0-7-1). They reached the 8-18-1-1 point and finally had enough with the Butch Cassidy's idiot non-brother. Glen Hanlon was hired as the new coach, and this is where the story really begins.

The "spend money" plan failed. The team was finally willing to admit it. And better yet, the team was willing to take a publicity hit to fix it.

First to go was Steve Konowalchuk, Captain and a fan favorite. He was dealt to Colorado for Bates Battaglia and prospect Jonas Johansson. Result: Jonas was no Calle and Bates was no Kono. Guys like Konowalchuk just haven't appeared in the Caps organization much since, which is sad.

Next was the big kahuna: Jaromir Jagr's salary dumped to the Rangers for Anson Carter. Now Carter was a nice player to have, don't get me wrong, but this was a step almost few teams would have been willing to make: trading a superstar player away just a few years after he was first acquired, thus "giving up" on things so to speak. Result: Jagr was, is, and will always be a better hockey player than Anson Carter, but the move wasn't about that. Probably the best move the Caps will ever make.

A little less than a month later, fan favorite Peter Bondra was traded to Ottawa for a mid-level prospect and a 2nd round pick. Oh yeah, that mid-level prospect turned out to be Brooks Laich, a key cog in last year's playoff run. As much as it hurt to lose Bondra (who is, no doubt, my favorite player ever in any sport), the move was in the best interest of the club. It's a business. Sometimes it's time for your favorites to move on. It's hard (and trust me, at the time my childhood hero was traded for what seemed like a pile of scraps, it SUCKED), but it's life. Result: Laich is 7th on the team in points this year and was 6th last year. The 2nd rounder was dealt to Colorado to move up in the draft to select D Joe Finley, who is still regarded as a good prospect. Good deal.

Next came another great deal: Robert Lang to the Red Wings for prospect Tomas Fleischmann and 1st and 6th round picks. Now keep in mind that Robert Lang was leading the league in points when he was traded, marking it the only time in league history where the current points leader was dealt. But I think the Caps got a pretty good return in Fleischmann, who (despite being one of the more frustrating players on the team) can make you say "WOW." Oh yeah, and they used that 1st round pick to pick some defenseman named Mike Green. I heard he's alright. Result: AWESOME!

Within a week came the Caps' last 2 deals of the season, both (separately) to Boston: Sergei Gonchar for Shaone Morrisonn and 1st and 2nd round picks (the 1st rounder was used to pick Jeff Schultz and the 2nd was used to choose Russian prospect Mikhail Yunkov) and Michael Nylander for a 2nd rounder (used to pick Francois Bouchard). Result: The Caps got a 1st, 2 2nds and a good prospect for two veterans, always a good idea.

The Caps didn't have much left to trade in 2005-06, so it was almost 2 years before they made any more moves (remember the lockout), but there were still a few left to be made:
Jeff Friesen was traded to Anaheim for a 2nd round pick (used to pick Keith Seabrook)
Brendan Witt was traded to Nashville for former uber-prospect Kris Beech (the centerpiece of the original Jaromir Jagr deal, ironically) and a 1st round pick (used to pick current uber-prospect goaltender Simeon Varlamov). Both deals were great successes.

Then in 2006-07 they shook things up some more:
They acquired Richard Zednik from Montreal for a 3rd round pick (used to pick Olivier Fortier). Zednik's value improved over the year, and he was exchanged for a 2nd round pick (used to pick Ted Ruth-more on him later).
They traded Dainius Zubrus (and some guy named Timo Helbling) to Buffalo for Jiri Novotny and a 1st round pick (later traded to San Jose for 2 2nd round picks, 1 used to pick and Eric Mestery and the other traded to Philly for a 2nd and a 3rd rounder, used to pick Russian blogging phenom Dmitri Kugryshev and Phil de Simone). Both moves were well-made.

This put the Caps in a great position in the 2007 offseason: the promising youngsters of their first few trades (Green, Laich, Fleischmann, etc.) were beginning to blossom, there was money to spend (hello, Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov, and welcome back Nyles!), and there was an NHL-ready player still on the draft board when pick #5 came up, Nicklas Backstrom. Early on in the 2007-08 campaign, the Caps made what ended up being 1 more move-former 1st rounder Brian Sutherby to the Ducks for a 2nd round pick. And the turnaround began, notably with coach Bruce Boudreau's Jack Adams Award-winning tutoring, plus some shrewd deadline moves by George McPhee: the 2nd rounder acquired from Anaheim to Montreal for Cristobal Huet, Ted Ruth, the pick from the Zednik upgrade to Columbus for Sergei Federov and underachieving forward Matt Pettinger to Vancouver for Matt Cooke. 

The Caps simply built their system the right way. Look at their current roster's breakdown:
Via Draft (9/29): Alzner, Backstrom, Fehr, Gordon, Green, Ovechkin, Semin, Schultz, Varlamov
Via trade/FA as prospect (6/29): Collins, Fleischmann, Giroux, Laich, Sloan, Steckel
FA Signing (9/29): Bradley, Brashear, Erskine, Helmer, Kozlov, Nylander, Pothier, Poti, Theodore
Trade (3/29): Clark, Federov, Morrisonn (debatable)
Waivers (2/29): Johnson, Jurcina

So a little more than 50% of the roster was built from the ground up pretty much. And then you have guys like Federov, who was acquired from a home-grown guy and Morrisonn, who was still a prospect when acquired (but listed with the regular trade guys b/c he had NHL experience). 

So there you have it: The Washington Capitals. Think of them as the Washington team with the plan before "The Plan." The Nats need to aggressively shop their Belliards, Youngs, Guzmans, etc. in the future if they ever want to keep up with the Joneses. It may not look like much on the surface, but look what the Caps did with their Zedniks, Sutherbys and Friesens.

(I will add player links so those of you who were not Caps fans in the early-to-mid-2000s will kinda understand who I'm talking about)



  1. In my personal opinion (William Zinsser would cringe at that one!), the Caps are the only DC team that doesn't stink up the joint! So, thanks for honoring them, even though they lost last nite. BTW, don't forget Sx3's a 3-parter!

  2. excellent write-up! i forgot some of these guys even played for the caps!


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