[Ed. Note: We'd like to welcome Marshall Pirate to the RtR fold. You may recognize him from his blog, A Capital Offense. Make him feel welcome and please enjoy his first post!]
The NHL Free Agency period begins on Thursday, July 1 (Canada Day). The Washington Capitals will be parting ways with several of their players who ended the season in DC, including Jose Theodore, Brendan Morrison, Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrisonn, and Quintin Laing. Unless they sign a contract in the next couple of days, all of these players will become unrestricted free agents (UFA) and could sign with any team.
Some of the Caps' vacancies will be filled from within. Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov will fill the nets for the departed Theodore. Karl Alzner and John Carlson, or "Karlznerson," will patrol the blueline in place of Corvo, Jurcina, and Morrisonn. Capitals General Manager George McPhee may even bring up a forward or two from the AHL Hershey Bears like Mathieu Perreault, Chris Bourque, or Andrew Gordon, or promote a prospect like Marcus Johansson, to plug the holes left by some of the departing veterans.
Even with the youth movement, there is still at least one major hole to plug, perhaps two, and the Capitals may try to fill that hole on the free agent market when UFA hunting season begins. The primary holes needing to be addressed is at #2 center and the Caps could possibly target a veteran defenseman. This post will focus on the top player available at center this summer.
The Caps still have to re-sign some of their restricted free agents, most notably Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, and Jeff Schultz, all of whom are in line for at least a 200% raise, along with Bourque and Boyd Gordon, both of whom are in line for modest raises. This means McPhee must be prudent with his UFA signings to be sure he still has room under the $59.4 million salary cap to build the kind of team that can contend for a championship.
The unrestricted free agent pool at center is thin, there are only a couple quality candidates out there that could plug the hole at #2 center. The Capitals need a veteran player for a year or possibly two to fill that spot until one of the Capitals' prospects is ready. Perreault, Johansson, Cody Eakin, and recent draft pick Evgeny Kuznetsov are all contenders for the spot at some point in the near future, but none have proven themselves ready for that spot yet. Perreault (left) and Johansson (right) are the closest to being ready, though Perreault is likely to spend a season at #3 center before he moves up a line and Johansson is more likely to start his NHL career on the wing. However, if the right player is not available, it would be in the Capitals' best interests to not sign a player who won't truly fill the void, rather opting for one of Perreault or Johansson, or both. The future has to start sometime.
The hallmark of a true contending offense is if the #2 center can fill in for the #1 center without missing a beat. Looking back at the teams who have won Stanley Cups, most have had two centers who could be a #1. Detroit had Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov ('95 Final, '97, '98, '02 Cups), Colorado had Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic ('96, '01 Cups), Pittsburgh had Ron Francis and Mario Lemieux ('91, '92) and now Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ('08 Final, '09 Cup). The list goes on.
The Capitals don't need a Francis, Fedorov, Forsberg or Malkin, all they really need is a Butch Goring to play behind their version of Bryan Trottier. The 1970s New York Islanders were loaded with talent and for years flopped too early in the playoffs. They were too predictable with only one true scoring line that featured the best 1-2 punch in the league of Trottier and 60-goal winger Mike Bossy, but they could not do it alone.
Goring, who came to New York at the 1980 trade deadline at age 31, was an 11-year veteran from the Los Angeles Kings, where he played his first 736 games and scored 275 goals and 659 points. He was usually the #2 center behind either Marcel Dionne or Juha Widing, but won the Lady Byng and Masterton Trophies in 1978 and was an All-Star in 1980. Over the 8 seasons leading up to his trade, he averaged 31 goals and 72 points, peaking at 36 goals and 87 points in 1978-79 and never dropping below 26 goals or 59 points, including 1979-80. The playoffs were another story: he only played 30 playoff games over 6 playoff appearances and was held without a goal 4 times and without a point 3 times.
After his trade, Goring was not so productive on Long Island in a #2 center role in the regular season, averaging just 20 goals and 44 points in his four full seasons there, in large part because he played more on the penalty kill than power play. But he got the job done in the playoffs, scoring 68 points in 99 Islander playoff games as the Isles made the Stanley Cup Final in every season Goring was there (Cups 1980-83, Finals 1984). He even won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1981 as the playoff MVP.
The Capitals will need a center like that to advance deep into the playoffs, and unless the Caps make a trade, they will need to find him on the open market. There are not many UFAs out there who fit the bill of being a #1B center. In fact, I'd say there's really only one.
- He split the 2009-10 season between the Calgary Flames and the New York Rangers (who missed the playoffs on the last day of the season.) His salary was $5.5 million.
- 2009-10 Stats: 82 GP, 15 Goals, 50 points, 75 PIM.
- Other interesting stats: 110 hits, 38 blocked shots, 63/39 Giveaway/Takeaway ratio.
In his 12 Season NHL Career, Jokinen has played 881 games, scoring 252 Goals on way to 568 Points, and 869 PIM. He has 1 playoff appeance, playing in 6 games, scoring 2 Goals and 5 points, with 4 PIM.
Pedigree: After being the Finnish Rookie of the Year and the #3 overall draft pick by the Kings in 1997, it took Olli five years and two trades to meet his potential, playing in the 2003 NHL All-Star Game.
Qualifications: Jokinen has a strong regular season resume as a #1 center, spending 5 seasons in that role in Florida from 2002-03 to 2007-08 and the last two seasons split among Phoenix, Calgary, and the New York Rangers. In the past 7 seasons, Jokinen has averaged 31 goals and 69 points, peaking at 39 goals and 91 points in 2006-07 and never dropping below 28 goals or 57 points until last season. He is also remarkably durable, he has only missed 13 games since 1999.
From the SB Nation scouting report:
Assets: Is a big presence up the middle and a good face-off man. Has above-average hands and the instincts of a natural goal-scorer. When motivated, he plays a complete game.
Flaws: Is a better scorer than playmaker, so he tends to get off his game when paired with other goal-scorers. His leadership skills, along with the rest of his game, lacks consistency.
Beyond that, Jokinen has a mean streak to him, and his agitating style has gotten him into a few fights, just the kind of physical presence the Caps could use on the second line, beyond this, of course:
He has strong international credentials, as well, including scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals on Jaroslav Halak in the 2010 Olympic Bronze Medal Game versus Slovakia. He also won Olympic Silver in 2006 and has played for Finland in many other international tournaments.
I would not want Jokinen to be the #1 center, his lack of playoff experience is a concern and his lack of leadership could also be troublesome. He also takes more penalties than he should. But as a #2 center behind Nicklas Backstrom, Jokinen would bring the kind of presence the Capitals have been sorely needing: a big man who can score and win faceoffs without having to shoulder the load of being the only scoring center.
Jokinen should have no problem meshing with Brooks Laich, a net-crashing team player with hands. Alexander Semin ought to be a good fit for Jokinen in large part because they can both pass and shoot. Semin's playmaking ability is on par with other playmaking wingers like Joe Juneau or Alex Tanguay, so Jokinen could be in for a banner year if Olli and Sasha find chemistry.
Jokinen is only attractive at the right price, though, as with any free agent the Caps might pursue. He will take a pay cut after his poorer than usual season last year, but just how big of a pay cut is the question. If he could be had at around $3 million a season with the hopes of making bigger bucks next year, it could work.
There are three other potential free agent centers who might be able to fill the gap but wouldn't do it as well as Jokinen could: Saku Koivu, Mike Modano, or Vaclav Prospal. All three have their weaknesses and/or reasons they would not come to DC, chiefly that all three are over age 35. Of the three, Koivu is the most capable and could fill the gap if he could stay healthy, but he is not likely to come to DC. Deconstructing the remaining three, Modano is a Hall-of-Famer but is 40 and Prospal is better on the wing.