Washington Capitals May Be Better Now, But Overinvestment Will Cost Them
By: Ryan Kiray (@RyanK_THG)
Day one of the 2014 free agency period was absolute mayhem. As per usual, multiple free agents were offered ridiculous terms at unbelievable dollar figures. Others settled for more reasonable dollar figures and others, we are looking at you, Brad Richards, settled for startlingly low deals in an attempt to re-establish themselves as top shelf players. While several teams went on shocking spending sprees, and while it may therefore be unfair to single out one team, the spree launched by the Washington Capitals may be the most alarming of the free agency period. While some teams, such as the Florida Panthers, likely undertook their big spending to reach the salary cap floor, others, like Washington, may have further deepened already unsettling salary cap situations by overspending.
The Capitals spent last season pressed uncomfortably close to the upper limit, but failed to qualify for the postseason dance and ranked an unacceptable 21st in goals against per game, despite an acceptable if pedestrian 13th in goals for per game. The Capitals had an average roster despite their greater-than-average spending. The Capitals relied too heavily on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for offense, and quality on the blueline dropped precipitously after standouts John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Also lacking a nailed on number one goaltender for the better part of the season, the Capitals’ deficiencies did not reflect the monetary investment placed into the roster.
In an attempt to shore up their biggest problem, the Capitals signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, both ex of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to solidify their blueline. Orpik, 33, was awarded a five-year deal that will count $5.5 million against the cap each year, while Niskanen, 27, signed a CBA-maximum seven-year pact that will count $5.75 million against the cap annually. Both are fine defensemen in their proper context, and a rising cap may soften the blow inflicted by these contracts, but make no mistake: the Caps have overinvested in a way that a cap strapped team needing multiple upgrades is unable to afford.
Orpik is known throughout the league as a hard-hitting stay-at-home defenseman, a reputation that he has earned through long years of service patrolling the Penguins blueline and crushing unwary forwards. While he has been relatively healthy during his career, that style of play puts a lot of hard miles on a player’s body. It is unusual to see that sort of physicality rewarded with a long career, and it became apparent during points last year that Orpik was starting to slow down. Never a prolific point-scorer, Orpik’s salary is nonetheless on par with a number of highly regarded two-way defensemen. Chicago’s Duncan Keith averages an almost identical salary, though admittedly on a much longer cap-circumventing deal. Brent Seabrook, a criminally underrated two-way player and Orpik’s better at both ends of the rink, makes only $300,000 more, at a younger age. Solid player though he is, Orpik is a one-way contributor that has been awarded two-way money, and a quickly aging defenseman awarded a younger man’s term.
Niskanen, though he made great strides after being traded from Dallas in 2011, has turned in only one above-average season. Niskanen’s 12th in points among defensemen last season was very impressive, and his defensive play, though not without its occasional gaffes, was solid as well. Despite his strong performance, it remains to be seen if Niskanen can replicate that performance going forward. If he can retain the form that saw him pot 46 points in 81 games last season, Washington’s investment may well pay off. The odds of that happening are fairly slim; Niskanen is a good defenseman, a solid top-four, but ultimately did not pass the eye test as an elite player. His salary is on par with some of the same players as Orpik’s, but ultimately there is no way that his pay should nearly equal that of Brent Burns or Andrei Markov. Niskanen may in fact reach a value commensurate with his dollar figure, but such a gamble is best reserved for more established players.
In some sense, it is admirable that new General Manager Brian McClellan did not sit on his hands and added two quality players to shore up his team’s greatest weakness. The Capitals’ blueline will certainly be better this year than it was last, and the additions of Orpik and Niskanen will have a lot to do with that. That said, he has gone all-in on these two players. Solid though they may be, they each have fairly glaring drawbacks that diminish their ability to return their value to the Capitals. Quite simply, they were awarded contracts that they will struggle to live up to. When Orpik’s rough style of play catches up to him, and if Niskanen’s performance last year proves to be a flash in the pan, the Capitals are going to deeply regret their July 1st spending spree. There is no space left in the nation’s capital to add necessary depth, and with 10 contracts expiring at season’s end, there will be none next year either. The Capitals have added two quality players. However, they have done so at the expense of direly needed roster flexibility. When these players’ returns inevitably diminish, the Capitals will find that they have invested too much into players that do not offer enough. Same as it ever was.