The Washington Capitals have nine more games this month, and how they do probably will have a direct bearing on the makeup of the roster for the rest of the season.
Eight of those games are against conference opponents, games the team has to win if it hopes to have a hand in guiding its destiny. There are some weak sisters in the bunch, but there also are two games against Montreal starting with tonight’s at MCI Center; home games against Toronto and Detroit (the only Western opponent); and away games against upstarts Atlanta and Florida.
Before yesterday’s games, the Caps were in 11th place overall but with a spotty record against many of the teams in front of them. If Washington continues to improve and shows management it is deserving of having its few holes plugged with a rent-a-player acquisition, the roster might change between now and the March11 trading deadline.
The immediate reward is obvious. If the Caps win the Southeast Division, home ice is guaranteed for the first round and quite possibly the second. Washington is nine games above .500 at home this season, three games below on the road.
Secondly, the defense probably will be upgraded. The club has been scraping by with its top four this season, followed by a busload of players who have played on the third pair. Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski have done a respectable job lately, but the club would like at least one more veteran back there.
Why? Youth doesn’t win Stanley Cups, experience does. The Doigs, Kwiatkowskis, Berrys and Fortins of the hockey world may be the future, but an older, possibly slower and more experienced player might get it done now.
Another reason for some additions via trade is the injury factor. Calle Johansson turns 36 this week, Ken Klee is soon to be 32. Both, along with Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt, have been healthy this season. But should that change, there is nobody with significant playoff experience to replace any of them.
The Caps are reasonably set up front. Coach Bruce Cassidy doesn’t give his fourth line much ice time as a unit, instead breaking it up and using the pieces to spell tired individuals. There is inexperience on the fourth line that is tolerable; there is experience through the top three lines that should carry the Caps again, barring injury.
The Caps seem to have made dramatic statistical improvement in their scouting department. The current issue of the Hockey News, which includes the annual Future Watch edition, has Washington’s prospects ranked ninth overall among the 30 NHL teams with three prospects in the top 50.
The ranked prospects are defenseman Steve Eminger, who already has played 17 games with the Caps; goalie Maxime Ouellet, who is lighting up the American Hockey League with Portland; and defenseman Alexander Semen, reported to be an extremely quick blueliner.
Semen is still playing in Russia.
Last season the Caps fell to 29th in the standings mainly because of the Jagr trade. Washington sent three of its first four picks from the class of 1999 to Pittsburgh as part of the deal to obtain the right wing; the other player inside the top four, left wing Charlie Stephens, was allowed to re-enter the draft.
Losing those four left the Caps with a gaping hole in their future, which has since been filled.
How did the Caps do in the deal with the Penguins?
Only Michal Sivek is with Pittsburgh and he is 3-3-6, minus-2. Kris Beech, picked seventh overall by the Caps, didn’t make the big team out of training camp and has spent the majority of the season injured. Defenseman Ross Lupaschuk is occasionally recalled from Wilkes-Barre as an injury replacement.
Jagr? He’s 30-32-62, plus-2 and it appears the Caps will keep him.