PITTSBURGH – A rather Spockian eyebrow was cast toward Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero last season when he committed $21.4 million in payroll for the next four seasons to three centers.
Even when those three centers are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, the move had the potential to backfire on a Penguins franchise that is very top-heavy when it comes to the payroll. But when the three players involved are your No. 1 choices in three successive seasons and a total of five draft slots were used to select them, you come to the realization fairly quickly that something like this might happen.
And so far it has worked out terrifically for the Penguins, who have the kind of strength down the middle no team on the planet has at the moment.
“I think they won the Stanley Cup because they have the three best centers in the league,” said Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. “By a long shot. It’s not even close. And now they’re another year older and another year better. It’s a huge concern for every team that plays them.”
That much was evident last year during the playoffs when teams such as the Capitals were powerless against the waves the Penguins threw their way. And it seemed when one of the three wasn’t going well, the other two were picking up their level of play. And it’s important to note Penguins GM Ray Shero didn’t sign Staal to the four-year deal because of what he did in the playoffs. He did it well before then.
“I just wish I could have signed them for longer,” Shero said.
Not that Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke needs to hear it now, but I just got to thinking Thursday’s game between the Capitals and Penguins should serve as a cautionary tale to any GM who is tempted to build his team by trading away high draft choices.
The fact of the matter is no team has conducted a successful rebuild by trading away draft choices. Quite to the contrary. They accumulate them.
That’s what the Capitals did when they were rebuilding and it has paid off with them becoming one of the elite teams in the NHL. When they drafted Alex Ovechkin in 2004, there was all kinds of speculation the Capitals were going to trade the first overall pick because they couldn’t afford to pay him. Well, the Capitals stuck to their plan and didn’t make a move that would have been an unmitigated disaster regardless of what kind of return they would have received for the pick.
The Capitals have proved all year they can win games with their offensive power, but they realize as much as anyone the playoffs are a completely different proposition and the overwhelming talent that often wins games during the regular season gets snuffed out during the playoffs.
And that’s where the Capitals’ ability to play a sound defensive game comes in. Boudreau has been making a point of saying nobody appreciates the Capitals team defense, but it remains a questionable spot in their lineup.
That’s why nobody would be surprised if the Capitals were in the hunt for some defensive help before the March 3 trade deadline. Not that it would cure their ills, but the names of Edmonton Oilers rearguards Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray have come up, as has Dennis Seidenberg of the Florida Panthers.
If the Capitals are serious about shoring up their backline from a defensive perspective, they might want to consider making a serious pitch for Jan Hejda of the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the most underappreciated defensive defensemen in the league. The price would be steep since Hejda still has another year left on his deal at $2 million, but the Capitals might have the assets that could get that kind of deal done.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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