Thriving in the NHL's cap era is a constant juggling act
Timing is everything, or so the saying goes. Balancing the here-and-now while casting an eye on the future and respectfully acknowledging the past is an interesting dynamic in today's NHL. Miscalculate on any one of those planes and struggles aren't far behind.
The obvious example of a collision on all three fronts can be found in New Jersey where too much faith was put in older players and not enough stock in the need for skating, puck-moving defensemen. Of course, the tender of a huge handcuffing free agent contract instantly became debilitating now and beyond.
For better or worse, Ilya Kovalchuk will be a Devil for the next 15 years. Blueliners Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder won't be around nearly that long, but their skill sets already look a tad one-dimensional given all of the back-end firepower that is spurring offenses league-wide. Veteran winger Brian Rolston -- a Devil through and through despite his success in Boston and Minnesota -- was put on waivers after the team brought him back in hopes of recapturing past glory. The Devils had done the same this past offseason with Jason Arnott, who even in his prime during the clutch-and-grab, dead puck era would never have been characterized as a speedy sort. Back then, his combination of soft hands and big body was a coveted asset. Now he is more plodding than productive in the warp speed game that the NHL has become.
Realization of those errors led to changes, and Rolston's waiver wire status surely signals the beginning of a litany of moves. But it isn't just the Devils who are out of sync right now with their past-present-future formula. The Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators are staggering down the same path of paying homage -- and big bucks -- to players for what they've done more than for what they can contribute now and beyond. In both cases, there are future Hall-of-Fame captains in Jarome Iginla and Daniel Alfredsson respectively, who lead their clubs in scoring despite having endured lengthy slumps this season.
Those two players aren't the issue, even as they advance in age. (Alfredsson turned 38 just a few days ago.) The issue in both instances is that the support players who were brought in by each team are similarly aging stars with declining numbers, such as Olli Jokinen in Calgary, and Alex Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar in Ottawa. With no infusion of upper end young talent and their stars getting a little longer in the tooth, the two teams look slow by today's standards. Thus, they struggle and will continue to do so until they bring their formula ratios into balance.
The Devils, Flames and Senators have made the common mistake of overvaluing past performance and miscalculating present contributions. It is difficult to part ways with an aging player or a group that has had success. To do so takes discipline and an eye on the future. Look at the Nashville Predators. They are competitive every single season. Yet, they walked away from Arnott and defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who landed in Vancouver as a coveted free agent.
The Preds' plan included those tough decisions because they can't sign everyone, even their own free agents. Instead, they keep talent coming from within, and in this season's case, that means Cody Franson and Kevin Klein get more responsibility on the blueline and Cal O'Reilly and Colin Wilson get worked into the mix more up front. It's a hard reality, but it's no different in philosophy than what the NFL's New England Patriots practice: roll personnel through a well-established identity that revolves around a select group of core players while simultaneously staying in the moment and always being ready to make the next move.
That's the challenge for all teams. As the NHL season unfolds, early decisions impact competitive level and it's difficult to address errors of judgment on the fly. Player movement has become so constricted with a salary cap in place that fixing something gone awry usually has to wait -- oftentimes until it's too late.
Rarely do you come across a case like the Washington Capitals where everything is in place from a past and future standpoint, yet their present is out of whack. Six straight-losses tell you that the here-and-now is what the Capitals need to focus on. They've gotten a little ahead of themselves despite having a whole lot to accomplish in this moment.
Granted, this regular season promised to be an exercise in merely getting to the playoffs where the Capitals could renew their quest to prove that they are the next big thing. Nothing they did until the spring would be of consequence, so went the theory. Unless, of course, the Caps lost their way entirely and stopped putting in the extra time to refine their team game, instead focusing on personal appearances and commercials and book signings and HBO specials and everything except getting better as a group.
What if prematurely accepting the accolades usually reserved for champions distracted the Capitals from their honest to goodness pursuit of Stanley Cup glory? What a shame that would be. That's probably the reason why owner Ted Leonsis called out his star players, who responded by losing weekend games that culminated with a 7-0 embarrassment at Madison Square Garden. True, six losses in a row might just be an unforeseen detour on the road to growth and maturity. We'll find out soon enough.
In the meantime, the Capitals need to spend a little less time on the excesses of what they project their future to be and get back to delivering some good old fashioned, live-for-today consistency.