Since transitioning from Stanley Cup pretenders to contenders during the 2007-08 postseason, the Washington Capitals have had trouble getting over the proverbial hump en route to the franchise's first championship. With every passing postseason disappointment, the glaring holes in the Caps' lineup have become apparent. Whether it be a veteran goaltender, an experienced/defensive-minded defenseman or now a second-line center, Washington has tried to fill the holes in the past at the NHL Trade Deadline, but have yet to find the answer.
This season, contrary to seasons past, the Capitals aren't even a lock to make the playoffs. After Monday's 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, the Capitals have now lost three straight and six of eight overall, dropping them to sixth place in the Eastern Conference. A fourth consecutive Southeast Division championship is in jeopardy, as the Capitals trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by six points. But that should be the least of their concern; Washington is only eight points ahead of the ninth-place Atlanta Thrashers.
The Capitals' biggest issue this season is obviously their lack of offense. The offensive juggernaut normally known as the Capitals scored a NHL-best 3.82 goals per game and 313 total goals last season. So far this season, the Caps have scored 2.65 goals per game (20th in the NHL) and 151 goals overall (18th). The once-potent power play, which has had a 25-percent success rate or higher in the last two seasons, is a mediocre 16.2 percent. The Caps have scored just five power play goals since the Winter Classic in 51 tries (9.8 percent) and have not scored multiple PP goals in a game since November 26.
These statistics point to one major need. The Capitals desperately need a second-line center.
So far this season, rookies Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson have alternated the role. Combined, they have played 74 games, scoring 14 goals and 12 assists, numbers that former Caps beat writer Corey Masisak of NHL.com described as "not terrible numbers for one center on a contender, but as the No. 2/3 combo it is pretty ghastly." Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames' Brendan Morrison and the Coyotes' Eric Belanger, two centers that logged minutes as the second-line center for the Caps last season, have combined for 16 goals and 45 assists.
A second-line center will provide match-up problems for opposing teams, who have been able to pair their top shutdown lines against Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals' only scoring threat at the pivot. So who do the Capitals bring in? Here's a look at a couple candidates.
Stephen Weiss - Florida Panthers
The 27-year-old winger wouldn't bring much experience, considering he has never played a playoff game in his first eight seasons in the NHL, but Weiss has proven to be a scoring threat for the Panthers. Weiss has averaged about 18 goals per season over the last four years and already has 15 goals this season to go along with 22 assists. Weiss possesses tremendous speed and is quite nimble despite being undersized (5-11, 185 lbs.) and his numbers this season are better than Perreault and Johansson combined. If the Caps were to acquire Weiss, however, he would be under contract for two more seasons at a cap hit of $3.1 million. General manager George McPhee has traded within the division before, so Weiss is a definite possibility.
Antoine Vermette - Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season, the Capitals acquired Jason Chimera from the Blue Jackets for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina, so perhaps they should look to them again for a second-line center. Vermette, unlike Weiss, has plenty of playoff experience. He has played 42 games in the postseason, including 20 in 2006-07 for the Ottawa Senators during a run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Vermette is a versatile player who can play both center and left wing and big minutes on the power play and penalty kill. Averaging 18 minutes and 29 seconds of ice time per game, Vermette makes every minute count.
Brad Richards - Dallas Stars
Acquiring Richards could be a long shot. The Dallas Stars have been in the thick of things in the Western Conference all season, leaving media to believe that Richards will remain in Dallas barring a complete collapse. Since then, though, the Stars have lost eight of 10 and have lost their stranglehold on the Pacific Division, so perhaps a desperate move might be made.
Richards won the 2004 Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning and had 26 points in 23 games during their championship run. Richards is the epitome of a scoring center. He's an excellent playmaker that almost has a sixth sense of sorts when it comes to making the right pass or taking the right shot. Also, he would become the Capitals' leading scorer if acquired today with 63 points, seven more than Alex Ovechkin.
Richards would bring a winning pedigree to the Caps, but it would be costly. He is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and is currently making $7.8 million. A raise is definitely in order, so the Caps would have to shed major salary to acquire him. Perhaps someone like Alexander Semin could be trade bait.
Jason Arnott - New Jersey Devils
Arnott could possibly be the perfect fit for the Capitals. At 36 years old, Arnott has seen and done it all. He is a 17-year veteran who has won a Stanley Cup in a leadership role with the 2000 New Jersey Devils. He was also a captain for the Nashville Predators from 2007-2010 before returning to the Devils last summer. If acquired by the Caps, Arnott would automatically become the leader in both regular season (1,155) and playoff games (106) played. To put that into perspective, Arnott has played more playoff games than Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin combined (84 games). He would join Mike Knuble as the only current Cap with a Stanley Cup ring, but Knuble only played in three games for the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. This current Caps roster doesn't know what it feels like to win. Arnott does.
Putting Arnott on the second line would make the opposition think twice before putting their best defenders against the top line. He has scored 20-plus goals 12 times (including 10 of his last 11 seasons) and 30-plus goals three times. Like Vermette, Arnott is an excellent two-way player that plays great defense while also using his size to wreak havoc in front of the net.
Arnott's contract expires at the end of the season, so if things don't work out, the Capitals would not feel obligated to re-sign. The caveat, however, is whether or not the Devils decide to keep him. New Jersey, who started 12-29-3, have since gone 10-1-1 and could still qualify for the playoffs if they continue to win at a high rate. Such information could weigh into Arnott's decision, but trading for him would give the Capitals their best second-line center since Sergei Fedorov. He would lead in the locker room and by example.
The NHL Trade Deadline looms February 28, so the Capitals must make a move. As the Capitals continue to lose and slip further away from a playoff spot, what once seemed like a formality has the potential to become a nightmare. Whatever move the Caps decide to make, hopefully it will be one that jump starts a dormant offense. Otherwise, that nightmare could become a reality.