Several “sources” (aka websites) have reported that the Washington Capitals have quietly entered the bidding for superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers. On the surface this deal doesn’t seem to make sense because the Capitals are currently the top scoring team in the NHL. Why would they want to use valuable assets to acquire another high scoring player? I think there are several reasons why this deal would really help the Capitals, both for this year’s playoff run, as well as the future.
As much as it hurts to admit, the Capitals are not a perfect team (yet). And as easily as they have ripped off 3-4 wins in a row throughout the season, almost every time they have followed up with 3-4 straight head-scratching losses (especially on the road). In my opinion, the primary reasons for this have been (1) the lack of consistent secondary scoring and (2) shaky goaltending. The Capitals can hopefully fix their goaltending issues with the return of Semyon Varlamov next week, and I think Kovalchuk could be the answer to the secondary scoring issue.
I don’t think its just wishful thinking that the Capitals could make this trade. The majority of the bidding teams don’t have the assets to land a player of Kovalchuk’s caliber, but the Capitals definitely do, without compromising the core of the team.
Depending on the asking price, which I assume will be extremely high, the most likely scenario for the Capitals involves Alex Semin as the centerpiece to the trade (+ prospect + pick) for a Kovalchuk rental. This gives the Thrashers a talented young scorer in Semin to help them compete for the playoffs this year and next, plus the chance to grow their franchise with prospects. The Capitals would get a more polished scoring wing in Kovalchuk for their playoff run this season who will anchor the second line, allowing Mike Knuble to permanently stay on the top line where he belongs. This will give the Capitals two potent scoring lines that will be tough for any team to defend, which is the heart of this (or any) deal for the Capitals. Even though Kovalchuk is a top line player, I think he would gladly accept a temporary spot on the second line with the Capitals knowing that he will have a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup this year with his friend Alex Ovechkin and he will also get a huge contract offer after this season.
Capitals fans may balk at the idea of trading the extremely talented (yet enigmatic) Semin, but here’s why it wouldn’t bother me. For all the skill that Semin has as a player, he is extremely streaky, which causes the coaches to constantly juggle line pairings to help him regain his scoring touch, which affects line chemistry. He has yet to play a full season without a significant injury, and his personality has caused friction with coaches and management: he refuses to learn the English language which makes it difficult for coaches to communicate with him, and he has a knack for taking very costly penalties. Combine that with his salary demands and he will probably be expendable after next season (Semin’s agent announced recently that he only wanted a one year contract extension because his scoring was down this year and he didn’t have the leverage to demand a high priced contract, which he will do next season when his production improves).
Even if the Capitals don’t sign Kovalchuk after this season, which I don’t think they intend to do, under the above scenario they would at least get to take Semin’s $6 million cap hit off the books for next season allowing the Capitals to re-sign other emerging skill and role players. Preferably before some hapless franchise comes along and signs them to massive and crippling free agent contracts (See: Ryan Malone and the Tampa Bay Lightning).
If the Capitals can somehow keep Semin and still acquire Kovalchuk using only prospects and picks, then this deal becomes that much more attractive because it would all but guarantee the Capitals a trip to the Stanley Cup finals this season. The one major question is whether Atlanta is willing to send him to a division rival, even as a rental player. Hopefully we will find out the answer very soon.