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Inside the Grabovski Addition

August 23, 2013

August is the deadest of the dead time of the NHL’s calendar, but the Caps stirred things up a bit today by signing center Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year deal for $3 million.


The signing impacts the Caps in many ways on and off the ice. Here’s a look at some of the underlying aspects of the Grabovski signing.


Power Play

Last season, the Caps had Mike Ribeiro manning the middle of their second line. Ribeiro had a great season in Washington, totaling 13 goals and 49 points while appearing in all 48 games. His presence was keenly felt on the power play where he contributed six goals and 27 points to tie for the league lead in power play scoring.


The Caps finished the 2012-13 regular season with the league’s best power play, and Washington’s 26.8% success rate with the extra man was the best in the NHL in nearly a quarter of a century.


Washington wanted to sign the 33-year-old Ribeiro to a contract extension, but with the salary cap dropping by about $6 million for the upcoming season, the two parties were unable to come up with the right figures in term and in dollars that would make an extension palatable for both sides. Ribeiro signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Phoenix Coyotes on July 5, the day after Toronto bought out the final four seasons of Grabovski’s five-year deal.


While it’s tempting to see Grabovski as a straight-up roster spot replacement for Ribeiro, it is not necessarily the case.


Washington actually has three players – Grabovski, Brooks Laich and Martin Erat – who were not on the team’s opening night roster last season. All three are left-handed shots (as is Ribeiro), all three have seen significant power play usage during their NHL careers and any of the three (as well as holdover lefties Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault) could be seen as a potential heir apparent to Ribeiro’s spot on the power play, just off the right side of the net down near the goal line.


How much of an impact did Ribeiro have on Washington’s dynamic power play? He was a crucial component in Washington’s extra-man success in 2012-13, there’s no question about that. But Ribeiro was also a crucial component on the Dallas Stars’ power play in 2011-12, leading the Stars in power play scoring. That Dallas team finished 30th in the league with a 13.5% success rate on the power play.


So while Ribeiro’s playmaking ability was a boon to Washington’s power play success last season, the reverse was also true. The Capitals’ cache of extra-man weapons – Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Troy Brouwer and Nicklas Backstrom – was also adept at making Ribeiro look good.


It’s unrealistic to expect the Caps to convert at a clip of better than 25% with the extra man this season. It’s also unlikely they will lead the league in extra-man prowess for a second straight season. But it is certainly reasonable to expect Washington to reside within the league’s top 10 on the power play in 2013-14. The bulk of the talent is still there, and there are multiple options available to Caps coach Adam Oates with which to fill the spot Ribeiro vacated.


Even Strength

In a July 8 press conference, Caps general manager George McPhee noted that the Caps would move forward with Brooks Laich as the team’s second line center. While Laich is a natural center, while he has served in that role at times during his NHL career, and while he prefers playing that position, the simple truths are that Laich has played mostly left wing during his NHL career and Grabovski has much more recent NHL experience manning the middle of a scoring line.


It’s possible that Laich could still center a line with Erat and Troy Brouwer at times, and most would claim that to be Washington’s second line. Laich could also center the Caps’ third line or – perhaps the most likely scenario – he could skate the left side of the team’s top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.


Before the Grabovski signing, there was realistically just one spot you could see Laich filling on the Washington depth chart, and that’s the spot McPhee mentioned on July 8. With the addition of Grabovski, you can realistically see Laich slotting into any of three spots on three different lines. That’s a primary indication of the added roster flexibility that Grabovski’s presence provides for Oates.


Washington scored three or fewer goals in each of its first 11 games last season, but it rebounded to finish the season with 146 goals, tied for fourth in the NHL. Ninety-two of those goals came from right-handed shots; all of Washington’s lefties combined for just 54 goals last season. That’s only three more than Ovechkin and Brouwer combined to score from the right side.


Ribeiro was the team’s top lefty goal getter last season with 13. Backstrom had eight, and the trio of Marcus Johansson, Laich and Erat accounted for a total of eight between them. Health will be a factor for sure, but having Grabovski along with Laich and Erat for the entire season gives Washington at least the potential of more balanced scoring horizontally across its depth chart.


Grabovski is younger and faster than Ribeiro. Grabovski has a better track record in the face-off circle, is regarded as a better defensive player and has one of the top 20 relative Corsi ratings (a reliable measure of puck possession acumen) of all NHL players over the last five seasons combined.


Ribeiro may be a better power play performer than Grabovski. But the lion’s share of the game is still played at even strength, and Grabovski likely has the edge in that department. Grabovski totaled nine goals and 13 points at even strength last season while playing mainly in a bottom six role. Ribeiro posted seven goals and 22 points at even strength while playing exclusively in a top six role.


Then there’s the price tag.


Salary Cap

When the Tampa Bay Lightning bought its way out of the last seven years of Vincent Lecavalier’s contract, it replaced him by signing 29-year-old Valtteri Filppula to a five-year deal at a salary cap hit of $5 million per season. Filppula has averaged .52 points per game during his NHL career compared to Grabovski’s .59.


Philadelphia paid Danny Briere not to play for the Flyers anymore, and it took some of that money and gave the 33-year-old Lecavalier a five-year deal worth $4.5 million a season.


Having lost Filppula to the Lightning, the Detroit Red Wings signed 30-year-old Stephen Weiss (.60 points per game in his NHL career) to a five-year contract at an annual cap hit of $4.9 million.


After losing Andy McDonald to retirement, St. Louis bestowed a one-year deal at $4 million upon 30-year-old Derek Roy.


Toronto used some of the cap space it saved in buying out Grabovski to sign 27-year-old Tyler Bozak to a five-year deal at $4.2 million per season. Bozak has averaged .52 points per game in the NHL.


Nashville signed 36-year-old Matt Cullen (.52 points per game lifetime in the NHL) to a two-year deal that pays him $3.5 million per season.


Edmonton signed former Caps checking line center Boyd Gordon, 29, to a three-year contract at $3 million a season. Gordon has averaged .25 points per game during his NHL career.


All of those deals (and Phoenix’s pact with Ribeiro) were signed in a span of a week in early July. Many of those players are of similar age and/or résumé to Grabovski, but the Caps were able to get their man for much less term and dollars than the rest of the pack received.


According to Grabovski’s agent, Gary Greenstin, there were a dozen teams interested in Grabovski’s services. Oates tipped the scale in his team’s favor when he visited Grabovski personally in Los Angeles earlier this month. In multiple media reports, Greenstin cites Grabovski’s eagerness to work with Oates as the deciding factor in the player choosing Washington as his destination for the upcoming campaign.


Being able to sign Grabovski for $3 million likely leaves the Caps enough salary cap space to sign Johansson, the team’s lone remaining restricted free agent.


Depth Chart

With Grabovski in the fold, the Caps now have five natural centers with at least some experience at playing in the top six: Backstrom, Grabovski, Laich, Johansson and Perreault. Washington has more top six players than it has top six spots, and it’s always better to have a top six player or two playing in your bottom six than to have a bottom six player or two playing amongst your top six.


The Caps played without Laich and Erat during the latter stages of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the New York Rangers last spring, and the Caps did not score a goal in the final two games of that series. Injuries happen in the NHL; the Caps were missing Johansson, Laich, Erat as well as Eric Fehr and Joel Ward at various times last season. The addition of Grabovski enables the Caps to better withstand the injuries that will eventually strike. They always do.


Johansson Negotiations

Last but not least, the signing of Grabovski leaves the Caps with somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million with which to sign Johansson. This is a fluid number depending upon how the Washington roster shakes out and which players are on the Oct. 1 opening night roster in Chicago, but it also narrows the numeric target at which Johansson and his agent are shooting.


When the Caps had $5 million to spend, the Johansson camp could aim higher, seeking as big a slice of that pie as possible. Now, the pie itself is smaller. Washington would need to move a player off the roster in order to sign Johansson to a more lucrative deal, and that’s a scenario that becomes more difficult to envision by the day. The addition of Grabovski also gives the Capitals 12 forwards under contract (13 including rookie right wing Tom Wilson), meaning they could theoretically withstand a Johansson holdout, too.


Johansson finished last season playing on the left side of the top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin, but with Grabovski on the roster, Laich is now free to assume Johansson’s spot on that line.


Until today, guys like Matt Bradley and David Steckel stood as the biggest August free agent signings in Washington’s franchise history. Those two were both inked as free agents in August of 2005, and they’d have likely signed earlier in the summer if not for the lingering lockout that killed the ’04-05 campaign. By this time next summer, it’s highly likely we’ll see today’s addition of Grabovski as the most significant August free agent signing in Washington’s NHL history.