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Big Week Ahead for Caps

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
It has been more than a week since the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it is less than a week to the NHL Entry Draft. In the last few days, transactions of some noteworthy significance have begun to show up in the agate type of sports sections around the continent.

Here in Washington, the week is bursting with promise. The Capitals will unveil their new logo and uniform at 6:45 this Friday night at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. This much we know. It’s extremely likely that Washington will also “unveil” a new member of the organization or two between now and Friday. In fact, the only way it doesn’t happen is if the Caps deal both of their first-round choices without getting one back in return. The only question is: will the new Cap(s) come into the fold via the draft route or the trade route?

Since the conclusion of the league’s yearlong lockout two years ago, it has been quite a bit more difficult for the league’s general managers to make trades. The salary cap environment has made it tougher for GMs to make straight hockey trades for hockey reasons. As a result, in-season trades have gone from a flow to a mere trickle between the opening of camps in September and the trade deadline in February.

If there are deals to be made, they generally get made in the summer or at the deadline. It gets a little too tricky to make the numbers add up for two willing trading partners during the rest of the year. We’re on the verge of summer now, and with the draft mere days away, we’re also undoubtedly on the verge of a handful of trades in the National Hockey League.

The first deals went down late last week and over the weekend when the Panthers dealt well-traveled veteran center Chris Gratton to Tampa Bay for a second-round pick in this weekend’s draft. The Panthers now have three second-rounders in the stable this weekend. Later, the Canadiens shipped disgruntled and highly paid forward Sergei Samsonov to Chicago in exchange for defenseman Jassen Cullimore and forward Tony Salmelainen.

What happens with the Capitals may hinge upon what takes place before it is Washington’s turn to step to the podium to make the fifth overall choice in the draft on Friday. Caps GM George McPhee says there are five good players atop the draft board, ensuring that at least one will remain when Washington makes its first selection. No team releases its draft list, but the five players McPhee is speaking of likely come from a group including forwards Pat Kane, Kyle Turris, James vanRiemsdyk, Alexei Cherepanov, Jakub Voracek and Sam Gagner and defenseman Karl Alzner.

Most observers believe that Kane will be the first player chosen, but Chicago has made some noise about trading the first overall pick as has Philadelphia, which chooses second. Would the Capitals entertain a deal to move up from the fifth slot? Anything is possible, but dealing the fifth pick to move down may make more sense.

If another NHL club has a player ranked high, say second or third, and he slips to the fifth slot, that club may be willing to make a deal with Washington to get its man. Although there is a clear drop off in talent level after the top five to seven players in this year’s draft, there are many intriguing players who figure to hear their names called in the second two-thirds of the first round. If the Caps were able to get an NHL player for the fifth pick – and that may be a stretch in a draft that is seen as thin – they’d likely at least entertain the offer.

It’s also possible that the Caps could make a deal or deals independent of the fifth overall choice. Washington has a need for a scoring line center and could always use a veteran defenseman or two. It would be far more economical to be able to address one or two of those needs via the trade route instead of having to dip into the free agent market for all of them, but it takes two to tango. McPhee is in almost constant contact with his 29 peers from around the league, so if something comes up that makes sense for both teams, it will probably happen.

And if nothing at all happens on the trade front with Washington this week, the Caps will still be fortifying their arsenal of assets with 10 draft choices – including two first-rounders and two second-rounders – this weekend. The Capitals have four of the top 46 choices overall.

If the Caps don’t move the fifth overall pick, it’s almost certain that one of the aforementioned youngsters will be pulling Washington’s new sweater over his head sometime around 8 p.m. this Friday. With that in mind, has scouting reports and video of those and several other top prospects available in this weekend’s draft.

Trades, restricted free agent signings and unrestricted free agent signings will be going on around the league in the next few weeks, and it’s clearly hunting season for 30 NHL GMs who are looking to improve their teams for 2007-08. Hunting season for them means speculation season for the rest of us, so speculate away. We’ll be here to sort it all out.

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