Photo credit: Jonathan Kozub
The Washington Capitals have the third worst record in the National Hockey League. They’re lacking in top-six talent and defensive depth. It struck me, then, that their last two transactions have not gone towards solving their problems, but rather have compounded them — at least in my mind.
In the past week the Caps claimed Aaron Volpatti (who had 28 penalty minutes in 16 games with the Vancouver Canucks) off waivers and signed Hershey Bears D-man Steve Oleksy (with 151 PIMs to his name in 55 games) to a three year contract. I’m not suggesting the Caps should try to fix all their woes with a call-up or waiver pick up — they can’t. I would, however, prefer if they didn’t exacerbate the team’s issues. The Caps don’t have a problem with toughness, they have a problem with talent.
Inserting a less skilled Volpatti into the lineup over Wojtek Wolski — who would not have played Tuesday had Troy Brouwer not been sick — vexes me. The same goes for playing Oleksy over Jeff Schultz and Roman Hamrlik. I’m not arguing Wolski, Schultz, and Hamrlik are fantastic hockey players, just that they’re better than the guys who are replacing them, even if Oleksy did get his first career point against the Bruins. Before the game, the Caps placed Hamrlik on waivers. He was claimed by the New York Rangers the next day.
Less than 18 minutes into his first game with Washington on Saturday, Volpatti showed what he’s here for, getting into a fight with Anthony Peluso of the Winnipeg Jets. In Volpatti’s fifth bout of the year, he was easily defeated by the bigger Peluso. The new forward finished the game with 5:24 of time on ice, the lowest total on the team.
“Obviously he didn’t get a lot of ice time, but I was really happy with him,” head coach Adam Oates said after the game in Winnipeg.
Adding Volpatti’s fists, however, didn’t seem to be enough for Oates and General Manager George McPhee. Two days after the Jets game, the team called up Oleksy from Hershey, before signing him to a new multiple year, two-way contact. The tough American has 11 fights this year in the AHL. Tuesday he got the call for his first NHL game, one he notched a secondary assist in. He played 10:05, the fewest minutes of any D-man.
“The game we play is a very physical game and you gotta push back sometimes,” Oleksy said after the game. “Volpatti brings that edge and hopefully I can too.”
Oates, for his part, has said that Oleksy isn’t just playing for his fists and was called up because he’s a right handed shot. The Caps have plenty of lefty defenseman, but Oates doesn’t want them playing on their off side. I’ll give the Caps a pass on that move.
That fact that Matt Hendricks is now the first line left wing is shows how little depth the Caps have. Still, the addition of Volpatti is questionable. He’s pretty fast and pretty tough, but at least Wolski has demonstrated a knack for goal scoring in the past, something that was evident on his third period tally. While Wolski wasn’t supposed to be in the lineup, Volpatti was. I think Volpatti brings a dimension to this team that they don’t need. The Caps need all the skill that can get in their lineup, not a bruising player that takes the ice for a few minutes a game. On Tuesday, Volpatti took six shifts and played a mere 3:43, more than a minute less than the player with the second fewest minutes, Joey Crabb.
Volpatti has an interesting story. After being badly burned in a camping accident while playing in juniors, he fought his way back to hockey and eventually gained a spot in the NHL. He’s spent the past two years as a fringe NHLer with the Vancouver Canucks.
“George was looking for something from Aaron when we picked him up,” Oates said of the move. “I really like balance.”
On a team will plenty of skill, Volpatti could be a nice asset that provides some fourth-line grit. The Caps, though, aren’t that team. They’re not as bad as they were at the start of the season as Oates’s system has begun to fall into place. Washington has become a .500 squad. Per CSN, the team’s goals per game average is up more than a point in the last nine games. Their penalty kill is up 16.5 percent and their power play is up 11.6 percent in the same span. They’ve won 7 of their last 10 games.
The Caps have plenty of guys playing great hockey so far this season. What they don’t have is a cohesive team. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reason behind any of the line combinations other than a feeling of “Hey, let’s give this a try!” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Caps play like a team, sometimes they look like a disjointed mess of crudely thrown together hockey players. So what is McPhee trying to accomplish with these moves — are they intended to give the Caps an identity as an abrasive, hardened team? If so, then why? As I said before, this lineup has a talent deficiency, not one of toughness. The Caps lose games because they are not as good as the other team, not because they weren’t physical enough. Washington will not be able to punch their way into relevancy.
But maybe I’m wrong. Matt Hendricks thinks so.
“They bring character to our room,” he told me of the new players. “They bring that attitude that no matter what it takes I’m gonna do it.”
“Patsy, he’s a tough, gritty guy,” Hendricks continued, referring to Volpatti. “He’s sandpaper. You need that in a room. I think Aaron made a great point the other day: it doesn’t matter what one guy can do. We need to play tough. We need to play hard as a committee. That hits the nail on the head. When you play tough as a committee, when you have more guys in there that are playing that way, the better it is for our team, the harder it is on the opponent.”
“I think that attitude is what we need,” he added of Volpatti. “I think attitude like that is great. He didn’t think he was going to come in a play hard and play tough for myself. He’s already got the team mentality: I’m going to come in and be one piece of the puzzle. I think that’s a great attitude to have. I think that’s what makes differences in hockey games — and seasons.”