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.”

  • Reggie

    Caps have a problem with toughness, talent, heart, and depth. Volpatti and Olesky help in the toughness category, but GMGM has to do a better job of making this roster better. Jason Chimera should NEVER see the 1st line – as should Matt Hendricks. It’s a problem.

  • Chris

    Agreed, Caps do need some toughness. And also agree, 1/3 of the first line shouldn’t be a guy that would be a 3rd or 4th liner on most clubs. And Backstrom … playing with Wolski and Fehr? Granted both played well last game, but c’mon … Nicky deserves better.

    Long story short, Caps need some toughness, but need some help on the top 2 lines more.

  • Hockeynightincanada

    Dale Hunter was our biggest strength last year, now it’s Adam Oates. I think both have made it clear what kind of team they want, and it really exposes the team’s and players weaknesses.

    Depends on how you define toughness, but by my definition, it’s something they’ve lacked. There are not many teams in the NHL that respect us, so they always feel the urge to take cheapshots at us because they know we won’t do anything about it. I think it shocked Boston last year when we played on their level and fought back. We gave the same message to Winny on Saturday.

    Offensively, this team severely lacks depth, with Ovie and Backstrom as proven 1st line players, and Ribeiro, a solid 2nd line player. Brouwer, Laich, and Chimmy were all meant for the 3rd line. I like what Hendricks and Beags bring, and there’s that final spot that makes good use for Volpatti or a guy of Chris Clark/Matt Bradley’s caliber.

  • Hockeynightincanada

    Agreed Reggie. McPhee usually overestimates the value of his signings and draft picks…I’ll hand him credit where it’s due for the goalies and a couple others, as well as the pay-off signing of Eric Fehr or Mike Knuble in his first 2 years, but McPhee always brings out his players as if they can fill bigger roles than they were meant to fill.

  • John Atchison

    They needed one, but not two of the same type tough guy player. I think this clearly shows that at this point, GM simply does not know what to do to make the team better. His mentioning of Perreault as a top 6 fwd shows that something is missing in his way of thinking. Not that anyone is trading right now, but the continued dumpster diving off the waiver wire has proven to not be a fix for this team

  • Short memories: remember how the Caps played against the Flyers, like they were scared rabbits, rubber chicken like. So, Volpatti and Oleksy have been inserted into a depleted line-up! Laich is a non-starter. Green has “fragile” tatted on his forehead. Hamrlik was SLOW (plus he had a big mouth). Marcus J. doesn’t want to play for Calle. Wolski, except for the miracle on ice last night, is a zero, actually a minus. What does it say for this team that the best defenseman this year is Erskine? And he is the best fighter, but can no longer be risked in that role. Hendricks is energy and shouldn’t have to fight all the time to make up for what? A lack of toughness! At least Oleksy acquitted himself well last night as did Hendricks. So will you tell me why Semin was allowed to leave?

  • KareeLyn

    I think Hammy got kind of a raw deal. I was much more likely to have a heart when Carlson, Schultz, or Erskine had the puck. Not saying Hammy is an all star, but I don’t think he was given a fair shot. Sometimes I wonder where the team would be if we didn’t get Ribiero… and that place is not pretty. Brooks’ absence has shown a bright, big ole light right onto the vacuousness of our top 2 lines. I like to end on a positive note… I still really like Ribiero.

  • KareeLyn

    *heart attack

  • PPH

    He’s a left shot LW who is cheap and cost nothing to acquire.

  • Well, from McPhee’s standpoint, he had a team full of pure talent guys, and that didn’t work. So now he’s filling the room with character acquisitions in an effort to emulate the kind of play he saw from Boston during last year’s playoffs. He said as much when he drafted Tom Wilson.

  • sean

    This is where RMNB and I differ and have always differed. When our entire blueline racks up big hit totals of 1, 5 and 3 in consecutive games there is a problem with toughness. It probably doesn’t get talked about much because there is no stat category for toughness. Stacking the roster with run and gun players has netted us a grand total of 0 Lord Stanley’s, so getting some corner crunchers might not be such a bad idea. Before Oleksy I bet Ken Klee could take on all our defensemen and still be standing .

  • St Pete Caps

    I think that before we signed these two, we were anything but tough. I’d say that we were almost soft, save for the occasional Ovi train wreck and Hendy/Erskine brawl. Volpatti and Oleksy DO NOT solve the problems outlined in the article however I really like the addition of some grit to this team. I hate watching games (like the Flyers game) where we just get out hit and then we just go to sleep in the corner. If we’re physical and don’t get intimidated, we can hang with everyone (like last night). All my meaningless jabboring aside, if Matt Hendricks is happy, then so am I.

  • I don’t think the absence of tough guys is the reason the Caps haven’t won the Cup. I’ve been watching the team since like 95, and I’ve seen maybe three Caps teams that could’ve won: 98, 10, 11.

    1998 was a Cinderella story that ran its course. That team had a couple bruisers– guys I’m very fond of. They lost 3 razor-sharp games and got blown out in a fourth.

    2010 was the best Capitals team ever assembled. They dominated the regular season (and because it’s a bigger sample, winning the pres trophy is a better reflection of actual talent), but they got very unlucky in the first round. End of story.

    2011 was a less awesome, but still awesome team. They got thoroughly outcoached in the second round (BB couldn’t organize a clean breakout vs Boucher’s 2-man forecheck).

    I guess I’d ask what “toughness” means to you. If you’re talking about guys who hit, then you’re talking about guys who by definition don’t possess the puck. Puck possession is the single best predictor of success in hockey, and tough guys don’t do that. Same goes for fighters. They may be needed in some complementary role, but I don’t think they’re indispensable, and I don’t think they’re the x-factor in why the Caps haven’t won the Cup. I think the x-factor there (in 2 of my 3 examples) is just crummy luck.

    They build another team like 1998 or 2010, they’ll win a fucking Cup.

  • I gotta put my two cents in. Based on the one game sample we have, Oleksy is way better than schultz or the hammer. Neither of those two could or would do to thornton what Oleksy did. He’s tougher, and that counts for more than you think. Oleksy had the puck plenty in little ice time also. Schultz is a big pussycat and hammerlik is old. Enough said.

  • Yv

    I agree that these moves are a little puzzling. Maybe they were made because AO system was forgotten by Caps when they were pushed around by relentless Rangers. So, it would be interesting to see how team with the new additions will respond during next meeting with NYR this Sunday.

  • I’m not sold yet on Volpatti, but Olesky is a good pickup to me. The way he played with just sheer energy and fire last night is something we need. When you put pucks on net the way he did with that Chara clearing attempt and every other chance he got, good things happen. The fact that he will drop the gloves is just added.

    Hendy is right. We need guys who are going to do whatever the hell it takes to keep us in games. Fight for this team the way Olesky did and I’ll root for you getting a jersey every chance I get.

  • Whiskey

    as a Brown grad, I’m happy to see a classmate on the team I love…can’t really complain. Also, Volpatti can score. Not sure why he is spending his time fighting

  • serpent

    Ok, I’m with you on a lot of points here, but dissing Hendy doesn’t cut it. Oates putting him on first line shows a lack of depth? That’s cold. Hendy’s pulled our bacon out of a lot of fires. He may not be flashy, but he’s steady and sure.He does the job. Oates is far more knowledgeable about hockey than we’ll ever be. I’ll go with his call,hon.

  • I don’t think Chris is dissing Hendy. Hendricks is awesome, but you gotta admit that it’s a stretch for him to be a top 6 forward.

    Don’t think for a second that we’re not hockey fans or that we don’t get totally revved up when a player like Hendricks succeeds, but when it comes to doing hockey calculus, we’ve gotta separate that enthusiasm from critical thinking.

  • Capt (20) Obvious Conspiracy

    If you were going to fail for first without getting rid of your talent, tipping your hand, or alienating your fans what would it look like exactly? hello? The Caps just happen to not be cooperating these last two games. If you were going to move on a trade for someone to improve the team, it likely could leave a hole somewhere you would need to fill with a backup that at the very least doesn’t hurt the team, and these guys have decent +/-

  • Maybe. Ted has always said that rebuilding plan must be transparent to the fans.

  • Capt (20) Obvious Conspiracy

    I truly wonder if Ted/GM would say that purposely playing lesser talent for two months after a horrendous first half of a shortened season to temper any improvement in order to get a top player, that that is a “rebuild.” Psychologically I’m not sure they’d see it that way from where they sit regardless of what we the fans might say. As much as the team’s play has improved overall, the standings haven’t changed much with the exception of Carolina pulling away.