New Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan has his work cut out for him. In addition to revamping the defense, the organization’s player development machine and more, the Caps also need to upgrade their talent level on offense, particularly on the top two lines. He would be wise to strongly consider Ales Hemsky , who may be one of the best bargains on the unrestricted free agent market.
At first blush, a lot of Caps fans will probably reject the idea. Hemsky’s detractors in Edmonton have criticized him for his lack of toughness, grit, or some other immeasurable trait that he didn’t bring to their lineup. To be fair, he really didn’t live up to his $5.5 million-per-year deal and his last 20-goal season was six years ago. While he likely isn’t worth that price tag, it’s important to keep in mind that Edmonton has been a hockey tire-fire in recent years. It’s where puck possession goes to die, and before he was traded to the Ottawa Senators at the deadline this past season, the Oilers had him playing a bottom-six role on checking lines.
Supposedly he didn’t bring a satisfactory level of physicality for that role. Here’s what Hemsky actually did afterwards: dominate puck possession. After he got traded to Ottawa he posted some ungodly possession numbers and provided a huge boost to their offense. Granted he saw some favorable zone starts, but he was essentially rocking a 60%+ corsi rating down the stretch for the Senators. He was nearly a point per-game player in his 20 games there.
New Head Coach Barry Trotz has already stated that he wants the Capitals to get better at playing a two-way game. In modern hockey terms, a “two-way game” translates to having the puck more than the other team. If his time in Ottawa is any indicator, Hemsky does that better than perhaps any winger on the Caps’ roster right now. Hemsky’s teammates in both Ottawa and Edmonton last year were, with a few minor exceptions, significantly better at directing shots towards their opponents’ net with him on the ice. Put him together with UFA Center Mikhail Grabovski and the second line would instantly be better than it has been in years.
There are probably several GM’s around the league who overvalue traits like toughness, “will to compete,” and other narratives that tend to write themselves. That’s great news for Hemsky’s suitors because it will likely drive his price tag down. Of course, the price would have to be right for Hemsky. At age 30, a deal matching his previous contract is probably not in the cards, but if the Caps could get him at a bargain for 2-3 years between $2.5 – 3.5 million or less, they would be wise to pull the trigger.