Time to let Baumgartner go

By Jeff Charlesworth
Unless you’ve been a Capitals fan for about five or six years, you would think that Nolan Baumgartner is just another minor league defenseman that never made it. To those following the Caps in 1994, Baumgartner was the potential cornerstone of our defense corps and future star. After four years of minor pro without breaking through to the NHL full-time, it seems that he won’t live up to the expectations heaped upon him. Since he is a Free Agent this off-season, it may be time to consider letting him leave to continue his career elsewhere.

Earlier this season, Washington GM George McPhee traded away Alexandre Volchkov and Jaroslav Svejkovsky – first round picks from 1996. Capitals fans were outraged, and they wondered how he could give up on two good, young players. Last month at the Entry Draft, McPhee dealt 1995 first-rounder Miika Elomo to Calgary. Although many fans were skeptical about the deal, they didn’t take it as hard as the previous trades. McPhee has been able to make those trades without losing face because it was David Poile who drafted those players and tabbed them as future stars. Now the time has come to part ways with Baumgartner, even though he was once seen as a “can’t miss” prospect.

The main reason to let Baumgartner go is that there simply isn’t any room for him anymore. Even if minor league defensemen Michael Farrell and Mike Siklenka convert to forwards full-time (they attempted it last season), and veteran starters Dimitri Mironov and Joe Reekie are traded away (as has been rumoured), the Caps defense corps is still overloaded.

At the NHL level, teams carry seven defensemen. Restricted Free Agents Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee and Brendan Witt are all expected to re-sign and join Calle Johansson as the top four defensemen. Newly signed Sylvain Cote is assured a starting position, and rookie Alexei Tezikov should make the jump to the NHL this season. The Caps have given draft pick Bjorn Nord the opportunity to claim the seventh spot. This is all, of course, assuming that Mironov and Reekie are dealt before training camp.

The AHL Portland Pirates already have too many defensemen, even though they are overhauling last year’s line-up. Returning blueliners include veterans Jamie Huscroft and Patrick Boileau as well as rookie sensation Jakub Ficenec. If you add in sophomores J.F. Fortin and Steve Shirreffs – who split their time between the ECHL and AHL last season – five of the eight spots are spoken for. The Pirates will be bringing in three rookies to fill out the roster: Nathan Forster, Stephen Peat and Ryan VanBuskirk. Assigning Baumgartner to the AHL takes away a job from one of these players.

The Capitals’ defense corps is so deep that three others might be relegated to full-time duty in other leagues. Gerad Adams and Dean Stork might once again spend their season in the ECHL, while Scott Swanson may return to the IHL’s Houston Aeros. All three of these blueliners could easily be playing in the AHL next season, but fall victim to the organizational depth. There are also several talented prospects on the horizon in the junior leagues. Former second-round picks Jakub Cutta, Ross Lupaschuk and Nolan Yonkman are probably only a year away from turning pro, causing quite a logjam in DC.

It seems that Baumgartner’s best chance to stay within the organization is if Bjorn Nord doesn’t sign or plays poorly at training camp, and Nolan is given the chance to win the seventh spot on the Capitals’ blueline. He would definitely be the favourite in that situation, although Peat and Huscroft would also be in the mix. Since it doesn’t seem likely that he would be assigned to the IHL and he has nothing left to accomplish in the AHL, the NHL is his only possible destination.

As a Group 2 Free Agent, Washington has a right to match any offer Nolan receives or obtain compensation if he signs with another team. Although the compensation would not be much (a third-round pick if he signs at his current salary), the Capitals should let him go anyway. Holding on to him and not using him to his full capability would be a waste of time and could severely stunt his growth as a player.

Baumgartner has always had the skills and potential of an NHL defenseman, but has not had the consistancy to earn a full-time spot. Nolan needs an environment where he can get playing time and learn on the job. A fresh start would also relieve him of the pressure of being a former first-round pick. Any of the four recent expansion teams would be well served by giving him a chance – as quality defensemen are very scarce in today’s NHL. Being a Free Agent, this is his best chance to make a move to another organization. The Caps should not stand in his way, and allow him to try to resurrect his career.