Deadline DaysPosted on February 27, 2011
The 2010-11 Washington Capitals have had more than their fair share of ups and downs, it would seem. After starting the season 14-4-1, the Caps endured an eight-game winless streak in December. After starting the season 12-1-1 in its first 14 home games, Washington is now without back-to-back home wins in 18 straight games, its longest streak since 2003-04. All of the team’s top offensive stars have seen their production dip this season, but the Capitals are playing the best defensive hockey they’ve played as a team in more than a decade. Now that we are less than 48 hours removed from the NHL’s annual trade deadline (3 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 28), do those peaks and valleys make it more difficult for Capitals general manager George McPhee to assess his team and its potential needs heading into the stretch run and the Stanley Cup playoffs? “Not necessarily,” says McPhee. “Sometimes when you have a season like we’ve had in the last couple of years it may mask a deficiency somewhere. Although it hasn’t been as smooth as the last couple seasons, we’re actually learning a lot more about our club this year. “We happen to like the way we’re playing right now. We’re playing a gritty, playoff-style game that hopefully will pay off in the long run.” It should be noted that McPhee made that statement prior to Friday’s ugly 6-0 home ice loss to the New York Rangers. There was nothing to like about the way the Caps played in that one. That game aside, there are elements to Washington’s game that are much improved this season. Washington’s defense is sixth in the NHL, allowing an average of 2.43 goals per game. Last season, that figure was 2.77 goals per game, 16th in the league. The Capitals boast the league’s fifth best penalty killing outfit in 2010-11, up from 25th last season. Not many would have guessed that the Caps would struggle to score goals this season, but that has been the case. After leading the NHL with 3.82 goals per game in 2009-10, the Capitals have tumbled all the way to 22nd in the NHL in goals scored with just 2.63 per game. Until they sent rookie center Mathieu Perreault to Hershey on Saturday, the Caps were sporting a lineup that featured two freshman pivots – Perreault and Marcus Johansson – playing behind Nicklas Backstrom on the team’s depth chart. Although that might not seem like a Cup-winning formula, the Capitals like what they’ve seen as far as Johansson’s development curve this season. “We actually like the way he is playing,” says McPhee of Johansson. “He brings speed to the rink every night. He’s producing now; he’s probably a 25-30% better player now than he was in September. We don’t really want to fiddle with that. We like the way he’s playing. We love the way Nicky Backstrom came along in his first year, and Marcus is on a similar path. I don’t expect to change anything there.” Johnasson has nine goals and 18 points in 50 games. Averaging just over 14 minutes per night this season, the 20-year-old Johansson has played more than 17 minutes in five of his last seven games, totaling two goals and five points in the process. Would the Caps be comfortable going into the postseason with Johansson as the team’s second-line center, a spot he has occupied frequently over the last couple weeks? “We like Johansson a lot, and we like him in that spot,” says McPhee. The one player who was available and might have been best suited to Washington’s needs was veteran center Mike Fisher, already dealt from Ottawa to Nashville earlier this month. Although McPhee made an offer to the Sens for Fisher, he never got a call back from Ottawa GM Bryan Murray. The Senators rewarded Fisher – a good organizational soldier for many years – by dealing him to the city where his wife (country star Carrie Underwood) resides. Murray might have been able to exact a better price for Fisher had he waited and involved more teams in the bidding. Saturday’s addition of veteran left wing Marco Sturm via the waiver wire gives the Caps an additional scoring threat and an injection of speed, as long as the German left wing’s trademark wheels are still up to par after two injury-plagued seasons in the last three. Sturm is a versatile, two-way player capable of playing on both special teams and any of the top three lines. His presence adds depth and dimension to the Caps’ group of forwards and gives coach Bruce Boudreau more options up front. The acquisition of Sturm also represents the Caps’ first roster addition during what has been a busy few weeks of transactions around the league leading up to the Monday deadline. Each of the other top eight teams in the Eastern Conference standings had already made at least one significant addition prior to the Caps’ Saturday pickup of Sturm. “To a certain degree, we’re surprised how quickly teams got going this year,” admits McPhee. “I guess everyone was looking for an edge and for an advantage in trying to get what they need as quickly as possible. Once one team started – I think it was Ottawa that made the [first] big trade [with Nashville] – then everyone got more aggressive. We still expect it will heat up over the next couple days, but it has been busy.” There have been two other somewhat noteworthy elements in the deals that have gone down already. First-round picks have not been in play very much as bait the last few seasons, but two of them have already exchanged hands this month, and it’s possible that more will follow before Monday. “Every year seems to be different in terms of what people think of the draft,” says McPhee. “For whatever reason, first-round picks are being used this year with guys who have term left on their deals. I think some clubs are just trying to expedite the process. If they get a player now who they’ll have on their roster for the next couple of years, is that worth a first-round pick? Probably.” Past seasons have seen contending clubs target mainly rental players, but this season players with term remaining on their deals – like Fisher and Kris Versteeg – have exchanged hands. “I think the days of paying a lot for the pure rental may not be happening as much because we all know the value of having young players and prospects and picks,” says McPhee. “You’ve got to have them in the [salary] cap world. You have to have draft picks, you have to have young players coming in.” Would McPhee part with the Caps’ first-round choice in 2011 in a deal? “I’ve only done it once in my tenure,” says the Caps’ GM, who dealt his team’s first-rounder in 2001 to Montreal as part of a deadline day deal that brought Trevor Linden and Dainius Zubrus to the District. “I’d be reluctant to do that unless it was a home run for us. I don’t see that out there this year for us. While I am open to anything, I am not sure we’d end up doing something like that this year.” One problem McPhee has encountered in preliminary discussions with teams this month is their insistence on acquiring one of the Caps’ young netminders as part of any deal involving Washington. The Caps this season became the first club in NHL history with three goaltenders aged 22 or younger – Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov – to win four or more games in the same season. “They are terrific young goaltenders,” exudes McPhee. “Any conversations we’ve had, right at the beginning of the conversations I’ve told all clubs that there won’t be any discussion about goaltenders. “It’s the most important position in the game. We’ve done really well there and we’re going to let them play and let them develop and see who rises to the top and then we’ll make decisions down the road. We really think that’s the backbone of any team, and that spine is pretty thick and sturdy right now. That’s a non-starter in terms of talking to other teams and talking deals.” Aside from some help up the middle, Washington might be able to benefit from some more depth on defense. Tom Poti – among the club’s top two in ice time in each of his first three seasons in Washington – has played in only one-third (21 of 63) of the team’s games to date. And Mike Green, the team’s ice time leader and one of the true blueline workhorses in the league, has been in and out of the lineup with injuries this month, too. “We’re hopeful Poti can come back and play,” says McPhee. ‘We’ll see how things go over the weekend and how he progresses. That would be the ideal. We did it once before when we waited on Brian Pothier [in 2009] and it worked out for us. He was able to come back and play. “We’ve got our fingers crossed and we’re hoping that the same thing will happen with Poti. He’s been a really good defenseman for us in Washington during the time he has been here. He’s the guy we’d like to have back in there, rather than going outside [the organization] to do anything. “We could go out and have 15 defensemen and it would never be enough.” Every year at this time, McPhee makes it sound like the Caps won’t do much – if anything – at the deadline. He made big splashes in 2008 and 2010, acquiring multiple players in multiple deals on deadline day. Both of those clubs failed to advance past the first round despite the deals. In 2009, McPhee stood pat and did not make a deadline day deal. His team that spring came within one game of reaching the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998. “It’s simple,” says McPhee of his deadline day strategy. “If there is a way to improve your hockey club without getting yourself into [salary] cap trouble a year from now or without giving away too much of the future, then you’ve got to be aggressive and try to do something to help your club. That’s the way we’ve always been. “We really like the way this team competes now and approaches every game. If there’s something we can do to make them better, we will. If not, we’ll go with what we have.” Every year at this time, there is pressure. Pressure comes from ownership, from the fans, from the coaches, from the media and from what other teams are doing to improve their own rosters. McPhee believes his years on the job help immunize him from that pressure at this time of year. “I think that’s where our experience helps,” he says. “We won’t be pressured into doing anything that we don’t want to do. If there is a way to make the team better, we’ll do it. But we’re not going to watch what other teams do and we’re not going to be going on blogs or anything else. We’re talking to NHL GMs and talking to our scouts. “Again, if there is something that makes us better in any area, we’d do it.” Okay, then. So, what are the chances of a deal involving the Caps before Monday’s deadline? “Today, it feels about 10 percent,’ McPhee told me on Thursday afternoon. “It might be different tomorrow, who knows? We’ve done a lot of talking and so far there isn’t anything out there that works for us.” Will the rash of early deals leave fewer deals for us to analyze and agonize over late Monday afternoon? “Hard to say,” shrugs McPhee. “But it will heat up as it always does.” The pro scouts are in town. The cell batteries are charged. All it takes is a willing partner or two and the right fit. As always, we’ll see. McPhee knows better than to tip much of his hand at this point.