Where The Rubber Meets The RoadPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
The 2011-12 Washington Capitals started the season with seven straight victories. Just over a month later, they fired their head coach. They’ve been without their best defenseman – a two-time Norris nominee – for most of the season. They’ve been without their No. 1 center – one of the best in the business – for the last six weeks. After winning 20 or more road games in each of the last four seasons, they’ve won just nine of 27 on the road this season. Two-thirds of the way through the season – and less than two weeks shy of the trade deadline – they’re on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. And between now and that Feb. 27 deadline, the Caps will play six games in nine nights, with five of them coming on the road. They believe they’ll have defenseman Mike Green back in the lineup soon, maybe even at some point during the upcoming four-game road trip. They have no idea when or even if center Nicklas Backstrom will be able to return this season. In the next 11 days, Caps general manager George McPhee and his hockey operations staff will have to decide how to handle the team’s personnel as the deadline approaches. Given the ups and downs they’ve witnessed over the last few months, it’s difficult to gauge what direction they’ll take. As usual, McPhee isn’t tipping his hand. “Certainly it has been difficult to get a read on what we are,” he admits. “They just haven’t been together enough to really see them. That team that we had on paper during the summer has been together eight games. So it’s really hard to get that read on what we have.” The Caps were thin up the middle before Backstrom – the team’s leading scorer at the time – went down with a head injury on Jan. 3. Since Backstrom went down, center Brooks Laich has suffered a leg injury that has basically cut his ice time in half. In recent games, the Caps’ top two forward lines have been manned in the middle by sophomores Marcus Johansson (123 career NHL games) and Mathieu Perreault (94 games). “You can miss any player for a couple of weeks,” notes McPhee, “other people will step up. But when you’re missing certain players for months, it’s hard on the team. Because in today’s NHL, you can’t make a trade to fill that hole. Not only are you missing a great player, there is no hope of replacing him. There was a time in our league when you could. You could step up and make a real solid trade for somebody else and fill that hole. But that doesn’t happen anymore.” McPhee managed to get Dennis Wideman (while giving up very little in return) at the trade deadline last season, and Wideman made the NHL All-Star team this season. His presence has taken some of the sting out of Green’s ongoing absence. Can McPhee fill – even partially – his team’s huge hole in the middle in a similar fashion? It won’t be an easy task, and it may require altering the Caps’ traditional trade deadline path of dealing picks and/or prospects for impending unrestricted free agent players from the carcasses of teams left for dead in the playoff chase. In past seasons, the Capitals had those assets as well as salary cap space. This time around, they’ve got the assets, but precious little cap space. “There are always ways to do things if you get creative and sharpen your pencils,” says McPhee. “We do have good assets to move. But we have to understand that we’re right back here in September again, too, and those assets would look good in our lineup. We have to be careful about what we do moving forward at this point. “There is a lot of uncertainly out there with other clubs as far as what they’re going to do. It’s going to come down to a couple days right before the deadline before teams really know what they want to do. We’ll have to wait until then to find out what’s going to take place.” Rather than targeting impending UFA talent for picks and prospects, maybe the Caps can make a “hockey trade” and move out some talent and salary at one position for similar talent and salary at another. “That is certainly a possibility,” says McPhee. “But really the way to go about it is to identify what your club would need, what the price is and then figure out how you would do it. That’s the process for us. There are ways. If we really need something bad enough, we’ll find a way to get something done.” Washington won its fourth straight game the night Backstrom was injured, running up its longest winning streak since that season-opening seven-game run. Since then, the Caps are 7-8-3. They’re a sub-.500 team (21-22-5) since opening the campaign with seven straight wins. There are lots of questions. How far can the Caps expect to go in the playoffs without a healthy Backstrom? What are the chances of Backstrom being healthy by playoff time? How smart would it be to go all in on this team without a healthy Backstrom? If they believed Backstrom was able to return at some point before or during the playoffs, would it make sense for the Caps to add a center at the deadline to strengthen the club at that position? And if so, what would it cost? There aren’t many answers right now. While the events of the next 11 days could make things clearer, it could also make things muddier. “It’s hard to say,” says McPhee of the team’s rugged upcoming schedule. “We could win all six, and everybody around us wins all six. We could lose all six and everybody around us loses all six. I really don’t like creating artificial deadlines [and say], ‘If this or that happens, we’ll do this or that.’ “They’re important games, they’re big games on the road for the club, great challenges for the club. As a hockey player, this is what you look forward to, the big challenges. It may seem a bit daunting because five of six are on the road. But if we win a bunch of them, it would be great for this hockey club.” Perreault has played well for the last month, totaling six goals and 10 points in his last 10 games in what has been the most consistent stretch of his brief NHL career to date. “If you lose a guy like Backstrom,” says McPhee, “other people have to play more. We’re really happy with the way Matty Perreault has come along. He’s gone from being a part-time player all over the lineup to a regular NHL player. He’s doing a good job. If Nicky comes back, I just think we’re stronger at center ice. Brooks will get better. Johansson has come along and Perreault has come along. “Actually center ice could be in good shape. But it all depends on Nicky, and we’re not going to be able to replace a guy like that. “It’s a big factor. We’re not going to make any decisions at this point on what we need to do. We’ll see where he is in 10 days and try to come up with a plan on how to make the team better.” Less than two weeks away from the deadline, it has been mostly quiet on the NHL trade front. Few deals have been made, none of much significance. More impending UFA players have received contract extensions that would appear to take them off the market than have been moved. “You just never know in our business what is going to transpire,” notes McPhee. “It could be a real frenzy at the deadline or it could be quiet. Trying to speculate has been worthless in the past. Obviously all the managers are talking pretty consistently. My sense in talking to other managers is that they don’t feel there isn’t a lot going on right now and it’s all going to transpire pretty close to the deadline.” McPhee has been through the deadline routine every year now since 1998, sometimes as a buyer, sometimes as a seller and sometimes playing a pat hand. There is always pressure to do something, anything, from the fans, the media and from ownership. “The pressure is never not there in this business,” McPhee states. “It’s either there to make the playoffs, or it’s there to make a great club a Stanley Cup contender. Whether you’re picking first in the draft or last in the draft, you have to find a player. “The pressures are always there and we learned a long time ago how to live with it and how to manage it. We’re always trying to make the club better, short-term and long-term. We’ve certainly gotten used to pressure. It doesn’t force you to do one thing or another and what outsiders say doesn’t force you to do one thing or the other. You do what you think is best for the hockey club. “[Caps president] Dick Patrick has often said so wisely, ‘The only pressure you should ever feel is the pressure you put on yourself.’ And that’s the way we’ve operated.” As frustrating as this season has been, the team won 10 of the 11 games in which both Green and Backstrom were in the lineup. When this club was put together last summer, more than a few members of the hockey media believed it was capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. “We believe in the team,” McPhee declares firmly. “There is no doubt about that. This is a solid hockey team. Hopefully it’s a team that’s going to get much better here in the next few days if Mike [Green] joins the lineup. He brings an element on the blueline that we haven’t had all year and that most teams don’t have. “We believe in this hockey club. Whatever we do is always to make the club better and should be always be a message to this hockey club – whether we do a little or a lot – that we believe in them. This is a good team. This team could do real well. We just have to play a little bit better.” Playing a little bit better needs to start now. These next six games are key, and many of them are against teams the Caps are chasing or against teams still chasing them. “I think we understand what our team needs and what we have to do to improve,” says McPhee. “With respect to moving forward, I think we know the club pretty well and what we have to do to make our club better. “No deal is better than a bad deal. We’re not doing bad deals.” We’ll see how it all plays out in 11 days. And six of those days will be game days.
If it seems like old home week around the Washington Capitals of late, it’s because it is. For a long time, the Caps had little in the way of alumni representation within the organization. Aside from longtime television color commentator Craig Laughlin, the Caps didn’t have many former players