McPhee’s best move: Keeping Varlamov
When George McPhee spoke with the media after the trade deadline had passed March 4, he fielded a bevy of questions about why he didn’t make any moves to boost his Washington Capitals.
The general manager’s rationale was that his organization had the necessary depth and potential in-house replacements to make his team better. Eight games into this postseason, the Capitals are reaping the rewards of the trade(s) he did not make.
“We weren’t close at all because we want to be a good team for a long time and we had two real good building years here, but we still had more to do and more to add,” McPhee said. “We think we have it in the organization, so to give it away for a rental didn’t make sense. It’s nice to have good young players knocking on the door ready to make your team. We’re fortunate to have those kinds of players in the organization. We’ve done a good job of drafting and developing, and it didn’t feel right to give it away for rentals.”
Before the deadline, McPhee had named two defensemen he was interested in: Anaheim’s Chris Pronger and Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester. He ruled out Bouwmeester because he was due to be an unrestricted free agent. When the Ducks requested players like Simeon Varlamov, Karl Alzner and John Carlson in return, it became clear to McPhee a deal wouldn’t happen.
His unwillingness to part with Varlamov proved to be a smart decision. He is no longer just the goaltender of the future - not after replacing Jose Theodore for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. In seven playoff starts, Varlamov is 5-2 and leads the league with a 1.29 goals-against average. His poise and ability to make game-altering saves has some believing he can do what other young netminders like Cam Ward and Ken Dryden have done: lead a team deep into the playoffs.
“I hope we look back at this in six weeks and say, ‘Yeah, [not making a trade] was a great move,’ ” captain Chris Clark said. “It could have been something that we maybe regret in the long term, giving up [young players] for short-term success.”
McPhee pointed to a pair of contests that helped build his belief in Varlamov. He made 20 saves in one period against the Carolina Hurricanes in the team’s first preseason game before leaving with an injured groin. Then, late in the regular season, he stopped 29 of 31 shots to help the Caps to a 4-2 win in Atlanta despite a subpar performance by the players in front of him.
“We thought, if we were in trouble, we could tap him [and] he might be able to do the job,” McPhee said.
The other move McPhee didn’t make was to acquire a depth defenseman. There were several players on the market who wouldn’t have cost as much as Pronger or Bouwmeester, but McPhee could not find anyone he liked more than the players he already had: Alzner and Brian Pothier.
Instead of adding someone like Derek Morris or Niclas Havelid, McPhee made a call to Pothier, who was still recovering from post-concussion symptoms, about 15 minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline.
“[McPhee] said, ‘Would I go to Hershey?’ I just got cleared [to play], and I said yeah,” Pothier said. “He said we weren’t going to do anything, and we’d like to get you going and try to get you back in the lineup. I knew at that point I was hopeful to get close to 10 games in the regular season and sort of have my own little training camp and hopefully get into a playoff situation.”
Pothier played four games for the Bears and nine for the Caps in the regular season. After Jeff Schultz was injured and couldn’t play in Game 2 against the Rangers, Pothier had his chance and has been a steady presence for the defense corps.
The Caps also could have added another veteran forward at the deadline, but Clark’s plan was to return from a wrist injury by the second round of the playoffs. He arrived ahead of schedule: He made his debut in Game 7 against New York after enforcer Donald Brashear was suspended.
“We had an injury on defense, and Brian was ready,” Clark said. “We needed a goalie, and [Varlamov] was there and stepped up huge for us. [Brashear] got suspended, and hopefully I can make the best of it, too.”