In recent seasons, Trade Deadline Day has been a fireworks show for George McPhee and the Washington Capitals. Without the addition of Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke and certainly Cristobal Huet in 2008, the Caps probably wouldn't have made the playoffs. And the deals for Dennis Wideman and Jason Arnott a year ago helped spur the 16-2-1 run that secured the first playoff seed. George was a busy little McPhee the season before that, too, bringing in Joe Corvo, Scott Walker and Eric Belanger at the last hour.
Give GMGM his due. He's done some of his best work with the trade deadline ticking down. So it was a bit startling Monday that the roster remained status quo, given where the Capitals sit in the standings (a point out of eighth, with two games in hand on the team ahead of them, the Winnipeg Jets). It was especially surprising since, earlier in the day, the Caps put Nick Backstrom on long-term injured reserve, which gave McPhee $7.6 million in cap space to play with.
In years past, with the season hanging in the balance, George undoubtedly would have tried to give the club a boost by putting together a deal or two. After all, can the Capitals really mount a serious charge in the final six weeks without Backstrom, who still leads them in assists (29) even though he's missed 24 games? Sure, Mike Green is back on the ice now, but Nicky is the straw that stirs the offensive drink (and makes Alex Ovechkin a happier camper).
So ... how should we interpret McPhee's decision to hang on to all his cards — his expiring contracts (Wideman, Mike Knuble), his underperforming veterans (Roman Hamrlik, Alexander Semin), his coveted younger players (Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov), his stockpiled draft picks (such as the ones from Colorado for Semyon Varlamov)? To hear George tell it, there just weren't any sellers out there, what with so many teams still in the playoff picture. To get a trade done, he said, he would have had to "make a mistake, and that's often what happens [at the deadline]. In the summer, you have a lot of general managers saying, 'Gee, I wish I still had that young player or that first-round pick.' "
But here's another way to look at it: By standing pat, McPhee basically is saying to the team, "Show me what you've got. We've been building this club for seven years now and, if we're as good as we think we are, we should be able to pull it together in these last 20 games and nail down a playoff spot. If we can't, it'll just clarify our offseason planning — make it obvious that something is missing here — and in the summer we'll address it."
Granted, McPhee could have begun addressing it Monday, could have made a trade or two with an eye more toward the future than the present. (I, personally, am hoping a wrecking ball is taken to the roster — the bigger the better — and have already written as much.) But doing nothing is probably the next-best thing. After all, we're not even sure who's going to coach the team next season. Will Dale Hunter be back? Does Dale even want to be back? Until that's determined, GMGM should probably hold off on any major moves.
Besides, the playoffs are hardly beyond the realm of possibility for the Capitals, despite their underachieving. It's one of the perks of being in the Southeast Division. As Wideman said after Monday's workout at Kettler Iceplex: "We have the same team we did at the start of the year, when there were such high expectations" — except for Backstrom, of course. "If we keep playing the way we did the last couple of games [in victories over Montreal and Toronto] ..."
Yeah, maybe the Caps will close with a rush again and — who knows? — even win the division to "earn" the third seed. But if they can do that without their top playmaker, then how do they explain their performance in the first 62 games? What's their excuse? It might be the single most maddening thing about them, their habit of turning it on and turning it off (and then coming up small in the postseason). It suggests there's something seriously wrong with them, seriously flawed about their makeup.
Anyway, the story Monday was that there was no story. The story was that the Capitals will go to battle the rest of the way with the essentially the same group of players that got them in this mess. "You never know what we're going to [do] in the playoffs," Ovechkin said. Maybe not, but we have a pretty good idea, particularly if No. 19 is unavailable. And since when — if you don't mind my asking — are the playoffs a foregone conclusion?
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