In a typical NHL season, each team plays roughly 60 games by the time the trade deadline rolls around. It's possible to draw an invisible line in the standings and designate some buyers and sellers.
Not this year. In this lockout-shortened, 48-game season, only a handful of teams are out of it, making an already uncertain trading environment even murkier.
Count the Washington Capitals among a swath of teams in the middle ground between buying and selling, as they are just three points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference but also find themselves in 11th place.
"I think we're close enough into the playoffs that it's not going to be a fire sale around here," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "I think we have too many good players, too many assets right now to try and get rid of players and build for the future. We're very bent on making the playoffs, very focused on making the playoffs and you can't really worry about those things."
Because of a desire to make the playoffs and protect the future, the Caps could be quiet as the deadline of 3 p.m. Wednesday looms. It would be difficult to envision general manager George McPhee trading any of his top prospects, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, forward Filip Forsberg or right wing Tom Wilson. And it seems unlikely he'll deal center Mike Ribeiro, even if the team and the unrestricted free agent cannot come to terms on a contract extension.
"You have to balance these things. And I simply make decisions based on what's best for the organization," McPhee said. "That's how we approach things. That's how we approach the deadline."
If the Caps shop Ribeiro, they could get a haul for their leading scorer, who's in the final season of a five-year, $25 million contract. Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli pointed out that rental players are more valuable than in years past because the salary cap is going down to $64.3 million next season from the current $70.3 million.
Ribeiro has made it known he wants a long-term deal and some stability for his family, and agent Don Meehan has been involved in ongoing talks with the Caps about a new contract.
"I don't want to move all the time," Ribeiro said. "If I get traded before the end of this year and then move again at the beginning of the next year [I'd have to]. So we'll see. It's part of the business."
Pending restricted free agent goaltender Michal Neuvirth has appeared in just three of the Caps' past 24 games, but his uncertain injury status could affect things. McPhee does not appear in any rush to get rid of the 25-year-old, who sees himself as a starter but is clearly the backup to Braden Holtby.
Other than Ribeiro, the only healthy pending unrestricted free agents the Caps have are forward Matt Hendricks and defenseman Jack Hillen, both of whom fill critical roles on coach Adam Oates' team. And with the playoffs so close after a strong March, McPhee doesn't seem keen on selling right now.
"We want to make the playoffs," he said. "And that's the plan going into the trading deadline: What can we do that's best for the organization and helps us make the playoffs?"
Acquiring a scoring winger would help the cause, but to get a difference-maker would almost certainly cost the Caps a prominent piece of their future. McPhee said the deadline, like the season, "doesn't have a great feel to it," but the possibility exists of making a so-called hockey trade, potentially drawing from a deep pool of defensemen to add another forward.
From inside the locker room, a few players brushed off trade speculation as not much of a factor, individually or around the team.
"We haven't talked about it but ... if we can improve our team we will, if we can't then we won't," forward Brooks Laich said. "But that's the nice part about being a player: You just play."
Just playing helped the Caps shave points off their playoff deficit by going 9-6-1 in March. And even if it's not a topic of conversation, injured defenseman Tom Poti, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, said the deadline is still in the back of players' minds.
"Everybody's a little tense, a little nervous. I think our team's no different," Poti said. "We're kind of in the middle here and I think guys are professionals with putting it past us. We know we've got to keep winning if we want to get in."
The Caps have been steadily improving of late as they've gotten healthier. They're 4-1-1 since getting Laich and defenseman Mike Green back from groin injuries, and they could have just about a fully healthy roster once defenseman John Erskine is able to return, possibly Tuesday.
"We're doing a lot of things well enough," McPhee said. "I'd like to see this team healthy for one game. That would be nice."
Oates has done his best plugging holes in the lineup, fitting them into his system and not missing a beat with the likes of Hillen and Steve Oleksy playing major roles on the blue line. And the Caps' coach hasn't brought up the trade deadline to his players because worrying about that isn't part of his job.
"For the majority of the guys, I'm sure they don't even think about it. I'm sure there's a couple guys that it's crossing their mind and that's the same on every team and that's why you have to be a pro," Oates said. "And there's really nothing else you can do about it. You just have to try and compartmentalize your brain and put it out of there. Go to work and do your job."
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