Jaroslav Halak once ruined the greatest season in Capitals history. Even four years later his name still evokes shivers from Verizon Center denizens.
Those same fans must swallow their bitter memories from the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs and do the unthinkable: cheer for Halak. The Capitals acquired the goaltender from the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday just before the NHL’s 3 p.m. trade deadline.
Halak, 28, is now on his third team since leading the Montreal Canadiens to that shocking first-round upset of Washington, which was the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference that season, had the league’s best record and set a franchise record for points.
What was supposed to be a march to the organization’s first Stanley Cup instead ended in tears of frustration as Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots over the final three games of that series. Montreal overcame a 3-1 deficit and advanced in seven games. Now, Halak is a member of the team he once thwarted.
“It was more about now, and [Halak has] played well in Montreal, he’s played well in St. Louis and we hope he can come here and play well,” Washington general manager George McPhee said. “He’s a good goalie and he can get hot. The objective was to try to upgrade the [goalie] tandem and we did.”
In return, the Caps gave up goalie Michal Neuvirth, 25, a homegrown product who was drafted in the second round in 2006. But Neuvirth grew frustrated with his role playing behind Braden Holtby, 24, another goalie the team drafted and developed.
McPhee insisted that Holtby, a fourth-round pick in 2008, remains in the organization’s plans for the foreseeable future. But he will be in competition with Halak for playing time over the final 19 games of the season and into the playoffs, if Washington qualifies.
“We love Braden Holtby. Love his talent, love his character, love the way he battles,” McPhee said. “He’s going to be here a while, a long time. There’s lots to like about him. He’s only 23. [Former Caps goalie] Olie Kolzig came in, he was about 27, so [Holtby] still has lots to learn and lots to develop. I think we’ve drafted well. The hard thing about it is you have to play them to find out.”
Montreal traded Halak after that memorable spring in 2010 when he also helped engineer an upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins before the Canadiens finally lost in the conference finals. He spent three full seasons in St. Louis and started 40 more games this year (.917 save percentage, 2.23 goals-against average) before being dealt last Friday to Buffalo in a blockbuster swap that included star goalie Ryan Miller. Halak didn’t play a game for the Sabres.
That trade was set up by two previous deals Tuesday. Washington acquired left wing Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth-round pick in 2014. It also dealt disgruntled forward Martin Erat and AHL forward John Mitchell to the Phoenix Coyotes for defenseman Rostislav Klesla, minor-leaguer Chris Brown and a fourth-round draft pick in 2015.
Penner, also an unrestricted free agent this summer, was expected to start on the second line in Wednesday night’s game at the Philadelphia Flyers. He was to play with center Marcus Johansson and right wing Troy Brouwer.
“Playing in the [Eastern Conference], I think, suits [Penner’s] game a little bit more,” Caps coach Adam Oates told reporters in Philadelphia prior to the game. “He fits into our puzzle on the power play and he’s gonna get a lot of chances to play. Hopefully it’ll work.”
Klesla was sent to Buffalo with Neuvirth in the Halak trade, which also netted the Caps a third-round pick in 2015. Klesla’s acquisition and departure were both financially motivated. With a $2.975 salary-cap hit, he had to be included in the Erat deal to make it work for Phoenix, according to McPhee. That prompted Washington to ask for Brown, a 23-year-old who led all AHL rookies in goals last season with 29.
But the Caps needed to clear salary-cap space, too, if they wanted Halak and to maintain financial flexibility. Klesla was assigned to AHL Hershey, but still counted against their cap. They had $1.8 million in cap space after the Erat trade. Halak’s cap hit is $3.75 million, but by ditching Klesla they are now $2,136,540 below the NHL’s $64.3 million cap ceiling, according to the web site CapGeek.com.
McPhee wouldn’t comment on the status of top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, a Russian left wing whose contract in the KHL ends April 30. But if the Caps do hope to sign Kuznetsov, a 2010 first-round draft pick whose season came to an end this week, that extra cap space could prove crucial. For now, they are happy with their upgrades.