The remnants of the Washington Capitals were on the ice Saturday night, and for a while, that may be as good as it gets.
Four players were out with injuries, a fifth was away on personal leave and a sixth had just been traded. Six players who started the season or have spent significant time with the Caps’ farm team in Portland, Maine, were in the lineup against the Atlanta Thrashers. The team of the future might have been in evidence a little earlier than planned.
“I think everybody knows it’s all about performance, and if you’re not performing then changes have to be made,” said general manager George McPhee, relating why center Trevor Linden had been sent back to Vancouver for draft picks. Linden had one goal in 16 games, and for a goal-starved club, that is not enough from a veteran.
“The way the club has been performing we had to start making some changes,” McPhee said, refusing to out-and-out call the Linden trade a direct message to the team. “We’ve done this and we’ll see how the club responds.”
Washington beat Atlanta 3-0 Saturday night with a solid performance, breaking a six-game winless streak, but the Thrashers went with seven rookies due to injuries and used a goalie, Norm Maracle, who skipped training camp and reported straight to the minors because he was overweight, out of shape and there was no hope of hiding it. It might be easier to judge how the club responds after games against Ottawa, Philadelphia and a rematch against Anaheim this week.
The task at hand, in fact any task the club attempts this season, got a lot tougher Friday afternoon when Calle Johansson learned the rotator cuff in his “bruised” right shoulder was torn and he would need season-ending surgery, which will be performed today. Johansson was crushed against the boards on Oct. 8 in Boston by defenseman Kyle McLaren and missed five games trying to get the “bruise” to heal.
Left wing Steve Konowalchuk, one of the top defensive forwards in the league and a workaholic leader by example, is out until late February after Oct. 18 shoulder surgery. Besides his snarly attitude on defense, he produced 24 goals and 47 points last season, and there is nobody in Portland or anywhere else to replace him.
Jaromir Jagr, the right wing with magic in his wrists, has missed seven games with a strained right knee but from the tone of his voice Saturday night, he might be on the mend and available soon.
“We know Konowalchuk’s going to be back and I just talked to Jaromir and you can tell [from] that edge in his voice and the confidence that he’s feeling better,” said team owner Ted Leonsis. “Great teams have to find a way to win and this might be a blessing in disguise that we get some of the kids in.”
But Leonsis left little doubt that he was involved in the Linden decision (“He just wasn’t getting the job done”), and that with the portions of the center’s $4 million salary that is being saved, the owner talked about the possibility of packaging deals, maybe sending a player and a draft pick (the Caps got a first and third for Linden) elsewhere to get another strong defenseman with a tendency to play mean, or a forward who can add to the offensive contributions being made by Peter Bondra, Ulf Dahlen, Andrei Nikolishin and very few others.
McPhee called Johansson “indispensable” and might have said the same about Konowalchuk. It seemed coach Ron Wilson found that veteran Joe Sacco fit pretty well into Konowalchuk’s spot on the Jeff Halpern line; they both have the same nasty temperament on the ice. But finding a new Johansson won’t be easy.
“In spite of our injuries, we’ve got to find ways to get points,” Wilson said.
It’s only Nov. 12 but the playoff stretch drive might have already begun for the Caps.