- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A day after moving upcoming unrestricted free agent Richard Zednik, the Washington Capitals traded center Dainius Zubrus, their most valuable free agent-to-be.

Zubrus was shipped along with Hershey defenseman Timo Helbling to the Buffalo Sabres for 23-year-old center Jiri Novotny and their first-round pick in the 2007 draft.

“It was really difficult. [Zubrus] has been a real professional person and player,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “We just couldn’t get [a contract extension] done. We didn’t think we were going to get it done with the numbers we thought were right for the hockey club. We started working with a few clubs and it was pretty intense for a while, but we are really pleased with how we finished up.”

Novotny was a first-round pick by the Sabres in 2001 (No. 22 overall) and is in his first full season in the NHL. He had six goals and seven assists for Buffalo, playing mostly on the fourth line for the Eastern Conference leaders.

Last season Novotny had 17 goals and 54 points in 66 games for Rochester in the American Hockey League. He has two assists since Jan. 1 but has been plagued by a high ankle sprain.

“He is a great guy, and I can’t wait to see him,” said Caps forward Tomas Fleischmann, who played with Novotny on the Czech Republic under-20 team at the World Junior Championships in 2003. “You can expect a lot of skill from this guy.”

The Caps made one final move right before the deadline, sending defenseman Jamie Heward to the Los Angeles Kings for a conditional draft pick in 2008.

Zubrus came to Washington in March 2001 in the trade that sent Zednik away the first time. Zubrus has centered the team’s top line for the past two seasons. Last season he set career highs in goals (23) and points (57) and is on pace to do so again.

McPhee said he offered Zubrus’ agent, Jerrold Colton, three- and four-year deals, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement. Zubrus reportedly was looking for a five-year deal.

“I’ve used him in all critical situations,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said. “He’s been a great player and a great person. He’s helped [Alex] Ovechkin more than [the media] will ever know, and he’s helped [Alexander] Semin more than [the media] will ever know. He does a lot of things very quietly.”

Buffalo led the conference with 87 points through Monday, but the Sabres have dealt with a rash of injuries. Center Tim Connolly has missed the entire season with post-concussion syndrome, and recently centers Chris Drury and Paul Gaustad and left wing Maxim Afinogenov have gone down with injuries.

Drury leads the team with 33 goals, and Afinogenov is fifth with 23. To make room under the salary cap, Buffalo traded goalie Martin Biron to Philadelphia earlier in the day for a second-round pick.

With Zubrus gone the Caps now have a huge hole in their lineup. He was third on the team in scoring with 52 points. Though the Caps are expecting top prospect Nicklas Backstrom to join the club next season, the team likely will be in the market for a No. 1 center during the offseason.

“We would like to be aggressive either through trades or with free agents to make the club better,” McPhee said. “This collective bargaining agreement allows for all kinds of free agents every summer. It is not like the old system we were in where you lost someone and it was really hard to replace them.”

With the two trades, the Caps now own four picks in the first two rounds of this June’s draft. If the season had ended yesterday, those picks would be Nos. 6 and 36 (their own picks), No. 29 (from the Sabres) and No. 47 (from the New York Islanders).

The majority of people around the league have panned this year’s draft class, citing the lack of elite, Alex Ovechkin- or Sidney Crosby-esque prospects at the top. There is no consensus No. 1 overall pick, so a team selecting in the top five or six might be able to pick its top choice without moving up.

“Our understanding is guys at the top might not be as good as the top of previous years, but you are speaking in generalities,” McPhee said. “There are always going to be good players, and it is our job to find them.”

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