Thursday, February 21, 2008

‘Tis the season NBA and NHL general managers are thankful for unlimited calling. I refer, of course, to the frenzied last-minute shopping that precedes the annual trading deadline. Basketball’s wheeling-and-dealing window closes at 3 p.m. today; hockey’s stays open a little longer — until Tuesday.

Already we’ve seen some moves in the NBA that registered on the Richter scale — Shaquille O’Neal to the Suns, Jason Kidd to the Mavericks, Pau Gasol to the Lakers. There is, after all, a championship to be won, and each of those clubs wants to give itself at least a puncher’s chance; so, in the time-honored tradition, they swap the future for the present.

Or as Popeye’s pudgy friend, Wimpy, articulated the philosophy, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

There’s a certain gluttony to these machinations, to the Haves’ remorseless pillaging of the Have Nots. I mean, they make the playoffs every year, their arenas are packed every night, they bask in the glow of national television exposure — and still they’re not satisfied?

But then, there are so many teams now, 30 in both the NBA and NHL. How many opportunities to win it all — or even to make a decent playoff run — can any franchise reasonably expect? On the other side of it, if an also-ran can get out from under an expensive contract and clear cap room to rebuild, hey, why not?

And so we have the Deadline Flea Market at which Tomorrow (in the form of draft picks and young players) is exchanged for Today (in the form of accomplished veterans who still have some wear left). In late February, clubs aren’t divided into winners and losers, they’re divided into buyers and sellers.

Which brings us to the Capitals. For several years now, they’ve been holding Presidents Day sales, peddling older, temporarily useful players for prospects who might — repeat: might — be good for a long time. It’s all part of Ted Leonsis’ and George McPhee’s strategy to build a killer team — not to mention a profitable one — within the league’s salary constraints. No more throwing millions at other clubs’ stars (e.g. Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang). No more living year to year, trying to piece together a playoff squad. Let’s build something that lasts, they decided, something that’s identifiably ours.

The early returns were pretty gruesome: The worst record in the league (23-46-10-3) the season before the lockout, one of the worst records in the league (29-41-12) the season after, another losing record last year (28-40-14). But now the Caps have a shot at the division title in the ultra-average Southeast — after going 22-12-6 under replacement coach Bruce Boudreau — and who do they have to thank? Well, aside from Alex Ovechkin and standbys like Olie Kolzig and Viktor Kozlov, the players deserving of much of the credit are the ones McPhee picked up at the trading deadline the past few seasons.

Mike Green, whose 15 goals lead NHL defensemen? He came from Detroit in the deal for Robert Lang — or rather, the first-round pick used to acquire him did. So did Tomas Fleischmann, recently signed to a new two-year contract.

Alexander Semin, the Caps’ No. 2 goal scorer after Ovechkin? He was a byproduct of the trade that sent Adam Oates to the Flyers.

Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn? Part of the Bruins’ payment for Sergei Gonchar.

Brooks Laich? The warm body Ottawa gave up to get Peter Bondra for the ‘04 stretch run.

And that’s not all. Several other players obtained in such trades might surface down the road — such as Theo Ruth, Richard Zednik’s parting gift when he went to the Isles. Also, let’s not forget, the Caps still have two second-rounders coming to them this year for Dainius Zubrus (because of some nifty horse trading by McPhee, who turned a late No. 1 from Buffalo, Dainius’ destination, into two No. 2s and a No. 3).

The ages of Green, Fleischmann, Semin, Schultz, Morrisonn, Laich and Ruth: 22, 23, 23, 22, 25, 24 and 19.

The ages of Lang, Oates, Gonchar, Bondra and Zednik: 37, 45, 33, 40 and 32. (Adam and Bonzai are out of hockey.)

“Deadline deals are usually sucker’s plays,” Leonsis said in an e-mail. “Most of the deals don’t turn out well, sort of like most big free agent signings.”

Once he came to this conclusion, the Caps owner let the other guys be the suckers and started stockpiling young talent. Which doesn’t mean, as next week’s deadline approaches, he’d shy away from a trade that might provide some short-term help.

“George has the budget and wherewithal to improve the team,” he wrote. “BUT we will stay on the plan, we will NOT trade a first-round pick or great young prospects for a rental player and set our overall development plan back. I remain patient and believe in what we are doing.”

There you have it, folks, the two ends of the sports management spectrum. On one end are the Caps, biding their time, and on the other are the Suns, Mavericks and Lakers, for whom the future is now. Here’s the thing about the latter three, though: Only one of them can reach the finals — this year, anyway. And for Shaq and Kidd, in particular, who knows how many years there’ll be after that?

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