- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Guess Ted Leonsis wasn’t kidding last week when told me his general manager, George McPhee, had “the budget and the wherewithal” to upgrade the Capitals at the trading deadline. Suddenly yesterday the Caps had three new players, two of them certified Big Names and all of them, the front office hopes, capable of putting the club back on the playoff path.

As deadline deals go, it isn’t quite as cataclysmic as the one David Poile pulled off years ago, the blockbuster that sent Vezina Trophy winner Jim Carey, Jason Allison and Anson Carter to Boston for Adam Oates, Rick Tocchet and Bill Ranford, but it’s still pretty stunning. In recent years, after all, the Capitals have been a veritable Clearance Warehouse for NHL GMs, yet here they are reversing roles and parting with a bit of their future to acquire goalie Cristobal Huet from Montreal (for an ‘09 second-round pick) and center Sergei Fedorov from Columbus (for their second-rounder last year, defenseman Theo Ruth of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish).

Their other transaction, 27-year-old left wing Matt Pettinger to Vancouver for 29-year-old left wing Matt Cooke, is one of those change-of-scenery moves that could help both teams or neither. At the very least, though, it will quicken a few more pulses in the locker room, and that’s what McPhee is looking for right now, a little added oomph as the Caps head into the most important part of their schedule.

Make no mistake, he said before last night’s game against Minnesota at Verizon Center, “We’re [still] building. We’re trying to give our team a little push without giving away the future.”

It would have been nice, of course, to get Fedorov 10 years ago, when he was reaching around Calle Johansson and flicking a backhander past Olie Kolzig to beat the Capitals in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals (the first finals game ever played in Washington). Back then, Sergei was electrifying arenas and earning $12 million bonuses. Now the Russian is 38 and, to put it in “Doctor Zhivago” terms, looking a lot more like Rod Steiger than Omar Sharif.

That said, he has 28 points in 50 games this season and still generates respect if not trepidation. He doesn’t figure to give the Caps the kind of production Michael Nylander did before getting hurt, but at least he’s “that type of a [center iceman],” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We haven’t had that. … I think both Alexes [Ovechkin and Semin] will look up to him.”

That”s the thing you never know with these deadline deals — how the team chemistry will shake out. For a club as young as the Capitals, it”s a particular concern. The deal, after all, impacts on their fearless leader, Kolzig, more than anybody. Will the arrival of Huet, an All-Star a year ago, marginalize Olie the Goalie? And if so, will that create unwanted tension?

“It”s a little bizarre,” Kolzig said. “When [the Huet trade] happened, I was waiting by the phone, figuring I was going somewhere, and then … I didn”t see this coming. You think you have a pretty good read of where we are as a team, what our needs are, but I guess not.”

He’s easy to love, Olie is, but let’s not forget: Kolzig is 37. The end is clearly near. Heck, his save percentage (.888 before last night) is worse than Brent Johnson’s (.908), never mind Huet’s (.916). Also, the Capitals haven’t made the playoffs since 2003 — and haven’t won a series in a decade (since the year they went to the finals, horrifyingly enough). Sure the roster could stand a pick-me-up, but the fans stand one even more. And at last glance, I’ll just point out, the Caps were 11th in the conference standings.

So Leonsis and McPhee, inhumanly patient until now, decided to get back in the game, decided to be buyers at the deadline rather than sellers. Now we’ll sit back over the remaining six weeks and see whether their maneuvering has the desired effect. Midseason shakeups often do in hockey — for some strange reason. Look at the Capitals’ turnaround since Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon behind the bench. It’s almost as if the players periodically need a fire lit under them, just to keep them hopping. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it doesn’t seem quite that way in any other sport.

McPhee isn’t sure why this phenomenon “happens in hockey and not in other sports,” either — or even whether it does. What he is sure of, though, is that “if you can fill the right needs [for your team], I think you can get a good rush out of it.”

Even without their three new additions, who don’t report for duty until today, the Caps played crisply in last night’s 4-1 win over Wild, played with a reinforcements-are-on-the-way joie de vivre. And Kolzig, who may not get many more starts in front of the home folks, responded with solid performance. Only a deflection by unattended Branko Radivojevic in the crease slipped past him.

But the “rush” McPhee talked about could be very temporary. All three players are at the end of their contracts and will be unrestricted free agents this summer. That’s why the next order of business for the Capitals GM, assuming he likes what he sees from Huet, is to lock him up for the long term. It’s OK if the other two turn out to be rentals, but hanging on to a goalie who could give the Caps three or four more good years — and provide a bridge to the Next Goalie, whomever that might be — is an absolute must.

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