Wednesday, February 27, 2008

George McPhee didn’t expect to be busy yesterday, but that certainly changed.

The Washington Capitals general manager made a trio of moves before the NHL’s trade deadline in attempt to bolster his franchise’s chances of reaching the postseason for the first time in five years.

McPhee acquired goaltender Cristobal Huet from Montreal for a 2009 second-round draft pick, center Sergei Fedorov from Columbus for 2007 draft pick Theo Ruth and left wing Matt Cooke from Vancouver for left wing Matt Pettinger.

With his team five points from the Southeast Division lead as the day started but struggling recently (1-2-3 in its last six), McPhee added players without sacrificing any of the team’s premium assets for the future. The Caps acquired the second-round pick earlier this season from Anaheim for Brian Sutherby, and Ruth, the 46th overall selection in June, is likely several years from making an impact.

“We were trying to give our team a little push without giving away the future because that wouldn’t make sense for us right now,” McPhee said. “I thought we did a pretty good job with it.”

Picking up Huet was not only a surprising move for the Caps but maybe the most shocking deal on a day when teams completed 25 transactions before the 3 p.m. deadline. A 32-year-old native of France, Huet is 21-12-6 this season with a 2.56 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

He has struggled lately, allowing 19 goals in his past five starts, and the Canadiens decided to make 20-year-old Carey Price their No. 1 guy.

“I’m not too worried about my game,” Huet said. “I am confident I can help the Capitals win.”

Huet’s addition means the Caps now have three goaltenders on the roster. One of them is Olie Kolzig, who has been the backbone of the franchise for a decade and holds nearly every team goaltending record.

How Caps coach Bruce Boudreau handles the goaltender rotation and the chemistry in the dressing room will be key elements to making this deal a success.

“I think communication is the biggest thing,” Boudreau said. “Three goalies is a tough thing to handle. You’re not going to be able to make everyone happy.”

Both McPhee and Boudreau said Kolzig understood the decision, but he declined to comment on the situation when he arrived at Verizon Center. Both Kolzig and Huet are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, while Brent Johnson has one more year left on his contract.

“Not necessarily — I wouldn’t put it that way at all,” McPhee said when asked whether this signaled the end of Kolzig’s tenure with Washington.

As for whether he tried to trade Kolzig: “Not a chance — he didn’t ask for it, and we weren’t contemplating it.”

Said Kolzig after last night’s 4-1 victory over the Wild in which he stopped 34 of 35 shots: “It is what it is. I’ll just say that. I’m not going to stir up a beehive. We’ve got something good going here.”

Fedorov, twice named the NHL’s top defensive forward, is not the world-class player he was with Detroit and Anaheim. But the 1994 league MVP could end Washington’s revolving door at center on the second line since Michael Nylander’s torn rotator cuff sidelined him for the season. Fedorov, 38, has nine goals and 28 points in 50 games this season.

He missed 13 games with a concussion and left Columbus’ most recent game with a minor leg injury, but he is expected to join the team today.

“Like any great fighter, you hope he’s got one good fight left in him,” McPhee said.

Cooke is a rugged 29-year-old forward who, much like Pettinger, may benefit from the change of address. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Cooke has seven goals and 16 points this season for the Canucks. Pettinger, a Victoria, B.C., native, had two goals and seven points for the Caps, and McPhee said he has talked to Vancouver about this swap a few times in recent weeks.

By adding Huet, Fedorov and Cooke — who all become unrestricted free agents July 1 — and subtracting Pettinger, the Caps will add slightly more than $2 million in payroll during the season’s final 40 days.

For a franchise that has been at or near the bottom of the NHL in that department during the past few seasons, the moves signal a shift in philosophy for the Caps.

“[Majority owner] Ted [Leonsis] was all for it,” McPhee said. “Ownership was clear if there was something there that could give us a push to go ahead and do it.”

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