Leading up to last season’s trade deadline, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee didn’t think he would be busy - and then he traded for three players, including a starting goaltender and a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
So how does McPhee feel this year with the cutoff for trades looming Wednesday?
“The same way - I don’t really have anything going at this point,” McPhee said. “You talk to teams and see what develops. Right now, there’s not a lot going on, but maybe all hell breaks loose on Tuesday or Wednesday, and maybe nothing happens.”
On Thursday, Anaheim and Pittsburgh made the first major trade (forwards Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi for defenseman Ryan Whitney) heading into the deadline, and more are sure to come. Whether or not McPhee gets involved remains to be seen, but there a few reasons why the Caps may stand pat this season.
Washington’s situation is different than last February, when the Caps added goalie Cristobal Huet, center Sergei Fedorov and wing Matt Cooke for a second-round pick, defensive prospect Theo Ruth and forward Matt Pettinger.
In the days before the deadline, the Caps were locked in a battle for postseason survival but started to falter. Washington lost five of the final six games before deadline day last season, so McPhee said he wanted to see if he could give the team one final boost.
There were also glaring holes in the lineup because of season-ending injuries to Michael Nylander and captain Chris Clark. Essentially, Fedorov was added to replace Nylander, and Cooke was brought in to help make up for Clark’s absence. Huet was a bonus - starting goaltenders from playoff-bound teams aren’t typically available this time of year, and not for the price of a draft pick.
“We’re a better team than we were at this point last year,” McPhee said. “We’re comfortable with our team, and obviously we’ve been playing really well this year. If there is something we can do to tweak it, we might, but if not we’re fine.
“The problem last year was we had injuries at certain positions that hurt us. We’ve had some injuries this year, but we have more depth this year than we had last year. That need isn’t there like it was last year.”
Another potential hurdle for the Caps is logistics - namely the salary cap and the contract limit. Last season the Caps were far from the salary ceiling, but this year they’re closer. Having Chris Clark on long-term injured reserve opens up space, but defenseman Karl Alzner’s eventual return from the minors eats up more than half of that.
“We have room if we want to do something,” McPhee said. “You just never know how’s it is going to go, but there’s room to do something if there is something that makes sense. I’m not concerned about that.”
Teams are also limited to having 50 players on NHL contracts, and the Caps are at that number. McPhee can’t trade a draft pick for a player, as he did to get Huet. For every player who is added between now and Wednesday, someone with an NHL contract will have to leave in the deal.
Despite all that, McPhee is in a position of strength to tweak his roster. The Caps’ system is teeming with prospects who have NHL potential, and several of them have proved themselves at this level during brief stays this season.
The big catch would be a veteran defenseman, and the notion of adding someone such as Anaheim’s Chris Pronger or Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester would make Caps fans giddy. But there will be plenty of competition for the top defensemen available.
Other areas that could be addressed include a veteran goaltender, but Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov have played well in Brent Johnson’s absence. Another veteran with leadership qualities might also be of interest to help replace Clark, but he could back with the team during a deep playoff run.
Any new additions might be a luxury at this point. The Caps own the Eastern Conference‘s second-best record and they have fared well against such league powers as Boston, New Jersey and Detroit.
“We’re confident in the guys we have in here,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We really like our hockey team. I really like our hockey team. When we play the way we are capable of playing, we are a very tough team to beat.
“I think if there is a way to make our team better we’ll do it, but I don’t think we’re in a big rush to do it. We have a lot of good, young hockey players who are going to be the future of this organization, and I don’t think we want to compromise that.”