- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

OTTAWA — Eight days ago, George McPhee wasn’t showing his hand ahead of the trade deadline, not a surprise given his reputation as a general manager who works behind the scenes without disclosing much information. But the man in charge of the Washington Capitals’ front office made one thing clear.

“We’re not interested in moving anybody. We think we have a solid team when we get healthy,” he said. “We’re not that interested in moving people out.”

McPhee acknowledged that concussed star Nicklas Backstrom’s uncertain status could affect his plans ahead of Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline for NHL teams to complete all trades for this season. Captain Alex Ovechkin’s lower-body injury suffered this week and center Brooks Laich’s knee problem, which he insists is not an issue, make the picture even muddier.

Add to it the fact the Capitals have lost three straight and six of even and earned just three points in that time. Yet they’re stuck in neutral in the standings thanks to teams around them similarly bungling opportunities to rack up victories. It’s just about an impossible situation for McPhee, who’s tasked with trying to win now and still think of the future.

“If there’s a way to help the club, we will. If there isn’t a deal that makes sense, then we won’t do it,” he said last week. “You do have to put a team on the ice again in September, and we have certainly lots of young talent that everybody would like to have. But we’d like to have them in our lineup in September, too.”

Factors out of McPhee’s hands could also decide whether the Capitals are buyers, sellers or squatters in the trade market. While the middle of the Eastern Conference is clustered, the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins appear more than formidable, and the Pittsburgh Penguins could join that elite class, especially if Sidney Crosby returns. This might not be the right year to sacrifice a piece of the future to attempt to fulfill preseason expectations of contending for the Stanley Cup.

Considering that Backstrom has not skated in more than a month, and a return before the playoffs would be surprising, McPhee likely would need to fill a major need at center. Without putting Backstrom on the long-term injured reserve list, a move that would free up another $6.7 million in salary cap allowance, Washington doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver — roughly $1 million if center Keith Aucoin is returned to Hershey.

“There are always ways to do things, I think,” McPhee said.” You just identify what you need and then figure out how you get it. We’ll see what develops. I think I’m like a lot of GMs where you sit there and you have some ideas, but you’re not sure where things are going to go.”

While there has been some movement, expect most of the action Sunday and Monday. Washington has two games before that, Friday night at home against the Montreal Canadiens and Saturday night at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Its performance in those games could affect McPhee’s plan. Defenseman Dennis Wideman, forwards Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble and goaltender Tomas Vokoun are unrestricted free agents this summer, and a shift into sell mode could net nice returns.

A full sell-off of assets is unlikely, especially considering the Caps are perilously close to a playoff spot and even the Southeast Division lead. Uncertainty is certainly in the air.

“I’m sure it’s in guys’ minds and what we’re going to do. But I guess you don’t have any control,” defenseman Jeff Schultz said. “You just got to go out there and play, and it’s all up to management what they’re going to do to make this team better.”

That’s the theme around the locker room, though players react differently. Wideman, who’s probably headed toward a big pay day in July, kept the mood light.

“Do I feel vulnerable? I try not to think about it. Every time you start thinking about it, then it starts affecting the way you play and stuff like that,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. Whenever you think you’re not getting traded, that’s when you get traded. So I’m getting traded.”

Truth is, most players don’t know they’re getting traded or how safe they are. It’s especially tough in this situation with the Caps hovering in no-man’s land. But they’re trying not to let it affect them.

“It’s that time of the year, but we have to be professionals about it. We have to focus on what we’re doing at the present time, and that’s trying to win hockey games,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “And if George feels that changes need to be made, it’s not anything you can worry about. If something happens, it’s going to happen. You just can’t worry about it.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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