- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When he was a young player just starting his career, Capitals coach Adam Oates heard rumors as the NHL’s trade deadline approached that he could be dealt. As he prepared for a game that night, the thought ruined his pregame nap.

A few years later, Oates faced the same scenario. By then, he knew it was just part of the business.

“I slept like a baby,” Oates remembered.

His players face that same uncertainty on Wednesday. The NHL has a 3 p.m. deadline for teams to make deals.

But is there anything left for general manager George McPhee to do? Washington got a jump on the deadline by making a pair of deals on Tuesday — acquiring left wing Dustin Penner from Anaheim and finally moving disgruntled winger Martin Erat to Phoenix.

The price for Penner was only a fourth-round pick that was the Ducks’ in the first place thanks to a September trade with the Caps for center Mathieu Perreault.

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“If a guy is getting traded for the first time or it’s a surprise or if it’s a young guy — yeah,” Oates said when asked if the deadline can be a distraction for players.

That might qualify in Penner’s case. A left wing with 13 goals and 19 assists in 2013-14, he has spent six of his nine NHL seasons playing in the Los Angeles area with the Ducks or Kings and helped both franchises win a Stanley Cup.

Penner tweeted that he was told of the deal shortly after stepping onto the ice in Anaheim for practice around 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time. The shock may have accounted for a terse chat with reporters from the airport as Penner prepared to fly to Philadelphia, where the Washington plays the Flyers on Wednesday night.

“I hope to be in the lineup tomorrow,” Penner said. “If not, I rushed for nothing.”

Erat’s $4.5 million salary-cap hit was a poison pill for many teams. So McPhee, in return for Erat and minor-league forward John Mitchell, had to take back defenseman Rostislav Klesla, 31, and minor-league forward Chris Brown from the Coyotes. The Caps also received a fourth-round draft pick in 2015.

Klesla is a 14-year NHL veteran who was buried in the minors most of this season by Phoenix. He makes $2.975 million, but because he has been in the minors his cap hit is $2.05 million. The pro-rated portion of that money will count against Washington’s salary cap, but he is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Erat had another year left on his contract. Unhappy with his ice time and role under Oates, he had requested a trade in November and reiterated that position last week even as his ice time increased.

The trade capped a whirlwind month for Erat that included the birth of his daughter and playing for the Czech Republic at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Caps immediately used the freed cap space to activate defenseman Jack Hillen from the long-term injured reserve list. Hillen broke his leg in an Oct. 3 game against Calgary. He is expected to make his return Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Penner is in the final year of a contract that pays $2 million. At 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, his presence at left wing will help given that Brooks Laich — who has been fighting a lingering groin issue — missed Tuesday’s practice at Kettler Iceplex. Laich’s status remains in doubt for Wednesday’s game.

Laich had been playing on the first line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Penner, who primarily played on Anaheim’s first line this season with former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry and star center Ryan Getzlaf, is no stranger to skating with elite players.

Penner’s best season was in 2009-10 with the Edmonton Oilers when he had 32 goals and 31 assists. He is familiar with Caps forward Eric Fehr. They grew up together in Winkler, Manitoba, and played on the same team together as teenagers.

Washington has made the postseason six consecutive years, but found itself a point out of a playoff spot entering play on Tuesday with just 20 games remaining.

McPhee is usually active at this time of year. Forwards Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke and goalie Cristobal Huet arrived at the deadline in 2008. Forwards Scott Walker and Eric Belanger and defenseman Joe Corvo came in separate trades in 2010. He acquired forward Jason Arnott and defenseman Dennis Wideman in 2011.

With a loaded roster in 2009, McPhee stood pat. He did the same in 2012. Last year brought the controversial trade of prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Erat and minor leaguer Michael Latta.

Forsberg was a first-round pick in 2012, No. 11 overall, and at age 19 has already made his NHL debut with Nashville. The Hockey News rates him as the game’s fourth best prospect. Now Erat is gone and Latta, 22, has spent most of this year with AHL Hershey.

None of McPhee’s moves have helped lift the Caps past the second round of the playoffs. So far, none have hurt them, either — though the jury is still out on the Forsberg deal given his age and potential.

Otherwise, McPhee has dealt journeyman players like David Steckel, Matt Pettinger and Brian Pothier or marginal prospects like Theo Ruth, Jake Hauswirth and Oskar Osala. Not everyone in the organization, however, saw trades as necessary.

“Our team hasn’t changed in the past couple seasons and we’ve been able to get to the playoffs,” forward Troy Brouwer said before learning of the Penner and Erat deals. “We’re right there. We’re playing well most nights. Every team is gonna have their stumbles and their hiccups. But I like the character in this room, I like the battle in this room and I believe we’ll be in the playoffs when the playoffs start.”

McPhee’s recent history shows a willingness to give up second-round draft picks. Since 2008, the Caps have traded six second-round picks. Washington traded all four second-round selections it had in its possession from 2010 to 2012 in separate deals for Belanger, Corvo, Arnott and Mike Ribeiro. It’s a chip McPhee and his staff have been willing to use to get a player they want.

But Washington is $1,838,849 under the cap, according to the web site CapGeek.com, and has two open roster spots with Laich and center Mikhail Grabovski (left ankle) hurting. That means more maneuvering is still possible as the deadline approaches, and the Caps will be watching.

“It’s impossible not to follow it,” Fehr said. “Obviously, your fate and a lot of other players around the league depend on the deadline, so you pay attention. But we also have a game so you’ve got to go through the routine, take the pregame nap and hope for the best when you wake up.”

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