Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hours after the trading deadline ended late last month, Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier said, “The message to the players is ‘We want to get you immediate help.’ ” Enter Dainius Zubrus and backup Ty Conklin, and the Sabres were better.

It was the same thing in Nashville. The Predators had to make a statement, and general manager David Poile got Peter Forsberg — a pretty positive statement.

In Atlanta, the statement was Keith Tkachuk. On Long Island, Ryan Smyth arrived to help. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins talked character forward Gary Roberts into leaving Florida and grabbed Georges Laraque from Phoenix.

In Washington, where players have known for a long, long time they need immediate, mid-term and long-term help, it was more of the same: We’ll be there when you need us, guys. Don’t worry, we’ve got your backs.

Lots of mouth but no help, not unless Jiri Novotny, who arrived from Buffalo as a fourth-line defensive center and has done nothing to change that impression, is considered help.

And all the while the Caps are peddling themselves at Verizon Center and on TV as a commodity so hot fans had better move quickly to get their nonrefundable deposit down before the 17,900 remaining unsold seats are gone.

Unbelievable. The Caps are fielding a team that has two players with measurable skill levels — Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin — and the marketing department wants fans to believe they are dealing with the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. To make matters worse, there is nothing on the horizon that guarantees things will improve in the immediate future.

This is the direction the Caps are headed. Two years ago Washington and Pittsburgh started out about the same level — two bad teams with one exceptional young talent. That seems to be where the teams separated. Today the Penguins are fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs after rebuilding to support their young star while the Nationals stand a better chance of making the Stanley Cup playoffs than the Caps do.

“We will continue to evaluate the players in our system …” Washington general manager George McPhee said in a letter to fans after the trading deadline, promising that “this summer will be much different.”

How? How will it be any different than other recent summers when management was handcuffed from getting even a few mid-level free agents. (Majority owner Ted Leonsis often refers to well-meaning outsiders trying to help him spend his money when it comes to players. Somebody should because he doesn’t seem inclined to do it himself. Payroll: $28 million and falling.)

McPhee goes with the company line, how the prospects are developing “and we have a far greater understanding of what we might expect from them in the future. As a result we have a clearer picture of what we need to acquire via trade or free agency.”

Here’s the picture: Take Alex 1 and 2 off the roster and this is a team that would have trouble winning in the American Hockey League.

What’s needed? Almost everything and the list grows while the fundamentals are ignored. To begin with, word out of Sweden is that Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps’ top pick in the draft last summer, might not want to come to the NHL this season or even next season. There goes the theory of a first-line center.

The Caps are desperate for a powerful, playmaking center — the best money can buy. (Don’t forget, we are dealing with Ovechkin, who has been neglected for a season, allowing Sidney Crosby to latch onto the title of “world’s best hockey player”). If Backstrom is staying in Sweden, a second center is needed.

The team is desperate for a defenseman who can run the power play (Where is Larry Murphy when they need him?), one who is also quick enough to get the puck out of the zone (OK, forget Murphy).

The team is desperate for a skilled right wing who can complement one of the two Alexes.

The team is desperate for a large, nasty, edgy defenseman who can help John Erskine do the dirty work down low.

That should keep things busy until Labor Day.

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