So after all the rumors about the Capitals trading old men Mike Knuble or Roman1 Hamrlik or even slumping goalie Tomas Vokoun or long-baffling wing Alex Semin, general manager George McPhee stood pat today as the NHL’s trade deadline passed without him making a move.
It’s not as if the Caps are the juggernaut they have been in recent years. They were three points out of the Southeast Division lead and a point out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot at the deadline.
However, McPhee decided that doing nothing was better than making a move just to make a move even though Washington has been underachieving all year and because Hamrlik, Vokoun and, to an extent, Knuble, are unhappy with their roles under coach Dale Hunter, who took over when Bruce Boudreau was fired on Nov. 28.
“We need everybody,” McPhee said. “If (guys) are happy sitting out, then you got the wrong guys.”
McPhee said that today’s near lack of trades around the league was caused by a deadline that’s about a month earlier than it used to be and by the bunched standings in which all but a handful of teams are still thinking they can make the playoffs, meaning they were looking to get better, not dump big contracts and build for the future as the then-lowly Caps did with their incredible 2004 selloff of Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, Anson Carter, Mike Grier and Michal Nylander within a month of the deadline.
“Everybody wanted to add (veteran talent) and there was no one selling,” said McPhee, adding that he never came close to a deal. “There wasn’t anything there that would’ve been the right thing for our club. There are more mistakes made at the trading deadline than at any time in our business because everybody thinks that this is the move that puts them over the top. (Then) in the summer time, you have a lot of managers (thinking), ‘Jeez. I still wish I had that young player or had that first-round pick.’
“We weren’t going to chase a bad deal,” McPhee continued. “We have some terrific young players in our lineup … because we didn’t make mistakes the last three or four years and we’re going to have some terrific young players going forward because we didn’t give ‘em away today. Sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal.”
McPhee said that bringing up a player from the Hershey farm club was more attractive than anything he was offered, adding, “Everyone wants to be making deals, but you get in there and you see nothing but feathers. There was nothing to do, unfortunately. If there was something to do, we would’ve done it because we always have.”
Indeed, McPhee usually has been a deal-maker at the deadline. He traded for wily forward Esa Tikkanen in 1998, his first winter in Washington, a move that helped the Caps reach their only Stanley Cup finals. The next year with the Caps out of contention, McPhee dealt Hunter, Joe Juneau and Craig Berube for younger talent.
After a quiet 2000, McPhee boldly traded Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis and a first-rounder to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Danius Zubrus and a second-rounder in 2001. That certainly didn’t put Washington over the top and the next winter, the going-nowhere Caps bid farewell to elite but aging center Adam Oates. McPhee did the same with Brendan Witt in 2006 and Zubrus in 2007 before finally going for the jugular again in 2008 with the acquisitions of Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet and Matt Cooke, moves that helped push the Caps back into the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Last winter, McPhee brought veterans Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman aboard as the final pieces of an expected championship team. That dream died with the stunning sweep by Tampa Bay in the second round so McPhee acquired Vokoun, Hamrlik and forwards Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward in June.
To this point, the Caps have played more like a team that won’t even be competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup this spring, let alone hoisting it for the first time, but McPhee said that last weekend’s badly-needed victories over Montreal and Toronto heading into a five-game homestand that starts tomorrow against the New York Islanders might be the start of something big.
“I certainly think we’re capable of making the playoffs with this team,” McPhee declared. “If Nicky Backstrom comes back (from the concussion that has sidelined the first-line center since Jan. 3), we can beat anybody in this conference. … I really like the way we’ve played the last couple of games. I think we’re finally starting to play the way we can play.”
That’s pretty bold talk given the fact that the Canadiens and Maple Leafs trail the Caps in the Eastern race as do the Islanders, Tampa Bay and Carolina, three of the five teams coming to town over the next 10 days. And since Washington just lost to the Lightning and Hurricanes, those victories are far from assured.
Clearly, McPhee has staked his job on how Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the underperforming guys in red, white and blue fare the rest of the way. The GM sacrificed his coach three months ago. Now it’s his neck on the line if the roster that he assembled doesn’t qualify for postseason, let alone captures the Cup.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.