They didn’t pay dividends in last night’s 6-4 loss at Philadelphia – Washington’s second to the Flyers in four days – but Caps general manager George McPhee’s three deals before yesterday’s NHL trading deadline were pretty sensible even though he didn’t address the major need for a Karl Alzner clone to play among his top four defensemen alongside the offensive-minded John Carlson and Mike Green.
Washington is 18th in goals-against average and 22nd in killing penalties, but McPhee didn’t address those blue line deficiencies, trusting that better goaltending will make a big difference.
In effect, McPhee traded disgruntled left wing Martin Erat, unhappy backup goalie Michael Neuvirth and career minor league forward John Mitchell for two-time Stanley Cup-winning winger Dustin Penner, proven goalie Jaroslav Halak, 2013 standout AHL center Chris Brown and a fourth-round choice in the 2015 draft (the fourth-rounder the Caps gave up this year equals the third-rounder they received in 2015).
Even though the 28-year-old Halak can be a free agent this summer, he gives the Caps a goalie who has come up big in postseason – as they remember all too well from when he stoned them in Montreal’s stunning series upset in 2010, allowing just three goals as the Canadiens won the final three games.
Halak, who’s expected to begin his tenure by splitting time with Braden Holtby, was 24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against and a .917 save percentage in 40 games for St. Louis this year. Neuvirth, who turns 26 this month, was 2.85, .914 in 13 games. Halak is 10-11 in the playoffs with a 2.42 GAA and a .923 save percentage. Neuvirth is 4-5, 2.34, .912.
“The more we thought about this, the better it looked,” McPhee said. “We didn’t have to give up picks [and] we got a pick … in a real good draft. [Halak’s] played well in Montreal, he’s played well in St. Louis and we hope he can come here and play well. He’s a good goalie and he can get hot. The objective was to try to upgrade the tandem and we did.”
McPhee maintained that the deal for Halak was no reflection on Holtby, who had won four straight before losing back-to-back to the Flyers as his numbers slipped to 19-1-3, 3.01, .909 in 40 games.
“We love Braden, love his talent, love his character, love the way he battles,” McPhee said. “He’s going to be here a while. He’s only 23. [Franchise record-setting goalie] Olie Kolzig came into his own at what, 27? … Sometimes there are rough stretches with goalies. We like Holtby a lot. We like [22-year-old goalie Philipp] Grubauer a lot. We’ll see what develops with Halak [on the ice and in contract negotiations] and go from there.”
That’s equally true with the 31-year-old Penner, who can also be a free agent this summer, a fact that McPhee believes causes players to “play pretty well.”
Erat, whose acquisition from Nashville at last year’s deadline cost Washington top prospect Filip Forsberg, certainly didn’t play well for the Caps. He only scored two goals in 62 games while registering 25 assists and had made it known for months that he wanted to be traded.
Penner is actually a year younger than Erat and seems fine about coming to Washington even though he had been a regular for Anaheim, a team which might be the NHL’s best. The 6-foot-4, 247-pound Penner had 13 goals and 19 assists for the Ducks, whom he helped win the Cup in 2007, a feat he repeated with Los Angeles in 2012.
“I like the fact that he’s a big guy,” McPhee said. “He can play on lots of different lines. I sure liked what [Mike] Knuble did for us a few years ago. It’s nice to have those guys that go to the front of the net, hold people off and jam pucks in.”
The 6-3, 229-pound Knuble was 37 when he arrived in Washington in 2009 but still produced 53 goals and 40 assists in 148 games over the next two seasons.
If Penner can deliver similar results over the remaining 19 games and help move the Caps from just outside the playoff picture and into postseason for a seventh straight spring, McPhee will look pretty smart.
If Halak wrests the No. 1 goalie role away from Holtby and steals a series for Washington as he did for Montreal four years ago, McPhee might well hold onto the job he has had for nearly 17 years.
And if Penner and Halak not only play well but opt to re-sign with the Caps this summer, then this week’s deals will rise from sensible to superb.
However, if Halak and Penner aren’t difference-makers, don’t be surprised if Washington owner Ted Leonsis gives up on his dream of winning a Cup with this crew by trading some and firing the man who put the core together years ago.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.
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