A Desperation Move by a Desperate GM

Cup'pa JoeOnce upon a time, Capitals General Manager George McPhee was viewed, rightly I think, as cautious and shrewd each spring around trade deadline time. Never one to radically revamp his roster with wheeling and dealing then, McPhee in fact over the years has widely earned a reputation for perhaps being overly cautious, a bit too much of a deadline fence-sitter relative to his manager peers — particularly the elite ones.

A little before happy hour Wednesday George McPhee took a sledgehammer to that characterization, and in the process he may well have mortgaged a promising future for his hockey club.

There are tiers to NHL prospects, but consensus on Filip Forsberg was clear: He’s a bluechipper. Addressing the media Wednesday evening, McPhee didn’t dispute one reporter’s contention that Forsberg represented “a big part” of the Capitals’ future. And from every reasonable vantage since his drafting last June, how couldn’t he had been so regarded? He was considered a bit of a steal by the Caps at no. 11 in the first round, he earned the captaincy for his hockey power nation at this year’s World Juniors, and he was even pointed to by the team owner recently as a cornerstone prospect. So in moving a bluechip prospect for Martin Erat, a 31-year-old wing whose minutes-eating production in Nashville this season allowed him — in 11 more games — to equal the goals production of Wojtek Wolski in Washington, McPhee has invited the interpretation that it’s win now — and take an enormous risk in trying to do so — for a team that in this truncated season has veered little from 14th to 11th in the Eastern conference.

On Twitter, I’m an interloper, generally maintaining what I believe is a healthy distance from the clutter-chatter, but near 5:00 yesterday it was terribly telling to read the breaking news coverage from pro hockey’s most respected and popular personalities there. I paraphrase and aggregate the shocked tweets: Word that it’s Forsberg on Washington’s end, and Erat from Nashville. But there must be more coming from Poile.

There was — an AHL body.

It’s astounding, but apparently it is George McPhee’s actual thinking these days: He believes the Caps’ roster was merely one forward — and not a star forward at that — away from contending.

Had the Caps yesterday afternoon been lodged in 5th or 6th in the East, looking reasonably impressive against top-flight, in-conference competition in the process, and had they just suffered a devastating injury to a forward in their top 6, I could have somewhat understood the move McPhee made yesterday. But the reality is something quite the opposite: the Caps have won a good bit of late — against conference bottom-feeders — and all season long they’ve been outclassed when matched up against their much-betters. They aren’t one player away from looking strong against the league’s best, they’re at least three difference-making players away. Filip Forsberg and Evgeny Kuznetsov were widely regarded as two players who could significantly address the current roster’s shortcomings, and reasonably soon. And it bears mentioning: it’s not as if the Caps had stockpiled an embarrassment of bluechip riches in the development pipeline; there was a big dropoff in can’t-miss, impact projection after those two European studs. Now they have one.

This morning I think it’s especially interesting to raise a comparison with that other team in town just starting its season — the World Series favorite Nats. Remember just a couple of years back, when local media was fond of alluding to the blueprint for durable contention newly adopted by the Nats — in emulation of the city’s pro hockey team? Draft sagely, develop patiently, forsake the quick fix. I don’t think I was the only hockey fan in town who in Forsberg and Kusnetsov saw a parallel with the Nats’ Strasburg and Harper. Quick reader poll: Who between those teams do you think is more likely to reach the Promised Land first, even though the Caps had a good 5-year head start with the blueprint? Also, who’s more likely to fall flat in failure? Lastly this morning, who do you think ought to be emulating who in roster assembly?

More disturbing context for yesterday’s head-scratching deal: The window on the Capitals’ legitimate Cup contention with their current core either has or has not closed. A fair number of reasonable and reputable league watchers have publicly hedged bets that in fact it has closed. The transition period to a refreshed, rejiggered/reconfigured roster and encouraging period of contention, I’ve been writing in this space for about a year, could be reasonably modest: Basically, had Capitals’ management bit the bullet on an aberration season in ’12-13, and landed an impact difference-maker up top in a top-heavy entry draft in June, hockey here could have been headline-grabbing again in short order. More importantly, that Capitals club would be built in important ways its pretender predecessors weren’t.

More concern: Had yesterday’s deal been carried off with say Columbus, or Florida, or the Isles — the easily hood-winked, you might call them — I’d feel a good deal more comfortable. But David Poile isn’t just a solid GM. He’s a time-tested builder, and particularly a builder of solid foundations in trouble markets. In order for pro hockey to succeed in Nashville, Poile and his scouts have to be right about talent a good deal more reliably than many of their peers. Nashville is a market that can’t retain an abundance of elite talent like say the Caps or Rags or Pens can. They have to draft wisely, develop talent durably, get lucky in rounds hardly anyone does, and sagely manage layers of talent development, knowing that free agency will deplete them almost annually. So the Preds pluck the likes of Pekka Rinne (8th round), Anders Lindback (7th round), Martin Erat (7th round), and Patric Hornqvist (last pick overall in his draft year). It isn’t enough for the Predators to know North American hockey prospect talent well; they have to uncover gems overseas, and their track record with that is rather stellar. I’m confident that Poile and his scouts had a good read on Filip Forsberg last June, and that nearly a year later they’re equally well informed about him.

This organizational comparison of mine isn’t failsafe or foolproof, but for me it is a bit disquieting. It was both amusing and annoying for me to listen to George McPhee tell the media last night that “We’ve drafted well enough that we could do [the trade].” Sage drafting and player development doesn’t lead to staffing your top six with 600k-a-year castoffs, or never-properly-developed Marcus Johansson.

George McPhee has done some good and wise things in his tenure here, and he’s authored some serious WTFs. What he hasn’t earned in 16 years on the job is any right to gloat.

Let’s get to round three one spring this century and perhaps then think about a little self congratulations.

Martin Erat — he of 4 goals in 36 games this season, and fully three years removed from scoring 20 goals in a campaign — is a setup guy, not a lamp lighter. The Caps already have those (Ribeiro, Backstrom). He’ll cost the Caps $4.5 million each of the next two seasons — all but eliminating any reasonable possibility that the club can resign Ribeiro. Then where are they come summer? Well, where they were 24 hours ago — but minus a bluechip prospect. And weak again down the middle. God help this manager if his squad finishes 9th in three weeks’ time.

Most of all yesterday’s trade reminded me of what the Washington hockey club under this manager represents relative to our elite peers. Yesterday’s was a trade that Lou Lamoreillo, Ray Shero, Stan Bowman — you know, the managers of clubs who win a lot and win often when it matters — never make, ever. Riverboat gambling a fair bit of the future for a high-risk, fast fix. It was a trade made from a position of weakness, out on a wing and a prayer. This league’s winners know better.

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This entry was posted in David Poile, Eastern Conference, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, Front Office, George McPhee, Martin Erat, Morning cup-a-joe, Nashville Predators, NHL trade deadline, The curse of Washington hockey, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to A Desperation Move by a Desperate GM

  1. Bruce Chango says:

    I would like to point something out. While extolling the virtues of David Poile, lets look at the records of the two teams over the past 5 years including playoffs.
    If you had a Frozen Blog site dedicated to the Preds, (all things being equal) you would have called for the firing of Poile and Trotz years ago! I’m not sayin’….I’m just sayin’!
    1st the Caps

    2007–08 82 43 31 8 94 242 231 1st, Southeast Lost in Conference Quarterfinals, 3-4 (Flyers)
    2008–09 82 50 24 8 108 272 245 1st, Southeast Lost in Conference Semifinals, 3-4 (Penguins)
    2009–10 82 54 15 13 121 318 233 1st, Southeast Lost in Conference Quarterfinals, 3-4 (Canadiens)
    2010–11 82 48 23 11 107 224 197 1st, Southeast Lost in Conference Semifinals, 0-4 (Lightning)
    2011–12 82 42 32 8 92 222 230 2nd, Southeast Lost in Conference Semifinals, 3-4 (Rangers)

    Now the Preds;

    Season GP W L OTL Pts GF GA Finish Playoffs
    2007–08
    82 41 32 9 91 227 224 2nd, Central Lost in Conference Quarterfinals, 2–4 (Red Wings)

    2008–09
    82 40 34 8 88 207 228 5th, Central Did not qualify
    2009–10
    82 47 29 6 100 225 225 3rd, Central Lost in Conference Quarterfinals, 2–4 (Blackhawks)

    2010–11
    82 44 27 11 99 219 194 2nd, Central Lost in Conference Semifinals, 2–4 (Canucks)

    2011–12
    82 48 26 8 104 237 210 2nd, Central Lost in Conference Semifinals, 1–4 (Coyotes)

  2. Bruce, notice I didn’t lump Poile in with what I’ve ID’d as the league’s “elite” GMs; instead, I labeled him an impressive “builder.” He’s had two NHL gigs, and in both instances worked within what might charitably be termed resource-challenged environments.

  3. Jay says:

    Thank you for this, it’s like I was reading the thoughts in my own head. This organization is likely in a world of trouble for the short term. The only hope I have is that McPhee is fired and someone can come in and fix the mess that exists now.

  4. Scai says:

    I think McPhee’s right. Try and get in the playoffs and see what happens. Once you’re in, you have a chance. Too many instances of low-seeded teams having success, making it to the finals or winning the Cup, to say otherwise.
    Plus this team has been playing very good hockey as of late. Not only are they winning at a .700 rate, they’re also regularly dominating teams, even in games they don’t win. Oates has got a good system in place that, now that the players have grasped it, is working very well. The team has done a wonderful job of rebuilding its blueline on the fly, retooling with smart puck-moving defensemen that can break a forecheck (which is vital in the playoffs). The offense had been a bit one-dimensional as of late and that’s why the trade was made. So I say this trade makes a good team, that has a chance at the brig price, even better. That’s why it’s a good move.
    Forsberg will probably never be better than Erat is now and the Caps now have Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green in their prime, that’s why it’s right to go for it. Good for McPhee for making such a tough move.

  5. morgan says:

    GMGM is desparate. He rolled the dice on this and they came up “snake eyes.” Poile took him and the Caps to the cleaners. Hopefully, rebuilt II will occur without GMGM’s participation. Agree with P & B 100 percent.

  6. Paul M says:

    GMGM cannot be interested in the long run, because as George Allen might have said GMGM’s future is now. If this club does not make the playoffs, or even with another quick exit, at some point Teddy Groupon has to jettison the closest thing this town has ever seen to an un-fireable sports executive (call him “Mr. Asbestos”).

    Filip Forsberg may in fact develop into the second coming of Nicklas Backstrom in Nashville or elsewhere. Or he may not. What McPhee knew for certain is that is was not going to happen in 2013 regardless of the location.

    It’s hard to ask a man who is starving today to plant crops and patiently wait for the harvest.

  7. Paul,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and smile-inducing comment. Question: If you imagine Mr. McPhee “starving today,” what level of nourishment do you imagine me having, having first started passionately following this organization in its inaugural season?

  8. NYIFAN says:

    In case you have not noticed, Mike Milbury is no longer the GM of the NYI and has not been the Islanders’ GM for many years. The NYI have not been among the “easily hoodwinked” as you call them for many years. In fact, that is why the Islanders are already better than the Capitals while still sitting on five first round draft picks (Niederreiter, Strome, Nelson, deHaan and Reinhart), three of whom were top five picks.

    Your GM has managed to build a big team with not so much skill or talent.

  9. A.H. says:

    I’ve realized over the past few seasons that with the Caps it is not, nor ever has been, about winning the Cup. It is purely marketing and brand enhancement. It is vastly more important to the team to make the playoffs, hang fake banners, and continue “sellout” streaks for the purpose of being able to raise ticket prices year after year. Moves like this enable the team to say “we tried, sorry,” rather than address key issues through careful prospect management and rebuilding, a la the Nationals.

  10. Mark T. says:

    What I think you failed to say, which is what I believed when I heard about the trade, is that McPhee is on the hot seat. This WAS on a wing and a prayer, because he has NOW to win. That’s the message that came through loud and clear to me. GM’s under scrutiny by their ownership make these moves.

  11. jdimetal says:

    Just have a big’ole plate of crow ready to eat just in case Forsberg doesn’t materialize into much of anything in the NHL IF he makes it to this level.

  12. Pretty sure you missed the overall point of my piece. This wasn’t a Forsberg-specific condemnation of asset strategy. I’d have been equally disturbed had it been Kuzy shipped out, or a couple of years back, had it been Carlson. That’s why I closed with the reflection that the *winning* organizations in this sport *NEVER* do what the Caps did yesterday.

  13. Paul M says:

    Pucksandbooks, my answer is you are probably better-fed than a degenerate Maple Leafs fan!

    I will turn 46 this year and have followed the team since year one (the year I turned 7) also. I have hockey sticks given to me by Timo Blomqvist and Bob Mason, and feel genuinely bad that Guy Charron (as good as he was) never played in a Stanley Cup playoff game.

    The truth of it is that winning the Cup is damn hard. 30 teams want to, and 29 will fail every year. Since 1974 the Caps are with the Sabres, Blues, Canucks, Maple Leafs and only one Cup worse than the Flyers, Bruins, Blackhawks, Flames, Stars, Kings and Rangers (I must be forgetting someone…)

    The better question to ask is whether this club can contend. Once the playoffs start, outcomes are a lot more random than any of us want to believe. As I look at the standing this morning, the Caps are in the playoffs at the moment. If they are in it, they can win it.

  14. David V says:

    Reading Caps fans posts regarding the trade, I’m reminded of how powerful peddling “hope” to the masses can be. Hell, we’ve got a president who’s done it twice, the second time in the face of massive failure to deliver. Really guys…trading one good, unproven prospect for a proven top six forward “mortgaged a promising future”? Take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to suppress your visceral reaction to anything the Caps management does. This was an excellent trade at just the right time.

  15. sportsbaron1 says:

    George McPhee is an imbecile who ought to have been fired YEARS ago–if only for his fence-sitting and queer decision making with Alexander Semin–a career enigma who could look like the second coming of Denis Savard one night and then the re-incarnation of Elmer Fudd for the next eight. Mortgaging the future by trading a highly regarded prospect like Forsberg for a warmed-over plumber like Martin Erat when the Caps’ roster is already FILLED TO OVERFLOWING with marginally talented players like him–and then announcing to all and sundry that the trade was made to ensure that the Caps could position themselves to win now–is the height (and depth) of stupidity and should culminate in McPhee being pink-slipped, in my opinion. He’s a highly paid jackass who shouldn’t be within a hundred miles of a GM position as far as I’m concerned, his latest move being an obvious case in point.

    Disgusted Beyond Speech and Remaining,

    Clifford
    Santa Monica

  16. sportsbaron1 says:

    GREAT POINTS!!! I’m thrilled to find someone who sees things the way I do vis a vis George McPhee’s most recent “decision” and the lack of impact it figures to have on the Caps’ dismal chances of securing Lord Stanley’s Cup this year….or any other the way this club is constituted…

    Disgusted,

    Clifford
    Santa Monica

  17. Steve R says:

    Latta I believe will be the interesting part of this trade. Tootoo with hands I saw him called.

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