There’s a special buzz-charge in a building on a game night when a big deal has gone down earlier in the day by the host club, but Monday’s game against Southeast basement dweller Carolina lost its buzz early. Jose Theodore, last seen smashing his stick at Kettler last weekend in being-benched-again frustration, returned to the Capitals’ starting lineup and needed I thought a solid and disciplined, fragile-psyche-calming start by his teammates in front of him Monday night. Instead, Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for a high-sticking double minor less than 5 minutes in, the Canes converted on what became a two-man advantage from a Mike Green (phantom) hooking call, Eric Staal was left largely undefended on virtually every shift, and before some patrons had settled in their seats it was last-place Carolina 3, Caps zilch.
It was an odd night on so many fronts. Some Capitals’ players, Mike Knuble pointed out in the postgame, learned of the trade of two of their teammate friends Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina only as they walked into Verizon Center early Monday evening. Bruce Boudreau was asked about the extent to which so unsettling a development could have played a role in how his team began play Monday night.
“To me, if I say it was, then I am just looking at an excuse. I don’t know if it did or if it didn’t . . . I think Carolina played really well in the first period today . . . I don’t want to use it as an excuse, even though I have been in that situation. I know it can bother some people, but I don’t know if it bothered our guys.”
For me at least it’s difficult to buy into the notion of “league-wide parity” and “on any given night anyone can win” when Carolina wielded a beyond-incompetent 1-13-4 road record entering play Monday. Yet they fairly comfortably defeated the league’s best team boasting one of the league’s best home records. And they did it largely on the strength of an overwhelming first period — upsetting another Caps’ strength. It just wasn’t meant to be the Caps’ night, partly I believe because of Monday’s afternoon drama, which played some role in forming a disoriented-looking, heavily favored host team.
And then there’s Jose Theodore.
“I thought his rebound control could have been better,” his head coach said in the postgame. Bruce Boudreau conceded that Theodore had his confidence shaken after Monday’s opening 20 minutes. Does anybody else find it stunning that confidence is not an issue that enters into any discussion of either of the Caps’ barely-of-legal-drinking-age kiddie netminders here but remains an ongoing one with the thirty-something vet of more than 500 NHL games? Even with the extraordinary circumstances of earlier in the day as backdrop, this should have been a statement performance of a winning outing for JT. Instead, a strange season for him got even stranger.
Semyon Varlamov is headed to Hershey for a rehab assignment, meaning the Caps will board a plane Tuesday for the West Coast and two toughie Pacific division games this week with Theodore and Michal Neuvirth in the netminding rotation. Go back to the fragile-psyched Theo against the high-powered Sharks, in one of the league’s toughest buildings on Wednesday? And what if he starts and puts up another stinker — what then? Is it really possible that near 2009’s end we are witnessing the wholesale transitioning of not one but two young Capitals’ goaltenders past the $5 million, former Vezina and Hart winning vet? Monday night at Verizon Center did nothing to clarify Jose Theodore’s standing with this promising and powerful Capitals’ club; instead, it further clouded the picture. “I just work here,” he belly-ached to the press in exasperation last weekend. Maybe not for much longer.
By no means was Monday’s deal between the Caps and Columbus a blockbuster, but it sure had a big deal feel to it. For one thing, any time a captain is moved in a trade, that’s big news. There was also the novelty of the first-overall-in-the-NHL Caps moving two relatively reliable parts, thereby injecting an unknown element of potentially disrupted chemistry into the roster equation. But most particularly, Monday’s trade seemed to portend a signal of bigger tinkerings to come. It moved more than $4 million in salary cap commitment, bringing back just $1.875 million with Jason Chimera, and arrived hard on the heels of the Caps shedding a cool $5.5 million in salary with Michael Nylander’s assignment to Grand Rapids of the American League.
Suddenly, the Capitals are fabulously positioned to pounce on an impact player in the leadup to the league’s trade deadline should they so choose. Do we really believe that the Cup-hungry Caps will contest the 2010 NHL postseason with upwards of $8 million-worth of cap space?
Monday’s maneuvering was very much about money: without altering his team’s competitive core, George McPhee in the past month has managed to bring enviable cushion and flexibility to his balance sheet, and position himself to be a primetime player in player movement chatter in January and February. He also secured another year of service from Alexander Semin and now has much-needed room to address a new deal for Nicklas Backstrom. If any club executive deserves a Christmas bonus at year’s end, it’s George McPhee.
How do you evaluate a deal like Monday’s? I’d urge caution about forming hard and fast opinions on what Chimera is bringing to D.C., principally for this reason: he’s a dynamic skater who’s been shackled in Hitch’s shackling system with the Jackets, and now he’s being welcomed into a system tailor-made for his physical gifts. Little was thought about Sergei Fedorov’s likely impact here when he arrived in the twilight of his career from Columbus in 2007. That’s not to suggest that Chimera is of an order of an all-time great like Feds. Rather, it’s to remind of the enormous discrepancies in the systems employed by Hitch and Gabby, and how productivity (or lack thereof) in one does not forecast it in another. Brendan Morrison was a waiver wire candidate at about this time last year and now is enjoying a renaissance in his career in Gabby’s great-skater-friendly system.
This morning, however, HockeyWashington is once again without an able captain. Some are calling it a Captain’s Curse in D.C. Chris Clark left a Stanley Cup finalist in Calgary to join a rebuilding Capitals’ club a few years back. Just as this Capitals’ team surges to the very top of the NHL’s elite, he’s cast off to another building project — at the age of 33. I’ll remember most Chris Clark taking a blasted puck to the face, nauseatingly disfiguring the overwhelming majority of his mouth, and our captain remaining on the ice, oblivious to his agony, and finishing his shift because his team needed him to.
Hockey in the heartland of central Ohio just got a big boost to its heart.