This morning commences perhaps the most interesting 15 days in the Capitals’ career of General Manager George McPhee. All NHL rosters are frozen until 11:59 p.m. on February 28, coincidental to the Vancouver Winter Olympics, at which time NHL clubs will have less than three full days to tinker with their rosters before the league’s March 3 trade deadline. It seems to me that there are two pressing questions for McPhee to ponder with respect to his club’s existing roster as its approaches a postseason with the weightiest expectations in franchise history: is his club big enough at center, especially on his first two lines, and does he have the might and moxy he wants on his blueline?
The Capitals last night, with Tom Poti still absent with injury, offered a marked improvement in their own end in a shootout loss in St. Louis. Sorta. In their last six games the Capitals have surrendered 26 goals. Saturday night’s defensive effort is tempered appreciably from this blogger’s vantage insomuch as Jose Theodore faced three clear-cut breakaways — all of which he thwarted; the Blues easily could have put up another 5- or 6-spot on the Caps. The trending on the back end has been, to put it charitably, disquieting. McPhee’s leaving the blueline as comprised would seem to be entering the postseason playing with something other than house money.
I wonder about the Caps in the pivot largely because of Brendan Morrison’s alarmingly declining production. In 62 games thus far BMo has 11 goals and 23 assists while skating a responsible +19. But 10 of his 11 goals he scored before Christmas; in 25 games since then he’s tallied just once, joined by eight assists. He’s 34. Maybe the three weeks off bring him rest and rejuvenation and a return to his autumn form. Again, though, such wishful thinking would on George McPhee’s part represent his making a mighty wager.
For NHL fans, the NHL trade deadline is rivaled only by the Entry Draft in intrigue. When it comes to deadline player movements, fans tend to speculate in relatively simplistic fashion — who’s out of the postseason chase, and therefore likely to purge the roster of expensive parts? And, who across the league is not in genuine Cup contention and has looming unrestricted free agents, for whom they’d likely be interested in getting something in return? General managers, too, ponder these questions, but in observing McPhee here for more than 10 years I’ve come to the conclusion that his scouts and he are moved to move around deadline time in pursuit simply of players who’ve stood out to them with their play, irrespective of contract status or their team’s position in the standings.
McPhee moved Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik and a first round pick to Montreal at the deadline in 2001 because McPhee really liked Dainius Zubrus and Trevor Linden. As prelude to the team’s only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, McPhee got good reports on Esa Tikkanen and Brian Bellows and moved to nab both. And of course he made bold moves at the deadline in 2008, grabbing Cristobal Huet, Matt Cooke, and Sergei Fedorov — acquisitions no one expected but ones premised on deft work by his pro scouts.
Late last winter, as the trade deadline approached, McPhee stood pat and watched Pittsburgh make bold moves — most particularly for right wing Bill Guerin — that clearly aided the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run. As game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals last May ended here is such sour fashion, one of the leading post mortem questions for Washington’s media and fans was: to the extent that the Capitals were interested in getting Guerin, how close did they come?
While rosters now are frozen, chit-chat between NHL GMs over the next 15 days isn’t. Most or all of them will be congregated in Vancouver. Some of them will have dinner together. A few post-Olympic-games beers. Some very interesting conversations, you have to think. The most intriguing aspect in McPhee’s deliberations over the next 15 or so days would have to be the balance he’d have to strike between making potential roster-improving moves weighed against tinkering too significantly with a chemistry that’s produced a league-best 90 points at the break. The Capitals today are a terrific hockey club, a tier I Cup contender. They are, like everyone else in that realm, also flawed.
McPhee has a quiver full of sharpened weaponry for his Olympics break strategizing — a significant volume of promising prospect assets and salary cap space. He’d tinker from a clear position of strength, and with a reputation over the past 5 years or so as ranking among the league’s savviest of roster manipulators. Should he buy in at the poker table in Vancouver the stakes will never be greater.
There’s nothing wrong with the roster. If every Caps player would just stick with some basic defensive fundamentals, games like last night’s would be a thing of the past. I see it every game: the Caps’ wingers are not playing their position. They are either floating in the slot looking for the next fast breakout or circling somewhere near the blue line…again looking for the next fast breakout. The points are always uncovered, allowing the other team to keep the puck down low over and over again. If a team cannot commit to playing even Pee Wee level defense, it will not win the tight games.
Sure, it’d be great to have a tree trunk of a d-man, but there’s not that many of them to go around, and I can’t think of any that are going to be available in a trade. Maaaybe GMGM will bring in a big center before the deadline, but again, who?
If the Caps can’t win with THIS FRIGGIN ROSTER, they can’t win.
I think someone made the comment here a few days ago: the Caps need a big guy that can clear out the traffic in front of Jose/Semyon. I think the Caps are overflowing with defensive talent, they just need to tweak their play and stick to the fundamentals as Hittman says.
Re: BMo – I’m too lazy to check at the moment (I’ll look later), but wasn’t his pre-Christmas line drastically different than his current line? IIRC, he was playing more with Knuble, who played more as a setup guy to Morrison. Now that Knuble has been bumped up to the Ovie/Backstrom line, Morrison is playing more with Semin. In my opinion, Semin is more of a shooter than a passer and I just that Morrison gets fewer opportunities to score.
People forget how well the Caps D did during the first 10 games of the winning streak. But during the last 7 games, there has clearly been a breakdown with no real practices to fix the problems. I wouldn’t worry too much about Morrison, who has done a nice job setting up Semin — the +/- numbers are more important than goals or even assists. If GMGM can get a better (and, maybe, younger) center than Morrison, maybe the deal is worth it, but let’s face it, there aren’t that many teams out there that are truly out of the playoff picture and have upgrades available. The Caps best prospects have already been traded elsewhere (Wallin, Phaneuf). The only D out there who might be available — and he’s hurt right now — is Sheldon Souray, but he’s expensive and probably adds nothing to the chemistry of the team (and do we really need another offensive D-man?). GMGM is wise to be cautious, and frankly, I just don’t see a deal that really helps the team.
I lie on the couch every evening thinking about the playoffs, and all I can think about is, “Should GMGM pull the trigger on a blue liner to fill in our recently pourous defensive?” and the answer is YES !!!
GMGM will make a trade……… no one wants to hear that we can’t win the CUP with our current defensive roster, but it’s true. IF the CAPS want to make a run to the finals, it must be done. Remember all the hard work that was done to get rid of the salary cap hit that Nylander was costing the CAPS ?? That my friends wasn’t done for nothing.
GMGM must and will pull off a blockbuster trade and spend some of that Salary Cap !!!!!
As other commentators have said, there are no big free agents-to-be out there, so the trade would need to be for a guy who already is locked up beyond the summer. While I’d hate to see him go, the inSeminator would probably be able to pry most big men off of a team’s roster. But is he so valuable as to be irreplaceable? The Caps have won many times when he’s been absent from the lineup (including in the playoffs last year…zing).