Ninety points, a gaping, cavernous lead in the division, and a healthy margin as well for first overall in the conference, and this morning for the Washington Capitals management must confront what is perhaps the most interesting and challenging personnel decision(s) since embarking on a massive deconstruction of the team in 2004.
Hold ’em . . . or draw another card? Dance with the gal you brought to prom or go flirty eyes with the curvy blonde at the punch bowl — knowing the ride home could be . . . bumpy!
Complicating matters, it’s hardly a buyer’s market out there this March. The forecast is for flurries — of second- and third-line forwards, second- and third-pairing rearguards — as opposed to an accumulating blizzard of prime-time talent. Look at who moved on Monday and Tuesday — Jordan Leopold, Andy Sutton, Evgeny Artyukhin, Nick Boynton, Denis Grebeshkov, and a busload of AHLers . . . including 48-year-old Chris Chelios!
There are plenty of players teams would love to move (Lecavalier, Briere, Drury, Redden, Souray, Huet) but through years of bad contracting can’t. Therefore, this shouldn’t be a Blockbuster night.
The Olympic break has further complicated matters. A team can’t quite lay claim to trending in either direction, can it, having played one game in the past 20 days or so. More so than ever before, managers this week have had to decide whether to stay in the game or fold ’em with playoff viability far from settled.
One gets the sense that should the Capitals be convinced of the need to upgrade the roster by 3:00 today they’ll need to get creative to do it.
In 2008, with his Capitals on the outside looking in at the postseason, George McPhee felt he needed to give his valiant and hard-charging team a “push” at the trade dealine, and he moved some modest assets to acquire Cristobal Huet, Matt Cooke, and Sergei Fedorov. All three played keys roles in the team’s inspiring surge to a Southeast title. But what downside was there to those deals? No creativity was required. The Caps had the picks to spare and parted with them. All three acquisitions were unrestricted free agents; McPhee moved a stale and stalled Matt Pettinger, a second-round selection for Huet, and second-round selection Ted Ruth for Feds.
Last March, McPhee stood pat and watched Pittsburgh add key contributors Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin. The Caps were believed to be in the running for Guerin’s services. The Pens again have been active in the leadup to the 2010 trade deadline. If McPhee stands pat again this time around, and his club falters prematurely in the postseason while those guys persevere, what then?
What then? Pain — agony, actually — but also a reasonable and prudent forward path that emphasizes asset retention, astute cap management, and durable contention. Ted Leonsis and George McPhee want the Washington Capitals competing for a Stanley Cup year in and year out, and not in very hit-or-miss fashion like say Jimmy Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes. I’ve been of the opinion for about a year that a Caps Cup-winning team is highly likely to have John Carlson playing a pivotal role on the blueline. He’s that special a player. He could play meaningful minutes for the club this spring, particularly if McPhee swings and misses on the veteran big bodies he’s rumored to be after today, but it’s more likely I think that he’s there in a top-4 role next spring . . . and the spring thereafter. And if the Caps fail to land an impact defender this go-around, the team will still be taking perhaps a 120-pt. club into the postseason.
Still, I hope George McPhee got a terrific night’s sleep last night; likewise for his pro scouts.
A compelling argument can be made that the best roster bolstering a team can make is not in the frenzy of a trade deadline but rather in the sober deliberations of summer. The Capitals sit at the very top of the league this morning partly because McPhee sheared off free agents he believed had run their course here and replaced them with Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. He also got much-needed health from Mike Green and Eric Fehr. The biggest challenge for the Caps in the season’s remaining 20 games will be remaining healthy.
And let’s face it, the Caps can wheel and deal in dandy fashion today, but should a pair of zebras from eastern Canada this May settle on another two-to-one ratio of power play advantage for the Golden Child and his black and gold crew again, against our guys, it won’t much matter.
There are actually two dramas unfolding with this Deadline Day: keeping pace with the moves themselves, and hoping like hell Twitter doesn’t collapse from user overload. Yesterday, virtually every major figure in hockey’s print, broadcast, and new media was sharing well-sourced rumors and just-completed transactions in real time. Today will be surreal on the site.
The transition — in perhaps just five years’ time — from browser refreshing of a few traditional hockey sites on Deadline Day to the real-time realization of player movement via social media underscores the wholesale revolution that has transformed the way hockey fans now get informed.
Newsrooms are a laughable anacronysm most particularly on a day like today. Individuals with technology in their hands, bouncing messages off of satellites and linked among the like-minded in their passion, are our era’s best beat reporters.
And the beat’s never been better.