Think back to the glaring vulnerabilities the Washington Capitals tried to hide against the Pittsburgh Penguins last May. Mike Green was pretty beat up, really a shell of his dynamic, record-setting norm, and the Caps played him as if he were healthy. They had to — they had no plan B on the blueline for rushing the puck and QBing the power play. Additionally, they had no real, imposing, physical power forward to create havoc in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, and Pittsburgh’s defenders were able to keep the Capitals’ attack largely on the perimeter. And certainly the Caps could have used a bit more jam in the lineup — up front and on the back end — to counter Pittsburgh’s discouragingly prolonged puck possession and cycling in the Capitals’ zone.
The Capitals on Wednesday certainly didn’t address every vulnerability in their lineup, but a very-best-in-the-league club made some clear strides toward strengthening their postseason aspirations. And joined by two notable additions made last summer, Wednesday’s acquisitions allow the Caps to enter the season’s final six weeks with a bit of a front-running big dog status in pursuit of hockey’s ultimate prize.
There’s such a thing in hockey I think as the humanitarian trade. In March of 1999 the Capitals, playing out the string in a 68-point season, dealt their captain, Dale Hunter, to Colorado in a move clearly designed to afford one of the organization’s all-time best leaders a last-gasp shot at Stanley Cup glory. It was both a painful and beautiful thing for the club to do. If you watch footage of Scott Walker meeting Carolina’s hockey media yesterday after the deal that sent him to D.C. had been completed you saw deep-rooted and raw emotion from what head coach Paul Maurice identified as a “great soldier” in that organization.
Walker and George McPhee are linked back to the GM’s days in Vancouver. More recently, Walker scored the series-decisive goal in overtime of game 7 in Boston last spring. It was in that series that Walker learned of his wife’s having cancer. Upon receiving word of his being dealt Wednesday, Walker broke down, parting from the organization that had showed his family so much support. Then he told media that he’d pay for his own plane ticket to get to D.C. and join the contending Caps. Scott Walker joins Jason Chimera in the agitation area. Ask Aaron Ward. The thinking here is that Scott Walker will be a most welcomed addition to the Capitals’ room.
Carolina is executing a much-needed overhaul, but as a classy organization its management wants to see departing parts well placed. On Wednesday General Manager Jim Rutherford saw to it that two of his key components, Walker and defenseman Joe Corvo, were, like Dale Hunter more than 10 years ago, placed in prime contention for a run at Stanley Cup glory.
Corvo is a mobile and skilled puck-moving defenseman. He does not represent precisely what the Capitals necessarily were shopping for on the blueline (large and ornery), but he does represent a more than able plan B should opponents continue to target Mike Green for excessively friendly hellos with their shoulders and elbows. He brings more offense to an offensively rich outfit. He also played a top-4 role for a Carolina club that advanced to the Eastern conference finals last spring.
There was on line yesterday, it seemed to me, a swift rush to condemn Corvo as a wildly inconsistent talent right as word of the trade set in. A few thoughts on this front. I was seated in Capital Centre for years as locals belched invective at Hall of Fame talent Larry Murphy, running him out of town. Now Joe Corvo is no Larry Murphy, but he ‘s talented and battle-tested, and Gabby’s had him in his room before. New Yorkers did much the same to Tom Poti earlier this decade. I wonder if Rags’ fans wish they had Poti this spring? The point is: if a player can skate and move the puck and add depth to the power play, and if Caps’ brass has worked with him before, why oughtn’t he receive the benefit of the doubt? Moreover, why does perceived ‘failure’ in one system preordain it in a dramatically different and new one?
In Eric Belanger the Capitals secured a depth pivot adept at winning draws and killing penalties. Those are most valuable commodities to have for a club aspiring at a lengthy postseason run. The Capitals this morning rank 25th in the league on the PK. Welcome to Washington, Mr. Belanger. He’s mobile, too. And like Corvo, Belanger was coached by Bruce Boudreau in the American League in Manchester.
A common quality among all four bodies brought in by McPhee on Wednesday was management’s familiarity with them. Obviously, the Caps know Milan Jurcina quite well. As for assets surrendered, the Capitals on Wednesday parted with a modest sum. For Corvo, the Caps dealt Brian Pothier, Oskar Osala, and a second-round selection in 2011. But take a close look at that forecasted draft harvest in 2011. The Hockey News in its 2009 Entry Draft Preview authored a feature on it because of its conspicuous weakness.
“I’ve been in this racket for 15 years and straight across the board  is the weakest draft,” one NHL scout is quoted in the piece. George McPhee knew precisely what he was doing with that pick.
There is a numbers game here to manage, quite obviously. There’s suddenly a surplus of bodies. Suddenly there is too robust competition for virtually every position on this contending hockey club except on the first line. That isn’t such a bad thing. Even more importantly, as the rigors of a likely lengthy postseason run take their toll the Capitals can, when needed, replace key cogs with battle-tested ones.