I’m keeping a close eye on tonight’s Dallas-Detroit game. The losses are mounting for the fast-falling Stars, and with them come extraordinary possibilities as Monday’s trade deadline nears.
A month ago, the Stars were the success story of the NHL, shining brightly atop the Pacific division in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Dallas. They lodged themselves in first in the Pacific for a healthy chunk of fall and winter. But February has been cruel: 1-8-1, and the losses often have been of the resounding variety. This morning the Stars are on the outside looking in at postseason qualification in the West — 10th, but that’s far from daunting; the fifth-seeded Wild (70 pts.) hold just a two-pt. edge over Dallas. Teams five through 12 out West are separated by just four points. Still, with a star-starved Stars’ lineup, and with their best player presently shelved, it’s easy to imagine the early upstarts falling out of playoff contention. And it’s easy to imagine another defeat for Dallas in Motown tonight. In short, it’s easy to imagine Dallas wearing a Cinderella’s skate, and midnight beckoning.
And so a pressing question increasingly emerges: if these are the real Stars, seriously slowing down after so hard a charge out of the gate, does the GM initiate a widely expected rebuild, belatedly, this trade deadline season? Second-year general manager Joe Nieuwendyk has already re-fashioned his roster in the last week, sending winger James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski. Both Stars’ players had fallen on tough times, and out of favor. Goligoski is a coveted young puck-mover. A second huge question also confronts Nieuwendyk: what to do with free-agent-to-be Brad Richards, currently out of the lineup (since February 13) with a concussion? The answer to the first question, I think, largely determines the answer to the second. Or maybe not.
Does Richards’ concussion cloud his status altogether for the Dallas GM? Maybe Richards is back in 10 days and helping the Stars qualify for the postseason with still 15 games remaining. But what if he’s out longer? And for a team — say the Capitals — keenly interested in acquiring a difference-making man in the middle: how much in picks and prospects do you potentially part with uncertain of when — if — Richards could join your lineup?
Should he choose to, Nieuwendyk would be a seller in a thickly clogged market of bidders. And he possesses perhaps the market’s biggest prize. And it happens to be precisely the sort of player this Washington Capitals’ team should covet.
Who is Brad Richards? Well, first and foremost, he’s Dallas’ best player, in the prime of his hockey career (he’ll be 31 in May), and a former Conn Smythe winner (with Tampa, in 2004). Twice he’s been a 90-plus point player, and he’s on pace to come close to that again this season. His present injury notwithstanding, he’s been remarkably durable: five times in his NHL career he’s played all 82 regular season games. He possesses a fantastically accurate shot and a quick release; while not especially big he’s strong on his skates; he’d be an ideal jolt of offense to an offense-starved Capitals’ power play. Were he acquired by George McPhee in these final days of player movement he would turn a season-long question mark for the Capitals’ second line into a unit of strength. He makes $7.8 million in this final year of his contract, but at this point in the season most of that is already paid out.
As a pending free agent, of course, he’s a rental. Meaning: his price point in a trade is rather hard to forecast. And his injury makes it more so. Dallas, you wouldn’t think, would have much leverage in keeping him beyond Monday’s 3:00 trade deadline. With or without Richards they aren’t going to win a Cup this spring, and somebody will throw mean, large coin at him come summer. And if you haven’t noticed, the Stars aren’t filling seats at home with Richards.
The Capitals, it is the opinion of this blogger, need to be bold with one or two roster moves before mid-afternoon of Monday next. All teams above them in the East have recently fortified already strong rosters, while the Caps have stood pat. Even a first-round matchup with a brutally beat-up Penguins’ club wouldn’t be any cakewalk. (And Sidney might well be back for it.) All season long the Capitals have approached staffing the middle of their second line with a committee of auditioning, wet-behind-the-ears prospects, without durable success. Serious Cup contenders do not enter the postseason with gaping weakness within their top six forward pairings. And this weakness bears directly on the disheartening and dreadful power play (21st in the league, at an agonizing 16.8 percent success rate).
Dallas and Washington don’t often deal. You have to go all the way back to January of 1995 to spot a trade of note between the clubs: the Caps acquired Mark Tinordi for Kevin Hatcher then. Conditions today seem ripe for an important phone call between the managers.
It has been some while since George McPhee has gone really bold at a trade deadline. It has also been some while since his roster needed notable re-engineering in February. McPhee isn’t known for going big and bold at the deadline; instead, he prefers to tinker around his roster’s edges.
The Capitals need to rent Brad Richards this spring, and in doing so make a serious statement in an Eastern Conference offering little elite swagger at the top. This is a Capitals’ roster less in need of tinkering around the edges (like last year); it needs a jolt of difference-making. The Capitals desperately need help on the power play, and they desperately need help solidifying their top six, and adding a player in his prime boasting a Conn Smythe pedigree would do that and much much more.