If George McPhee’s Monday morning began on a hotseat, likely it ended in repose on something closer to a throne. Or at least, hopefully: a good leather recliner in his Maryland home, with a bottle of Canadian beer in hand, fetched for him by his hockey playing and Caps’ loving son.
McPhee earned at least that for his deft and creative handiwork on hockey’s most frenetic and high-stakes business day.
On the radio last night, immersed in a multi-hour, post-deadline post mortem, I was joined by WNST’s Ed Frankovic, and Ed offered what I thought was a terrifically astute observation about the corner McPhee was backed into yesterday and how successfully he street-fought his way out. This was very much a seller’s market, with many buyers and high prices set for the limited assets up for auction. “McPhee landed some prized fish from a shallow pond,” Frankovic observed. Indeed.
Let’s be blunt: McPhee went into Monday presiding over an irrefutably flawed hockey club. You don’t get lodged in the league’s bottom third on the power play from bad luck. You don’t get shut out nearly 10 times through 60 games merely from complacency and systems adjustments. As winter begins to transition to spring hockey’s cognoscenti begin seriously vetting the Stanley Cup bona fides for a select handful of clubs who’ve demonstrated not only inordinate winning but champions’ traits through a season’s first three quarters. The Capitals have not been a part of that conversation in 2011. By 3:15 Monday afternoon, however, they rightly were returned to it.
The Capitals this morning are not a favorite per se for the Cup this spring. Instead, what seems to be fair to say about their newly re-engineered lineup is that, given decent health among the prized core, they are likely a seriously tough out this postseason. In this salary cap era of conspicuous parity, that’s really all you can ask for.
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Marco Sturm, Dennis Wideman, and Jason Arnott are not All Star performers. They will not infiltrate the Capitals’ lineup beginning Tuesday night and litter the scoresheet with goals and assists. In fact, Sturm and Arnott are likely in the twilight of their respective careers. They’re rentals. But all three bring something of an imperative to a damaged product in red: street cred. Jason’s Arnott’s stick, for instance, is singularly responsible for his New Jersey Devils’ club lifting Lord Stanley in 2000.
That was a while ago, yes, but Arnott knows where he is in his hockey career, knows what he can bring to a talented Capitals’ club, and knows that he wants one more taste of hockey’s greatest glory. And he waived his no movement clause to get here.
Pittsburgh, if reports are true, was sniffing around Arnott a fair bit this deadline season. From the vantage of psychology I thought it was important for McPhee to best Ray Shero in this mutual pursuit. It was of course Shero who won the services of Bill Guerin in 2009, and a Guerin-aided Pens’ club that bested the Caps in seven games en route to a Stanley Cup. The Caps have owned the Pens in regular season play of late, they beat them in the biggest regular season game either team has played New Years Day, and they apparently beat Pittsburgh again yesterday on an important personnel matter. Now it’s time to get it done against them when it matters most.
Sturm, already taking paces with his new teammates Monday morning, was asked about Wideman, with whom he played in Boston. Back then Wideman was partnered with Zdeno Chara. Sturm called the Caps’ new power play specialist the Bs’ best defenseman in the 2008 postseason — not his Norris Trophy winning tower of shutdown partner.
Wideman may never have cause to purchase his own beer in this town for introducing himself as he did on his introductory press call with Washington media yesterday afternoon: with reverence did he drop Dale Hunter’s name. Wideman played his major junior hockey for Hunter in London. McPhee once again dialed up his old captain in vetting the Panthers’ blueliner. You could say that the Caps’ legend offered the GM a glowing assessment of Wideman.
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The Capitals were rather universally declared the day’s big winner. It wasn’t a day of blockbuster wheeling and dealing — many impressive moves had been made well before Monday’s deadline. Still, it’s impossible not to admire the scope and ostensible impact of what George McPhee pulled off. JP I think it was who yesterday in social media space referred to McPhee as a “Ninja.” And that’s how Monday afternoon felt for Washington’s hockey fans.
What’s so ninja about his deadline dealings is his steadfast refusal to part with prized assets and still secure what he targets.
“We did not give away our first round pick, we did not give away any of our ‘A’ prospects,” he told media early Monday evening.
Think about who and what he’s parted with over the years to acquire the likes of Esa Tikkanen and Christobal Huet and Sergei Fedorov and now Dennis Wideman and Jason Arnott. He moves tier III prospects — Ted Ruth and Oskar Osala, for instance. On Monday he managed to get Florida to bite on one of his ECHLers, Jake Hauswirth. He strengthens his roster without weakening his development base a lick. And he commonly pursues veteran performers running out the final weeks on their contracts so as to mitigate hamstringing financial obligations of the future. Stan Bowman has a Cup, yes, but it sure looks like that was a seriously short-lived triumph.
There’s a lot to be said for assembling an accomplished team of amateur scouts, watching them haul in talent in rounds early, middle, and later, and as the keepers emerge in development, retaining them. This is an imperative for durable contention in a salary cap setup.
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Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of McPhee’s work Monday, in its short-term implications, is what the trio of newcomers affords incumbent Capitals skaters. Jason Chimera has no business skating wing on a first line for a Cup contender. Marcus Johansson and his 40 percent faceoff acumen has no business carrying out top six responsibilities his rookie year. Now high-end third liners will skate on the Capitals’ third line. Quality second-liners will skate on a second line. Suddenly there is impressive balance from line to line where Sunday evening there was distressing doubt and misalignment.
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We didn’t quite comprehend how it came to be that our Capitals — tier I Stanley Cup contenders by prognosticators last season and this — managed to lose their elite swagger, but they lost it alright, in resounding fashion, right around Christmas. With his deft and creative maneuvering yesterday, George McPhee, again going ninja in late February, helped his club reclaim that swagger.