Monitoring the NHL trade deadline Monday afternoon was a lot like riding the Red Line in early rush hour Monday morning: there was very little movement. The more I thought about where the Caps stood at 3:00 yesterday afternoon the more I thought Metro an apt metaphor. What was once proud and flagship isn’t aging very well, and is badly in need of an overhaul. But where’s the help coming from?
Both the club and transit system could also be said to be over-priced for services rendered. And: neither management team is apologizing for current conditions. In fact, fare increases are the order of the day. (In Washington we are no longer talking about the 1 percent but rather the 8 percent.) It might even be appropriate for Wes Johnson tonight to announce in the pregame, ‘We apologize for the inconvenience and delay and thank you for riding.”
As grim as that sounds, there was good news for Caps’ fans yesterday: George McPhee didn’t panic, he didn’t barter away prized assets — two great young Russian talents and two no. 1 picks in this June’s entry draft — in some mad scientist plot to right his careening rail car of a club. That isn’t his style, anyway. More to the point, this was a most unkind market especially for hockey teams that hadn’t been assembled correctly when they should have (last summer).
I spent the past few weeks making an impassioned case to some of my favorite local hockey media pals that the Caps would not be aggressive buyers in what by now really ought to be regarded as a highly artificial deals market. The most obvious reason for my thinking: Almost every NHL club is still in the postseason running. Realistically, how could the Caps have secured difference-making talent from any other club also in a frenzy to qualify for the postseason? Every February second-line centers are a hard commodity to come by — or else we’d have one by now. Ditto with shutdown defensemen. But this February virtually every other club needed the assets they had, for they still had a great deal to play for. Or so they believe.
A point I made in spirited pleadings to my pals throughout a litany of about 2,500 emails the past two weeks: contending hockey teams are assembled in summer, not February. The NHL trade deadline, when executed with appropriate discipline and restraint and an eye toward augmenting rather than revising a roster — as with Nashville’s David Poile this month, most notably — has the effect of taking a Tier II contender and instilling in it a swagger of ascendancy. But in general, Tier III contenders don’t become Tier I contenders on deadline day. You might guess where I have the Caps slotted this season.
At some point over the past 72 hours or so I wager George McPhee did some serious soul searching and arrived at the perfectly rational conclusion that there was so little character to this Capitals club worth mortgaging a future over. They don’t win much on the road. Even when they surge to somewhat impressive leads over wretched clubs (Toronto, Montreal) in must-win games they find themselves holding on for dear life at the end. They don’t much win in succession. And once again it’s impossible to assign a durable identity to the collective. I regarded McPhee’s post-deadline defense (“with Backstrom we can beat anyone”) as cover for a hard truth the organization will quietly pursue when rebuilds need to take place — this summer.
I wasn’t so much optimistic that McPhee could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear yesterday as I was wishful that he could ditch some mules and dead wood and replace them with some modicum of speed and a dash of grit, even if it weren’t lodged in the team’s top 6. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the Capitals impressively played a lethal speed game. Even a near-40 Sergei Fedorov, nowhere near his vapor trail dash of 15 years ago, thought the game so swiftly with the Capitals in his career twilight that he created the effect of speed with his playmaking. But then George McPhee rather oddly began inking plodders. (Each line seems to have one.) The Capitals of late have scratched some of their slowest players, and in the process looked a bit quicker. And won. With increased speed I believed they could stand a puncher’s chance at an opening round upset this spring (should they qualify) — playing the role of Buster Douglas, if you will.
About those chances at postseason qualification, in the aftermath of yesterday’s inaction. Mike Vogel was on the air yesterday afternoon forecasting as imperative the Caps’ going 14-6 in the season’s final 20 games. As daunting as that sounds, Mike’s got good reasoning behind his math. Yesterday I took a glance at the point totals for the East’s no. 8 seeds the past 5 seasons. Montreal was a bit of an outlier in 2009-10, accumulating just 88 points. Every other year, 8 seeds needed at least 92, and most often 93 or 94. The Caps today have 67 points, and ahead a rugged journey: away dates with the likes of Chicago, Detroit, Philly, and Boston twice. The Caps still have two games with the Isles, beginning tonight. A set of breathers, right? Guess what one Eastern club the Caps have failed to defeat this season?
It’s an additionally morbid thought to ponder the imperative, for Washington, that the NHLPA hold firm in its opposition to realignment. Ugly as it is, until George McPhee or his replacement engineers an overhaul, the Capitals desperately need to remain lodged in the Southeast division.