The NHL Trade Deadline is just two weeks away, Monday, Feb. 27 at 3:00 pm. The Washington Capitals, currently ninth in the Eastern Conference, face an interesting dilemma.
Should they try to acquire players to address the glaring need for offense — especially that ever-elusive second line center — and a rugged blueliner willing to protect the goalie and his crease? Do they stand pat, hoping Nick Backstrom returns from concussion symptoms that have plagued him since taking an illegal elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque. Do they think Mike Green can return 100 percent from sports hernia surgery to be the difference-maker on the breakout and power play that he’s always been?
Or do they look at a roster filled with expiring contracts and ill-fitting parts and sell off everything that isn’t mailed down?
General Manager George McPhee has been active the last few trade deadlines, bringing in pieces he hoped would put the Caps over the edge for stretch runs and the playoff season. Those moves, however temporary in most occasions, just haven’t quite done the trick. The Caps haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs in the “Ovechkin Era” yet, try as hard as McPhee has to find the right combination.
The moves made this past off-season were supposed to address many of the problems that have weighed this Caps team down, but have yielded only mixed results.
The dirt-cheap acquisition of goalie Tomas Vokoun, which practically fell into McPhee’s lap, has worked out best thus far. After a rough first month, Vokoun’s game really picked up to the point that he’s the reason this team is still in contention as much as they are. Troy Brouwer has worked out okay, but he’s just ninth on the team in points (15-11-26), less production than you’d expect for a guy residing on the top two lines all season.
I think most fans would consider Joel Ward (5-10-15) and Roman Hamrlik (1-7-8) as disappointments. Ward, not known as a scorer anyway, is on pace for his worst points total as an NHL player, and Hamrlik’s age and lack of mobility have caught up with him in a big way this season. He’s had periods of effectiveness, but often has looked slow and out of place.
If the Caps are to try to address areas of concern, the question then becomes one of practicality. What do the Caps have that other teams might want? There are a couple of pieces at Hershey that some teams might covet, but last year’s “untouchable” Cody Eakin struggled to make an impact at the NHL level this season playing mostly on the fourth line and goalie Braden Holtby has seen his numbers go down this season (2.55 GAA, .909 SV%) after the disappointment he showed when the Caps signed Vokoun and went with Michal Neuvirth as the back-up this season.
Washington also owns two first round picks in next year’s entry draft, courtesy of the Semyon Varlamov trade with the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado is in a similar position as the Caps in the Western Conference, on the cusp of playoff contention, but both picks could be in the 12-16 range in the first round — a very valuable commodity indeed — but not like a top-five pick would be.
The Capitals have seven games between now and the deadline. They face San Jose tonight at Verizon Center, then set off on a four game road trip through Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Ottawa. They then get Montreal at home and Toronto on the road. It’s not exactly a murderer’s row (that comes in March), but the Caps have been terrible on the road (9-15-3) and this stretch could decide whether the Caps are all-in or fold this season.
Let’s say Mike Green returns to play by the Montreal game and Backstrom has started skating by then. How many points out of those seven games do you think it takes for the Caps to go all-in? Would 10 points do it? That would give Washington 71 points with 20 games to play. If you figure they would need 93 points to get into the playoffs, that means they’d need 22 points in 20 games. Seems reasonable, with 11 home games in the final 20 overall.
The addition of Backstrom and Green would be huge, like making a major trade and giving up nothing in return. A piece here or there would then shore up a roster that many thought would be Stanley Cup contenders at the start of the season.
But say Backstrom hasn’t started skating yet by that point. And let’s also say the Caps live down to their road record and only secure six out of the next 14 points. That would give them 67 points, needing 26 points. You see where I’m going with this.
Should the Caps then lick their wounds, live with the fate the hockey gods pre-disposed for them this season, and live to fight another day? At that point, wouldn’t moving players with expiring contracts and ill-fitting parts seem to make more sense? Could you also justify trading younger players that just haven’t taken the next step in their development, or perhaps backtracked a bit this season?
It’s a fascinating discussion, and only George McPhee will have the answers. But after this season of turmoil and disappointment, he’ll be on the hot seat either way.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.