With the trade deadline approaching, the Washington Capitals are rapidly reaching a pivotal point in the season. Things are so close in the standings that the Caps could easily make a run into the postseason — or bottom out completely.
That leaves general manager George McPhee with some tough decisions to make. Should the Caps buy, sell, or stand pat?
With Tuesday’s loss to the New York Islanders, the Caps are only three points out of the final wild card spot. With the playoffs still well within the team’s reach, it is hard to imagine McPhee giving up on the season. Yet, the Caps’ struggles thus far show they are far from a serious contender in the playoffs. If McPhee wants to avoid another early postseason exit, changes will have to be made.
During the broadcast of Sunday’s game, analyst Joe Micheletti said McPhee told him the Caps would have 10 more points with better goaltending. Could this mean that McPhee is targeting a goalie at the deadline?
According to capgeek.com, the Caps have less than $200,000 in cap space. Trading for another goalie would likely mean offering Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth or Philipp Grubauer in the deal. Of those three, Neuvirth currently has the largest contract with a $2.5 million cap hit. Finding a definite upgrade in net for that amount of money will be difficult.
Despite McPhee’s comments, the team’s biggest weakness is defense. In Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders, the Caps’ defensive pairings were Karl Alzner/John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov/Connor Carrick, and John Erskine/Tyson Strachan. It doesn’t get much weaker than that. The top pair is solid, but the other four…yikes.
Orlov has struggled tremendously as of late, Carrick needs more time in Hershey to develop, Erskine is…well, Erskine, and Strachan is an emergency call up. The Caps have needed another top four defenseman all season, but their defensive depth was once considered to be a strength. With Mike Green’s status going forward uncertain, McPhee must address the defense.
The Caps are also in need of a top-six scorer. Alex Ovechkin may be carrying the offense with his league-leading 39 goals, but behind him, the team’s second leading scorer is Joel Ward with 17. If the Caps are relying on Ward for their secondary scoring, they’re in trouble.
The fact is that behind Ovechkin, the Caps just do not have any major scoring threats. Relying on a single player is not a recipe for success especially when it comes to the playoffs.
The good news for the Caps is that they have assets they can offer other teams.
The trials and tribulations of Martin Erat since he came to Washington have been well documented. At this point, it would be best for everyone involved to find a new home for him. His recent selection to the Czech Republic Olympic team shows he is still highly regarded in the hockey community and could still draw some attention at the deadline.
While most general managers would probably prefer to see their stars stay forego the Olympics, Erat going provides a great opportunity for him to showcase his talents to prospective NHL suitors. Oates has never been able to find a spot for Erat in his lineup, but he may fit in well under another coach in Sochi. This is a great opportunity to see what Erat can really do.
It may not seem like it, but the Caps also have a goalie to sell. Grubauer showed in his time in D.C. this season that he is ready to be an NHL goalie. That gives them one too many. As Neuvirth is the highest paid and his agent already announced he was seeking a trade, he would make the most sense in terms of a deadline trade. If there’s an NHL team willing on taking a chance on him as their number one, they could make McPhee an offer he can’t refuse.
It may seem odd that the Caps would trade away a goalie when this has been a weakness for them this season, but McPhee is going to have to make a decision about his goalies either now or over the summer. With three, they will have to sell one. If another team is willing to take Neuvirth for the right price, McPhee will have to take that chance.
Rather than making any bold moves, however, the far more likely scenario is that McPhee will stand pat. He traditionally does not like picking up rental players or making drastic moves midseason.
McPhee will ship Erat if he can and perhaps pickup another depth defenseman, but that’s about it. Some fans may have grand dreams of trading for Ryan Callahan or Thomas Vanek, but those kinds of moves just are not likely to happen, given the Caps salary cap issue.
JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore and is a contributor for Yahoo Sports on the Capitals and Redskins. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.