After losing two of the first three games of a critical four-game road trip, the Washington Capitals still find themselves looking in from the outside of the playoff picture. Entering play Wednesday, the Caps find themselves two points behind the Florida Panthers and the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Southeast Division — and the third seed in the Eastern Conference that goes along with it — and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the eighth and final playoff spot overall in the conference.
The standings might be confusing, but this much is not: unless the Caps pick up their game from their dreadful showing Monday night in Carolina, they may find themselves watching the playoffs this season instead of participating in them.
Speculation is rampant throughout the fan base and in the media with the quickly approaching NHL trade deadline. The $100,000 question is: Can GM George McPhee identify a difference-maker and should they spend the resources it would take to acquire such a player. Rumors abound this time of year, but with the first few trade dominoes falling last week (Pavel Kubina, Hall Gill, Nicklas Grossman, Dominic Moore, Kyle Quincy and gack, Steve Downie!) all changed teams in the last few days), if McPhee is to trade for some help, the time is ripe.
It’s no secret that several high-profile players on also-ran teams could be available, including forwards Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette from Columbus, a team McPhee has had some success dealing with in the past. While these names might get Caps fans excited, they are all under contract through at least the 2014-15 season. Nash and Carter are prohibitively expensive.
To complicate matters, the Caps are only $1 million below the NHL salary cap, so if they are to take on any salary, other players must be moved to accommodate the cap hit. Were they to add Nicklas Backstrom to the LTIR they could get relief from his cap hit, but that would render him ineligible until the playoffs.
But there’s no arguing the Caps need assistance at center, especially with the uncertainty of Backstrom’s lingering injury situation. Players the Capitals hoped and expected to take steps forward this season have not, leading to the uneasy question that has remained in hushed tones until now: Is this a problem with development, or in player evaluation?
As my colleague Drew Tomlinson pointed out the other day, the Caps have tried to develop a center to compliment Backstrom, but only four of 14 centers drafted by the Capitals since 2006 have played in the NHL (Backstrom (1st round), Marcus Johansson (1st), Mathieu Perreault (6th) and Cody Eakin (3rd)). Those four all have undeniable skill, but other than Backstrom they are all undersized and lack a certain physicality to their game. It almost seems like a draft philosophy to target gifted-but-smallish centers.
Johansson, 21, may one day be that player, but he has struggled in his second season (11-20-31, +2) and has found himself lined up at wing on many occasions. He seems to be regressing as the season goes on, incapable of creating offense while being thrust into situations due to Backstrom’s injury he’s neither prepared for or equipped to handle. His deference to higher-paid linemates has been, at times, shocking.
Perreault, 24 (18 points in 40 games) has played better of late, but he has a habit of short hot streaks and long cold spells in his NHL career and is clearly too small and not a strong enough skater to play center every night in the NHL. Also, it takes him too much time to set up his shot. You get that extra half-second in the AHL. Eakin, 21, was given several opportunities earlier this season to make an impact after a prolific junior career, but has failed to catch on yet in limited ice time.
With the in-house options not living up to expectations this season, it forces McPhee to once again look outside the organization for help.
Washington’s inability to identify and develop a true second line center has forced them to go shopping at the deadline the last several seasons, having to settle for older, past-their-prime players on expiring contracts. Sergei Fedorov (2009), Eric Belanger (2010) and Jason Arnott (2011) were all deadline acquisitions, and though their experience and leadership were a boon to the teams they joined, none of those deals pushed the Caps over the top — or even past the second round.
Free agency hasn’t helped the situation either. Brendan Morrison was brought on in 2009, but lasted just one season after disappointing numbers.
Despite all the centers drafted, traded for or signed as a free agent since 2006, only one — Backstrom — is stablished in his role on the team, when healthy. With Backstrom’s uncertain status, Brooks Laich is being forced into roles he’s not as suited for. As a third line center and top penalty killer, Laich is in his comfort zone and a tremendously dependable asset. He can pass for a second line winger, but loses much of his value if pressed into pivoting one of the top two lines. Also, Laich is still playing on one leg and appeared to have aggravated the injury in the 5-0 loss to Carolina Monday night.
Same goes for Jeff Halpern. Signed last off-season to play the Boyd Gordon/David Steckel role of fourth line center and penalty-kill specialist, the Maryland native has played on all four lines this season with just 13 points to show for it. Not ideal.
McPhee has been a major part of the reformation of this team, from the days of “The Purge” into an Eastern Conference power many expect to compete every year, including owner Ted Leonsis. But decisions the organization has made to go with some younger players in critical roles this season haven’t panned out. With the head coaching change in December, and the team playing on about the same level as before Dale Hunter took over, McPhee has now opened himself up to criticism on the roster he has put together.
Last week, in an interview with The Washington Post‘s John Feinstein, McPhee expressed frustration that the team he put together last off-season has played only eight games this season because of injury.
“I still think if we get our guys (Backstrom, Mike Green) back and if we can add something here in the next couple of weeks we’re good enough to win the Stanley Cup,” McPhee said. “Then again, a lot of teams are looking to add something right now, too.”
These are soul-searching times for the Washington Capitals. Their best player and captain is shell of the happy-go-lucky, 50-goal scorer he once was, before devastating losses for his country at the Vancouver Olympics, and at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning in the last two playoff seasons. Their second and third best players have missed most of the season due to injury. Highly touted young players, including Johansson, Eakin, John Carlson and, to a point, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, haven’t lived up to their billing and may not have as bright a future as advertised. Recent free agent acquisitions brought in haven’t had the impact many expected.
This is not the same team that went seven games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in ’08-’09 and appeared on the cusp of greatness. Since then, only disappointment has followed such lofty expectations.
With less than a week until the deadline, it is a critical juncture for the Washington Capitals to take stock of their organization and decide if they can make an honest, legitimate run in the playoffs this year. Worse than missing the playoffs this season outright would be trading some of their best assets and still failing to qualify — a very real possibility — which would set this team back further than they are now.
This team hasn’t responded to the coaching change. They are one of the worst road teams in the league. There’s been almost no secondary scoring. No one defends the goaltender in his own crease. There’s been too many occasions where players have admitted to “not being ready to play” on any given night, before and after the coaching change. They’ve been out-shot and out-chanced on a regular basis since Hunter took over. For a team that had serious Stanley Cup hopes at the beginning of the season, the season has descended into a nightmare of utter failure.
The organization hasn’t yet been able to develop the players this team needs and McPhee has found only temporary fixes on the open market. Does he go the “quick fix” route again? Does he make a bold move out of desperation? Or does he stand pat, hope for health from Backstrom, take his chances and re-group for next year? Either way, he has no more scapegoats. Decisions he makes in the next week could very well determine the fate of this franchise and his tenure with it.
It’s only because the other teams in the Southeast are similarly faulted that the Caps still harbor any hopes of making the playoffs. Shockingly, if they win Wednesday night in Ottawa they’ll still be tied for first in the division.
How can you give up on that?
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.