Still reeling from Saturday night’s loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, keeping the Washington Capitals out of the playoff picture, fans are asking what the team will do to get better at the trade deadline.
The better question should be not what they will do, but rather, is the team’s current strategy of trading away assets to acquire rentals a viable strategy for long-term success?
Perhaps Washington’s biggest need is at second line center, and so many want General Manager George McPhee to trade for one. Rumors of Jeff Carter coming to Washington have fans in a flurry, anticipating news of a trade every morning like it is Christmas. Instead of looking for a second line center at the deadline though, maybe the team, and fans, should reflect on past deadline moves to determine if acquiring one now would really be in the team’s long term best interests.
Before we look at the deadline and free agent acquisitions, lets look at what the Caps have done to fix that hole in the draft in the last six years. Since 2006 the Capitals have drafted 14 centers. Of those 14 only four of them have played in at least one NHL game. They are Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault and Cody Eakin. Of the four, only one, Backstrom, has solidified his standing at the NHL level. The other three are still finding their way with decidedly mixed results. The most unfortunate pick of all of the 14 was Anton Gustafsson, the son of former Washington great Bengt Gustafsson, who was supposed to be the team’s second center of the future and isn’t even playing in the United States anymore.
It is clear the draft is one avenue which really hasn’t panned out for the Caps in terms of finding the complimentary center they are looking for. Unfortunately, the Caps haven’t found a long-term solution at the trade deadline either. Perhaps the best deadline move of McPhee’s career was acquiring Sergei Fedorov for almost nothing. He was a great second center for two years and really solidified the team’s second line — we all remember his game seven winner — until he walked away from Washington and left the Caps with the gaping hole they currently have.
GMGM has tried with all his might since then to acquire a second center in free agency and at the trade deadline, but the problem is some of the moves have left the team vulnerable at other positions. Last year the prized possession was Jason Arnott, who was a solid pickup, but never moved the team over the top like they thought he would. While it wasn’t an awful deal at the time, there is a problem with it now. Steckel was a quality depth center, adept at winning draws and killing penalties. Sure, Steckel was never going to be a 20-goal scorer, but when you needed to win a defensive zone faceoff, he was one of the best in the league. Perhaps worse than losing Steckel though, Arnott is no longer on the team so the Caps had two holes they needed to fill, acquiring free agent Jeff Halpern to play the role Steckel filled admirably.
These secondary problems from trades isn’t just when the team tried to acquire a center either. Scott Hannan, in my opinion, was one of the MVP’s of the Caps last year. He was probably their best defensive specialist on the team and was a good leader in the locker room. When Washington got him for inconsistent Tomas Fleischman, it was again a steal. But the Caps decided not to re-sign Hannan and none of the Capitals second line players have over 40-points, Flash has 44 with the Florida Panthers. For a team that loses a lot of low scoring tilts, it would be nice to have Flash scoring from the second line.
There has been a history of trading away pieces the Caps wish they had now. Sure Jason Chimera is still on the team, but wouldn’t it be nice to have Milan Jurcina instead of Jeff Schultz? What about the second round pick the Wild used to draft a center the Caps gave up for Eric Belanger? Can we really say Brian Pothier, even with his injuries, was worth trading away for Joe Corvo?
The luck that is required with a trade deadline acquisition just hasn’t been there for Washington in the past years, with the exception of a few deals, but sometimes, like on the ice, you have to make your own luck.
The struggles of adding players, specifically centers, doesn’t stop at the deadline and in the draft either. Players like Brendan Morrison have not fit into their roles like the Caps thought. When grouping together drafted centers, acquired centers and signed centers, there have been over 20 centermen who have rolled through Washington since 2006, not a great record for the Caps at all.
With the deadline only a week away and the Caps currently in third place in the Southeast Division heading into tonight’s game with the Hurricanes, it may be time for the team to hold the cards and make the investment in July instead of opening themselves up to other problems now.
Going all-in has only reaped minor benefits for Washington in the past and have caused other problems just a few years later. It is not to say the Caps can’t find a suitable center for the team, but instead of finding the short term solution through the draft and the trade deadline, it may be time for them to look at a long term commitment in free agency. Only there will the Caps be able to do a high-reward move, with some risk, since the only thing they are risking is money.
Andrew Tomlinson is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is a graduate of The American University and has experience covering the NCAA, WNBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. A life-long Detroiter at heart, he is one of the staff writers at the Detroit Sports Site where he primarily covers the Detroit Tigers. Andrew is a former staff writer for On Frozen Blog, where he spent three years covering the ups-and-downs of the Washington Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @drew_tomlinson.