January 22, 2019

McPhee holds his cards at NHL trade deadline

“We would have added something to the team if we thought it would make us better. But it had to make us better, and what transpired today, really there wasn’t anything there that would have been the right thing for our club.” — GM George McPhee

Despite all the talk, rumors and speculation, the Washington Capitals might have made the biggest surprise all day at the NHL trade deadline: Nothing.

Citing the dearth of sellers in the market, Caps GM George McPhee decided to keep his roster — and farm system and draft picks — intact by not making a trade before the 3:00 pm Eastern deadline.  “We weren’t going to make a mistake,” McPhee said.  “We weren’t going to make a bad deal.”

“The theme of this year’s deadline was: Everybody wanted to add and there was no one selling.”

On a day that saw third-line center Paul Gaustad traded from Buffalo to Nashville for a first round pick, McPhee instead decided to hold his cards, wait for the return to health of center Nicklas Backstrom… and hope.  Asked if he was ever really close to a deal today, McPhee replied, “I don’t think so.”

“You talk and you talk and you talk and you feel when something’s getting close and you’re closing in on something and you can do this or that. It never got to that today.”

It was an unusually anti-climactic day around the NHL, as big names like Rick Nash and others stayed put, illustrating the nature of the seller’s market.  Very few teams bit the bullet to pay exorbitant prices for the relative non-different makers available.

“It might be the quietest [deadline] ever,” McPhee said.  “There were 15 transactions today, probably three or four of them were strictly, more than that, minor league trades.  There seemed to be one ‘hockey trade’, between Buffalo and Vancouver. But everyone wants action, everyone wants to be making deals, but you get in there, and you see nothing but feathers.  There was nothing to do, unfortunately.”

There certainly didn’t seem to be the type of players available to fit the Capitals generally accepted needs of a “top six” playmaker and a defenseman with a little attitude.  Certainly none of the players that were moved today really fit those descriptions.

McPhee remained stoic in his appraisal of his club.   “I certainly think we’re capable of making the playoffs with this team right now.  If Nicky Backstrom came back it certainly would improve our chances of being able to win a Cup. We can make the playoffs with this team and if he comes back we can beat anybody in [the Eastern] conference.”

But when asked when he thought Backstrom — who was placed on the Long Term Injury List today with recurring concussion symptoms — would return, McPhee said, simply, “I don’t have an answer for you on that. I wish I did. It’s a lot easier to plan if you have an answer, but we don’t have an answer.”

He said Backstrom’s injury situation did not dictate his game-plan coming into the deadline.  “If there was a way to help the club today, we would have done it. But if you look at all the deals that have happened [at the deadline], I just didn’t see anything that makes us better.”

McPhee knows as well as anyone the deficiencies on the Capitals roster.  Several times during his interview he mentioned Mike Green’s return as something that will hopefully boost the team’s play down the stretch.  But with the seller’s market today, he didn’t see any deal that he thought made the Capitals more of a contender, at least not at the asking price.

The game plan now is for the Caps to lick their wounds, hope for a return to health by Backstrom, and sneak in the playoffs.  What McPhee didn’t want to do was move parts for the sake of making a deal and risk the long-term health of the organization going forward.  The Capitals hold two first round picks next season in a deep draft, courtesy of the Semyon Varlamov deal last summer, and he didn’t want to deal any of his younger players and jeopardize the future for the sake of a player that may — or may not — really help in the immediate.

What might be a little surprising is that McPhee didn’t — or couldn’t — move any of his Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs) for draft picks, specifically forward Mike Knuble.  Knuble has been a healthy scratch five times now in February, benched at times in favor of journeyman Keith Aucoin and minor league punching bag Joel Rechlicz.

But McPhee also said that players that have sat in the past aren’t necessarily the ones that will sit in the future. He knows that if the Caps do get hot and make a stretch run to the playoffs, they’ll need players like Knuble, Roman Hamrlik and John Erskine, three veteran players that have been asked to sit recently. He didn’t trade assets that might be undervalued right now because of playing situations or personality conflicts — real or perceived — when those players might be needed down the road.

Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.  The Caps didn’t add anyone today to make their team better, but they also didn’t lose anyone to reduce their capacity.  Whether the Caps qualify for the playoffs or not will come from the roster as it sits today.  It will take that roster playing as they did in their two most recent wins consistently down the stretch.

And it starts with a five-game homestand starting Tuesday night.


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.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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