July 28, 2014

NHL Trade Deadline brings more questions for Caps than answers

The Washington Capitals were busy at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline. Out went Michal Neuvirth and Martin Erat; in comes Jaroslav Halak and Dustin Penner. General Manager George McPhee made a couple of moves that might help this team sneak into the playoffs this season, though back-to-back losses this week to the team immediately ahead of them in the standings, the Philadelphia Flyers, makes that task that much more daunting.

But that’s immaterial. The real benefit of these moves will come in the offseason, when the money comes off the books.

Halak and Penner are both dependable NHL veterans and will contribute on the ice. Had they been here since Day 1 this season, things might look a little different for the Caps. But neither player lines up at the Caps biggest weakness, on defense. It’s there that the Capitals hope that the return of undersized puck-moving defenseman Jack Hillen will give the team the boost it needs on the blueline.

But Wednesday’s loss to the Flyers, with Hillen in the lineup, provided no evidence that will be the case.

Hillen was primarily responsible for the Caps’ first goal against, when Sean Couturier outmuscled Hillen to a puck near the Caps blueline, then fed a streaking Claude Giroux who beat Braden Holtby cleanly with a backhand after deking the Caps’ netminder.

This isn’t a critique of Hillen in his first game back. But expecting Hillen to be a difference-maker on the defensive squad is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. The team probably needs to add two NHL-caliber defensemen to the roster; a legitimate shutdown defender, the type teams have to game-plan around and another rugged defenseman that can skate. It’s easier said than done.

McPhee said Wednesday after the trade deadline that those types of players just weren’t available. A look at the defensemen that did get moved (Rafael Diaz, Andrej Meszaros, Nick Schultz) is evidence of that. Useful players, but not the types teams sacrifice assets to bring in. McPhee said the players already on the payroll were as good as what got moved today and while any of the three previously mentioned players would knock a Caps player or two back to Hershey, it’s certainly easy to see that true quality defensemen didn’t get moved at the deadline.

This isn’t to defend McPhee. The team he put together this season was woefully inadequate on the back end and it’s proven to bite his team night in and night out. And he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — find a dance partner at the deadline to address that issue.

But in the long run, the moves he made today will help the Caps out — not necessarily in making the playoffs, because I think that damage has already been done. Bringing in two players who are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season opens quite a bit of money for the Caps to have available to go fishing during the offseason, either via free agency or taking on other teams’ overpriced veteran players. Considering the salary cap is expected to go up next season, the Caps could be sitting pretty.

That’s the real benefit from the deals the Caps made this week. Removing Erat and Neuvirth’s salaries from the books for next season opens up a world of possibilities. If they use their second compliance buyout on Brooks Laich, there would be even more money to go around.

Could they re-sign Mikhail Grabovski, Penner and still go out and pick up two NHL defensemen? That would be expensive, but with the money the Caps could have available, anything would be possible.

This week’s moves amount to a well-hidden fire sale. McPhee brought in two veterans that might help the Caps sneak into the playoffs, but they are both on expiring contracts — and he moved a significant amount of money off the books. The real benefit will be in the offseason. This week’s moves were not the type that a man fearing for his job security makes.

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