Friday, December 30, 2011
Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 7: "Deadline Deals"
February is a nervous month for NHL teams and NHL players. Sure, teams are jockeying for playoff position, but it is also a time of year when some players start to wonder whether they will be in a new city come the new month. February is the month in which the NHL trading deadline takes place, when teams look to find those last pieces to complete a puzzle that bears the image of a Stanley Cup.
February 1, 2011 was the first day of games on the NHL schedule following the All-Star Game break. It was the opening of a four-week window for teams to take a final assessment of their needs and to scout players to solve what problems remained for those teams.
For the Washington Capitals, the needs were hardly news. The Caps had a world-class center for their top line in Nicklas Backstrom, but there was a stunning lack of depth at the position once you got past Backstrom. Marcus Johansson was a rookie and not experienced enough to take on the responsibility night-in and night-out of centering a scoring line. Brooks Laich was more a center in the checking line mold than a playmaker. After that, the pickings got very thin, very fast.
Then there was the defense. Tom Poti – a reliable veteran defenseman – had not played in a game since January 12th (and lasted barely five minutes in that one). Mike Green – arguably the team’s best all-around defenseman and a two-time Norris Trophy finalist – would play in only five games in February leading up to the trading deadline and would be injured in two of them. First, he took a puck to the side of the head on a shot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik late in the first period of a 3-0 Capitals win on February 6th. He missed the next game, but he returned to the ice and skated 22 minutes in a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on February 12th. It did not seem to agree with him, though; he missed the next five games from a combination of a concussion and the flu. When he returned once more – three days before the trading deadline – he was driven into the corner boards by the Rangers’ Derek Stepan as New York was completing a scoring play less than six minutes into a 6-0 loss to the Rangers on February 25th. Green did not return (he would not return for the rest of the regular season).
The Caps were left with two clear needs, but as far as the answers there was only one persistent answer being floated in the hockey media. Jason Arnott was mentioned as a “fit” for the Caps, despite his having a no-trade clause attached to his contract with the New Jersey Devils. Arnott, so the idea went, could provide things the Caps didn’t have at the second line center position: size, experience, some scoring punch. The Capitals pulled the trigger on a deal for Arnott, sending David Steckel and a second round pick in 2012 to the Devils for the center.
The matter of a defenseman was murkier. There did not seem to be any obvious available “fits” in the same mold as Jason Arnott at center. But the Caps and General Manager George McPhee do seem to have a sense of dramatic and surprising timing. February’s surprise was snaring Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jake Hauswirth and a third round choice in the 2011 entry draft (that pick turned out to be Jonathan Racine, a defenseman currently playing with Shawinigan in the QMJHL).
The Caps appeared to have plugged two holes in their lineup that had to be plugged if a long playoff run was to be achieved. Both came to the club doing what they were expected to do. Arnott had the more auspicious debut with the Caps, feeding Brooks Laich from behind the New York Islander net to tie their March 1st contest with 48 seconds left in regulation (Alex Ovechkin won the game in overtime with a goal). But Wideman had his contributions too – six shot attempts, three shots on goal, four hits, a pair of blocked shots, and a plus-2 in almost 27 minutes of ice time.
It was that last number as much as anything else that Wideman was brought in to provide. Mike Green had been a minutes-eater for the Caps, and Tom Poti had averaged more than 20 minutes a night for the Caps in his first three full seasons with the club. With John Carlson and Karl Alzner pushing past the 20 minute a night mark with the Green and Poti injuries, bringing a veteran such as Wideman to bear some of the ice time burden lifted some off the youngsters.
Over the remainder of the regular season, though, the paths of Arnott and Wideman diverged. Arnott played in 11 of the Caps’ last 19 games, going 4-3-7, plus-3 in the process. He provided stability and leadership, hardly shy about pointing out things that needed work or areas that needed improvement. He also appeared to develop a chemistry with the enigmatic Alexander Semin, both on the ice and in engaging Semin more than what seemed to be the case from other players not named, “Ovechkin.” What was disappointing was that while he had been a 50-plus percent faceoff man up to his arrival in Washington, he won more than 50 percent of his draws in only three of the 11 games in which he played. And there was also the fact that he played in only those 11 games, missing others due to what was then an “undisclosed” injury.
At least Arnott returned from his injuries. It would not be so for Dennis Wideman. The defenseman appeared in each of the 14 games played by the Caps after his arrival, but there the streak would end. In a March 29th game against Carolina, Wideman collided with Tuomo Ruutu of the Hurricanes in open ice. It was the kind of hit you could see often in a game, the sort that might result in a bruise, but nothing more. Unfortunately, it was much more. Wideman was diagnosed with compartment syndrome and a leg hematoma that required surgery to avoid permanent muscle or nerve damage to his leg. The injury would end Wideman’s season.
Arnott did return, however, and it was hoped that where the Caps would feel his presence best and most would be in the playoffs. He did continue to string together points – he closed the regular season with points in two of his last three games and had points in each of the first three games against the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. But his tangible contributions tailed off after that – three points (all assists) in his last six playoff games, managing only six shots on goal in his last five. Whatever chemistry he had with Alexander Semin continued into the post season; Semin was 4-1-5 in his first six playoff contests. But he tailed off, too (0-1-1 in his last three games, all losses to Tampa Bay). The Caps were out in the second round of the playoffs, the 20th time in 22 playoff appearances they bowed out in the first or second round.
Was it worth it? Arnott and Dennis Wideman for a fourth line center (Steckel), a prospect not likely to rise to regular status with the parent club (Hauswirth), and a couple of draft picks, neither one of them being first rounders. The price to take a flyer on a couple of veterans with proven track records to fill gaping holes was low. Of course it was worth it. Only one team wins a Stanley Cup, and to say that the deal was not worth it on that basis is to say that a lot of other teams made deals not worth making. It would be hard to argue with the nature of the deals themselves, either. Arnott’s best days were behind him, but he was an upgrade at that position – second-line center – over anything the Caps had. The Caps could have done much worse than Dennis Wideman in what had become an emergency situation with both Tom Poti and Mike Green on the shelf.
But were the deals consequential? In the end, no. The answer to this question does hinge in large part on whether you win. The Caps could have bowed out in the second round or earlier without these deals having been made, although we are left to wonder if Dennis Wideman’s presence (with Mike Green back in the lineup) might have made a difference in a second round matchup in which the Caps managed only ten goals in four games, losing three of the games by one goal and converting only two of 19 power play opportunities.
If nothing else, looking at the matter of consequence shines a light on the limitation of trading deadline deals. They are the last piece of the puzzle only if the other pieces are in place and fitting together well. That the Caps managed only 23 goals in nine post season games suggest that there were problems bigger than whether Jason Arnott was adequate as a second line center or that Dennis Wideman’s absence made a difference.
It only goes to point out just how hard it is to find the right combination for the lock that guards the Stanley Cup. And even if the moves made at the trading deadline did not have their desired effect, they remain part of one of the top-ten stories of 2011 for the Washington Capitals, serving as a sign to fans that perseverance in pursuit of the prize does not always yield the prize in the end.