Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Day of Silence

“Kudos to Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. I know what you’re saying, why exactly? Because he took a knee. That’s why. This just isn’t their year. One big trade isn’t going to put the Caps over the top and make them contenders. One big trade isn’t going to clear star center Nicklas Backstrom of his concussion symptoms. McPhee did the hardest thing of all, resist the short-term fix. That takes guts.”

-- Pierre LeBrun, ESPN Analyst, commenting on yesterday’s activity on the NHL trading market

We suppose there are a lot of ways to look at what the Caps did – or more precisely, did not do – yesterday. The club made no deals, despite almost the almost universal assumption that veterans Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik would be dealt.

There is, on the one hand, the reactionary message board sort of opinion that will conclude that George McPhee was asleep at the switch while other teams were active. It is tempting to just dismiss this out of hand. In fact, there were only 15 trades made yesterday involving 19 teams. St. Louis did not make a deal. The Flyers did not make a deal. Florida did not, Dallas did not, Los Angeles did not.

But, trading “day” is not necessarily just a “day.” The trading “period” got started on February 16th, when the Flyers sent a 2nd and a 3rd round draft pick to Dallas for defenseman Niklas Grossman, a player who already has three assists in three games for the Flyers and is plus-2 averaging 17 minutes a night. If you then look at the February 16-27 trading “period,” 28 deals were consummated involving 26 teams. The only teams to sit out the dance were: Pittsburgh, Calgary, Carolina, and…


To be sure, a number of those deals were rather minor. One cannot imagine much impact – certainly for this season – of a Brandon Segal for Matt Fornataro trade. But those deals were in the minority. There was considerable tweaking of teams participating in the trading activity.

The Caps did not tweak. Fans cannot know what the Caps were seeking or what teams were offering for a Mike Knuble or a Roman Hamrlik. Knuble’s situation might be the more perplexing from the fan’s point of view. Mike Knuble is a 39-year old player on an expiring contract. Given that he has played a lot of fourth line minutes this season and has often been a healthy scratch in recent games, the natural conclusion to reach here is that the Caps do not see him in their plans going forward. Why not move him for a mid-round draft pick?

Well, there are several possible responses to this. First, can we be sure the Caps were offered that much, if anything at all for Knuble. There is that matter of not being able to listen in on the conversations George McPhee might have had with his fellow wizards. If the offers were more along the lines of a sixth or a seventh round pick fans might ask, “well, hey…why not? It’s something.” Take the longer view for a moment. Knuble’s best days are not ahead of him. However, he is a player with 271 goals on his resume and one who came into this season with eight consecutive 20-goal seasons. Even if his production has fallen significantly, he is worth more to the Caps right now than a sixth or seventh round pick (we’ll leave alone the fact that the Caps have not exactly found a lot of nuggets in that part of the draft). Perhaps there is enough in the tank to make some – if modest – contributions between now and when the season ends for the Caps. If it comes to the summer, there is the chance – perhaps remote – that the Caps could trade rights to Knuble to a team wishing to sign him to another contract as a free agent. Whatever, the uncertain marginal return of a low-round draft pick – even a mid-round pick – does not clearly argue for Knuble being dealt yesterday. Holding him is not evidence of being asleep at the switch.

Hamrlik is a different situation. Defensemen are gold at this time of year. Of the 32 war bodies traded yesterday (i.e., not including draft picks), 18 were defensemen. In a perverse way, that argues against the Caps trading Hamrlik, even if he sees press box time instead of ice time. And that gets to need and availability. What was being offered for Hamrlik? One can infer from McPhee’s comments after the trading day closed:
“We would have added something to the team if we thought it would make us better, but it had to make us better. What transpired today, really there wasn’t anything there that would have been the right thing for our club. Everyone seemed to want our players but they wanted to give us futures and prospects. I wasn’t interested in doing that.”

This the same “bird in the hand, two in the bush” argument that suggests the team was less interested in the potential (conversely, the uncertainty) of futures than in the certainty of a player with a body of work. Well, they have a player with a body of work in Hamrlik, and in a sport where defensive depth is an important ingredient to success, standing pat on Hamrlik has advantages over the alternative.

Then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the need for a second line center. See any of that specie move yesterday? Paul Gaustad, whatever his other talents, is not a second-line center on a contender. Even if you want to argue that he is an upgrade over what the Caps have now, is he worth a first round pick (what Buffalo took from Nashville for Gaustad and a fourth rounder)? Not for a team that has a commitment to building from the draft. And, as if this needs saying, a “manager” cannot merely manage trading day, he has to manage the long view as well. It’s his job.

Other names were tossed around as a potential solution (band-aid might have been better) – Tomas Plekanec, Derek Roy… even Olli Jokinen. But are these solutions? Or merely a “name” to appease fans that would command a price in picks or prospects that would cost the Caps in developmental terms while the flaws in these players could been seen from closer range by those fans? The “second line center” market pretty much dried up when Jeff Carter was traded by Columbus to Los Angeles. After that, even if the Caps had been inclined to bid on Carter (and we have no idea if they were or did), there was not much of a market.

In the end, there was no rabbit in the hat. George McPhee stood pat. But rabbits and hats are all part of an illusion, anyway. The Caps are left with the reality of the roster they take to the ice against the Islanders tonight and for the last 19 games of the season following that. And that is a different kind of reality. If McPhee can be credited with not panicking and making a deal he might regret this summer, he now has the team he built this past summer as his legacy to this season. It has not been a team that is easy on the eyes or effective on the ice. On paper last fall, it had the look of a team that could do damage during the season and deep into the playoffs (we sure thought so). Injuries to Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom were of the sort that could be expected to knock the team onto the shoulder of the road to the playoffs. What seems less acceptable is that they knocked them clear off the road and into a ditch.

Alex Ovechkin has not come back from a sub-par season in 2010-2011. Alexander Semin is as enigmatic as ever. Michal Neuvirth took a step back in his development, although he has shown signs lately of emerging from a season-long funk. Marcus Johansson has not come close to filling the shoes of his countryman who is still injured. John Carlson has not duplicated his fine rookie season last year. Brooks Laich is versatile, but the flip side of being the jack-of-all-trades is that he has too often been the master of none of them. The free agents brought in last summer have been inconsistent in their respective contributions. The team as a whole has nothing approaching the snarl that their new head coach had as a player. And that new head coach has struggled to find the right buttons to push while the man he replaced is dragging his new team closer and closer to the playoffs in what looks like the 2008 Capitals all over again.

This is the team McPhee built this season and the one that will now carry the Capitals’ banner over the last 20 games of the season. It is no longer a team “on paper.” It is one with 62 games of history in it, one that has some fair sized dings and dents in it, and one that sits on the outside of the playoff mix looking in. The manner in which the Capitals – their management and their players – will be judged for this season lies not in what did or did not happen before 3:00 yesterday, but in what actions were or were not taken over the past ten months since the last Capitals playoff disappointment. It is that body of work to which people might, and perhaps should be praised... or held accountable for what comes of this season.

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