Sunday, February 26, 2012

McPhee + Hat = Rabbit?

Well, we’re here. It is trading deadline day, 2012. And like the cherry blossoms that will bloom in a month or so, so the Caps will seek to address the perennial need of a second line center to carry them through the stretch run and into the playoffs. This year’s search has a heightened urgency attached to it. In previous years, it was clear that the number two center the Caps would obtain would be just that. After all, the Caps had iron-man Nicklas Backstrom firmly entrenched in the number one slot.

This year is different in two respects. First, Backstrom is out of action following a concussion suffered in a game against the Calgary Flames on January 3rd. There is no clear indication of when he will return to action, or if he will return to action this season. The second element is the standings. In the last three seasons the Caps were in no jeopardy of missing the playoffs. They were well on their way to 100-plus point seasons and a Southeast Division title. This year, the possibility exists that the Caps will achieve neither of those milestones. This year looks more like 2008, when the Caps were feverishly pursuing a playoff spot after a horrendous start to their season and a coaching change that sparked the turnaround.

And that brings us to Monday. George McPhee might have the demeanor of an “Undertaker” at times, but he does have a flair for the dramatic at this time of year. McPhee’s silence when it comes to discussing potential deals, leaking news, or just in demonstrating evidence of a pulse does not apparently apply to his cell phone. Although the Caps are rarely – and almost never reliably – attached to many deals (one exception to which we will get to), there is almost always a surprise in store for Caps fans. Deals of the “where did that come from?” sort. Here are the deadline deals over the past four years (source: Capitals Media Guide):


-- Acquired Cristobal Huet from Montreal for a 2nd round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft (later traded to Atlanta, Jeremy Morin).
-- Acquired Sergei Fedorov from Columbus for Theo Ruth.
-- Acquired Matt Cooke from Vancouver for Matt Pettinger.
-- Acquired Alexandre Giroux from Atlanta for Joe Motzko.


-- Aquired Scott Walker from Carolina for a 7th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (later traded to Philadelphia, Ricard Blidstrand).
-- Acquired Eric Belanger from Minnesota for a 2nd round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (Johan Larsson).
-- Acquired Milan Jurcina from Columbus for a conditional draft pick.
-- Acquired Joe Corvo from Carolina for Brian Pothier, Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft (later traded to Calgary, Tyler Wotherspoon).


-- Claimed Marco Strum off waivers from Los Angeles.
-- Acquired Dennis Wideman from Florida for Jake Hauswirth and a third-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft (Jonathan Racine).
-- Acquired Jason Arnott from New Jersey for David Steckel and a 2012 second-round pick.

Only the Arnott deal last year was telegraphed at all, the perfect fit (it seemed at the time) of aging vet looking for one more turn in the playoff spotlight to a team with a clear need for his skill set and experience.

Most of the other deals would qualify as surprises, if not blockbusters. And there is that common thread of the “second line center.” In 2008, Sergei Fedorov. In 2010, Eric Belanger. Last year, Arnott. The prescription the Caps follow has been unchanged – a veteran on an expiring deal. Only once – last year with Jason Arnott – did the formula work for so much as a playoff series win (Fedorov played in a second round series in the year following his acquisition, after he was re-signed by the Caps).

Now, the Caps search once more. And what fans cannot know is whether or not the old formula is the new formula. If there is something arguing against it, it really has nothing to do with the Caps. It has to do with market supply. There do not appear to be centers that fit the “veteran on expiring deal” profile. It is part of a general shortage of trade-worthy players. One of the reasons is that there are just so many teams still in the playoff race. Of the 30 teams in the league, there are the 16 teams in the playoff-eligible group and another nine within six points of a playoff spot, including the Caps. Only five teams appear out of it at this point – the Islanders, Carolina, Montreal, Edmonton, and Columbus. And even among this group, candidates are small in number. Carolina re-signed Tuomo Ruutu. The Islanders are really too young at the position to qualify someone in this category. Edmonton does not have anyone in this category (although they have some contracts they might want to shed – Shawn Horcoff comes to mind, with three more years at $5.5 million on the books). Montreal is in the same situation (with Scott Gomez’ contract wrapped tightly around their necks). Columbus signed Vaclav Prospal to a one-year contract extension earlier this month.

That leaves player with years on their deals that teams might be willing to move. In that category, the bottom five still has a limited availability of players. Columbus has already made their big move from this group, shipping Jeff Carter to Los Angeles. Marty Reasoner might be shipped somewhere by the Islanders, but he has yet to score a goal in 42 games this season – he is not a solution to what ails the Caps at the position. Horcoff’s contract makes him – a player with 11 goals and 30 points – almost untradeable by Edmonton. Carolina does not have anyone in this category. That leaves Montreal, and the name “Tomas Plekanec” has been floated in the usual rumor mills (although he has a modified no trade agreement in his contract).

If the Caps are going to find anything resembling a solution to the perennial problem, they are going to have to be creative in locking in on a target. Do they try to peel off a center from that group in the gray area of playoff contention, the clubs that are 3-6 points out of a spot? That would add Toronto, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Minnesota, and Anaheim to the list of potential trading partners. And that expands the potential targets.

From this group, a Mikhail Grabovski from Toronto comes into play. Even a Tim Connolly from the Maple Leafs, although his injury history is going to give any team pause (he has topped the 70-games played mark once since the lockout), and he has a modified no trade clause. Tampa has no candidates; Minnesota does not have a clear number two center candidate to fit here. From Buffalo, Derek Roy has been floated as a potential player to be moved, but he is having a sub-par year (13 goals in 60 games, two years removed from four straight seasons of 20-plus goals), and there is the matter of the physical dimension. At 5’9”, 184 pounds, is this what the Caps need, another center who will struggle in physical situations? Anaheim? Saku Koivu has an expiring deal ($2.5 million/35+ contract), but he also has a no movement clause in his contract. And besides, Anaheim is 16-3-4 since January 4th. It is hard to see them as upsetting their chemistry unless they are in the market to add a player.

This is not – from the fan’s chair – much of a market for what the Caps so clearly need. There certainly is not the obvious solution that appeared to exist last season when Jason Arnott was available. But if there is one thing that has characterized the performance of George McPhee over the last four years, it has been to surprise on trading deadline day. There might not have been much talk of potential Caps trades in the rumor mills over the last few weeks, but it is likely a safe bet than come sundown, there will be plenty of talk about what the Capitals did. There is a rabbit in that hat somewhere.

photo: CSNWashington

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