George McPhee, Nicklas Backstrom, and the Trading Deadline

The game of ice hockey is like a game of poker.

In poker, there will be moments when you lose a hand that you deserve to win.  You may have the better cards, but are forced to fold your hand because of a bet that you cannot match.  There will be moments when you win a hand you do not deserve to win because it is you making large bets with the poor cards.  When you bluff.  It happens.

Over the course of the entire game, however, the best poker player usually wins.  The player with the best strategy, who picks their spots, usually has the most money by the end of the night (or afternoon/morning, if that is your thing).

In ice hockey, over the course of any given season, odd bounces and bad luck abound.  Goaltenders steal games, playoff series, even, that their teams have no business winning.  Goals that have no business going in go in.  And it goes both ways.

But hockey, like poker, has a constant: in the end, more often than not, the best team comes out on top and wins the Stanley Cup.  That does not mean the team that was the best in the regular season, or the best team with the most offensive firepower.  It means the best team.  Often, it is the team with the most depth and the better strategy.

Of course, you need good cards to win in poker.  No matter how good a player you are or how well you pick your spots, if you don’t get the cards, you will lose eventually.  But you don’t need the best cards.  The same goes in hockey.  You need talent to win the Stanley Cup, but you don’t need the most talent.

Right now, the Washington Capitals are sitting at a poker table with the other 29 teams in the NHL.

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Picture, if you will, George McPhee peering over his glasses, a stack of poker chips on his right.  McPhee is focused, his glare boring into space.  Washington’s general manager has a decision to make.

“Do I go all in?,” he thinks.  “Do I risk the chips that I have in pursuit of more?  Or do I wait, saving them for another hand?”

As he tries to make his decision, evaluating all of his options, McPhee looks down at his pocket cards, face down on the table.  He slides the first one off the top, and looks at it.  It’s the Jack of hearts. A good card, but certainly not a great one.

Intrigued, McPhee moves to look at the other card.  But there’s a problem.  He can’t move it.  The card is inexplicably attached, face down, to the velvet of the table.  He can’t look at it.  It’s a mystery.

The general manager doesn’t know what to do.  What he should do, of course, is fold his cards, and wait for the next hand to come around.

Right now, in his head, McPhee has that very same problem with what to do with the Washington Capitals.

The card that is glued to the face of the table, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is Nicklas Backstrom.  The chips McPhee has at his disposal are Cody Eakin, Philipp Grubauer, Mathieu Perreault, and Stan Galiev, just to name a few.  The Jack of hearts is his team.

Over the last three months, it has become crystal clear, if it was not already, that the Capitals need a center, and they need one badly.  They need one to compete for their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup Championship.

Right now, the Capitals have zero top-flight centers on their team.  Marcus Johansson is getting there.  Brooks Laich is a third liner, and a second liner at best.  Mathieu Perreault, who has performed very well recently, is not yet ready for that big of a role.  And Keith Aucoin should be in the AHL.

So, does McPhee spend his chips in this virtual poker game to bring in a talented center who can bring the Capitals what they want?  Does he go “all-in?”

In my opinion, he should not.

The reasoning, of course, is the fact that he can’t see one of his pocket cards.  He has no idea what it is, and he has no way of figuring out what it is except to wait and hope that it suddenly is no longer face down on the table, and no longer a mystery.

Because as much as the Capitals keep saying that Backstrom is “making progress,” the reality of the matter is that progress is minimal, if it is occurring at all.  The Capitals’ top center and probably their best player has skated for a total of five minutes in the last five weeks.  He revealed to a Swedish newspaper earlier this week that he sits at home all day, away from the game, and doing almost no physical activity.  By all indications, he is nowhere close to making a return to the ice.

Once he is able to do off-ice work consistently, Backstrom has to be symptom-free for a period of time.  He must take a concussion test, and pass.  Once he does that, he must skate, again without symptoms.  If he can skate for an extended period without symptoms, then he practices.  If he can practice without symptoms, he gets cleared for contact.  Once he gets cleared for contact, he has to actually get hit consistently.  And after he actually gets hit, he has to condition himself to be ready to play a game.  Then he has to play in the game without issues, something that the entire hockey world saw is no easy task with Sidney Crosby earlier this season.

And if Backstrom experiences concussion symptoms at all during these stages, he is back to square one.

That is the nature of concussions.  They are a mystery, an enigma, just like the card glued to the poker table.  Nobody, not Backstrom, not McPhee, knows when Backstrom will be, in fact, back-strom.  All the center could provide when asked for an update, again speaking to the Swedish newspaper, was that he hoped to be back for the playoffs.

Call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement.

So I ask you, Capitals fans, would you bet your stack of chips if you only knew one of your pocket cards?  Would you try and pull of a heist with only one okay card in hand? Would you go all-in?

Even before Backstrom got hurt, the Capitals needed to add a second very good center to have a better chance at winning the Cup.  The winning formula of center depth is one that cannot be denied, and it has been present on the last four Cup champions.  You need at least two above-average pivots to win in today’s NHL.

So even if McPhee were to pick up a player like Jeff Carter at the deadline, which would, without a doubt, cost him at least one of the four young players mentioned above, and probably a first-round draft pick, the Caps would still be undermanned down the middle in my opinion.  It’s just the way it is.  It’s not me being negative, it’s me being realistic.

Could the Capitals make the playoffs if they were to get Carter?  Almost surely.  Could they make the playoffs even without him and Backstrom?  Maybe.  But that’s not the goal.  In the end, in the playoffs, the outcome would probably be the same.  For a franchise like the Capitals, that’s not enough.  More is expected.  This was supposed to be the year.

Obviously, if Backstrom comes back, than it is a totally different story.  If the mystery card comes loose, and turns out to be a second Jack, McPhee should push his chips.  A healthy Nicklas Backstrom changes everything.  With Carter and Backstrom in the fold, the Caps would finally have what they need to win in my opinion.

But we don’t know.  Nobody does.

With the trade deadline looming, a little more than two weeks away, McPhee is going to have to make his decision.  And there is almost no chance that Backstrom is healthy enough to play in two weeks.  That is reality.  It’s not me “being a doctor,” it’s just reality.

If Backstrom does not come back, though, that card starts looking more and more like a two of clubs.  Who wants a two of clubs and a Jack of hearts?  Who would want to go all in with that hand?

I certainly wouldn’t.

Would you?


Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.