McPhee Stays Smart

For weeks, many have said that what the Washington Capitals needed was a spark offensively, and that that spark would come in the form of a center.  The conventional wisdom, of course, was that George McPhee would make his move at the trade deadline, as he has in the past.

And yet, as Monday’s 3 PM deadline came and went, the Capitals stood pat.

Immediately, the vitriol on Twitter abounded.  Some said that the Capitals have “given up” by not making any moves.  That George McPhee should be fired because his lack of action on Monday confirmed that he has no idea what he is doing and should be replaced.  How could a team in such dire straits as Washington possibly go through the trade deadline without acquiring anything?

The answer is simple: there was nothing out there that would have addressed Washington’s glaring, and critical, hole at center.  It’s their only obvious need, and the general manager knows it.

“We would have added something to the team if we thought it would have made us better,” said McPhee.  “But it had to make us better.  What transpired today, there really wasn’t anything there that would have been the right thing for our club.”

If you are McPhee, or evaluating his decisions, you have to look at the big picture.  Was there really an offensive player, a center, who moved at the deadline that could have helped the Capitals fix that hole?

Read on to find out more!

Take Paul Gaustad, for example.  A lifelong Buffalo Sabre, the 6’5’”, 225 pound Gaustad was dealt to the Nashville Predators on Monday for a first-round pick.  I repeat: a player with 17 points this season was traded for a first-round pick.  Now, Gaustad certainly has his uses.  His size and physical presence are a plus for any team, and it’s hard to complain with a man who wins 56.8 of his faceoffs and starts in his own zone 40% of the time.

But is he really worth a first round pick?  And more importantly, is he really what the Capitals needed?  The answer to the first question is probably not; the answer to the second one is absolutely not.  The Capitals need an offensive engine.  That’s their primary need, not sandpaper.

Or how about Andrei Kostitsyn, also acquired by the Predators, who was swapped for a second-round pick and a conditional fifth-round selection.  What Kostitsyn was dealt for isn’t really the issue here, as that’s not a terrible exchange, but rather the role that he fills.  This is a player who has never topped 30 goals and has topped 50 points once since being selected tenth overall in 2003.  And, he’s an inconsistent winger who is known to be lazy in his own zone.

Does Washington need that?  Please join me in a resounding, “No.”

Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi, picked up by the Sharks?  Both wingers who have a combined 42 points between them this season.  Samuel Pahlsson, snapped up by Vancouver?  He’s like Gaustad, but smaller.  He only cost two fourth-round picks, but it would not have solved the problem.

It’s not fair to criticize McPhee for failing to pick up a second line center because there were literally none available.  With so many teams in the playoff race, no one was willing to part with someone who could fill that hole for this team.

“The theme of this year’s deadline was that everybody wanted to add, but no one was selling,” conceded McPhee.  “Probably three or four sellers, but a couple of them were in our Division, so it’s not like you were going to be able to do much with them.”

Knowing that, how can you realistically expect a general manager to make a move?  It takes two to tango.  As much as I would like Washington to trade for Ryan Getzlaf, it’s not going to happen.  At least, not now.  And that’s what matters.  You can’t force a team to make a trade with you.  You can’t force a team to make someone available.  And you can’t force a team to listen to offers for players.

As the immortal Herb Brooks once said, (at least in the movie Miracle), “this isn’t weaving for weaving’s sake.”  The same can be said of the Capitals at the trade deadline.  This isn’t trading for trading’s sake.  Making a move just to make a move makes no sense.  It rids the organization of young players and draft picks, and everyone regrets those deals in June unless you win the Stanley Cup.

To be frank, I can’t remember a team that recently went “all-in” at the deadline that won the Stanley Cup, which is the ultimate goal (not making the playoffs).  Tomas Kaberle helped, minimally, but the Bruins were already pretty good when they got him and safely in playoff contention.  Unlike this current model of the Capitals, who are struggling to get in.  And judging by how the Bruins didn’t even offer Kaberle a new deal this past offseason, I bet you Peter Chiarelli regrets that deal a little bit, considering what he gave up.

Would you rather McPhee broke the bank and rolled out Dmitry Orlov, Cody Eakin, a first round pick, and maybe more to Buffalo in a run after, say, Derek Roy?  I wouldn’t.  Roy is small, injury prone, and he hasn’t been consistent this year.  Plus his contract is up after this season and there is no guarantee that he will re-sign in Washington.

Of course, there was no actual indication that Roy was ever available, but he was the closest thing to a second line center that rumors connected the Capitals to.

But with that in mind, and Nicklas Backstrom’s health an enormous question mark, why should McPhee risk it?  Why should he go all in?  Because make no mistake, this team isn’t winning the Cup without Backstrom in the lineup.  That is a virtual guarantee.

Backstrom has skated for a total of five minutes since he suffered his injury nearly two months ago.  It’s irresponsible and silly to assume that Backstrom will be healthy by the time the playoffs roll around, and equally silly to mortgage the future of the franchise, and hurt it’s long term ability to achieve the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup by dealing away young assets, on him maybe being healthy for the playoffs.  You have to take risks to win, yes.  But you don’t have to take stupid risks.

Seriously, there would probably be a riot if McPhee made that trade, the Capitals lost in the early stages of the playoffs again (with or without Backstrom), and Roy bailed to go play somewhere else.  That, and three years of drafting and development would go down the drain in order to achieve the same result: another early-round exit.  Then what?

This is McPhee telling his players to show him what they have and make do with what he has constructed.  He’s asking them to lay it out on the line and show who really wants to be out there and be a part of the Capitals.  The absence of Backstrom necessitates it, as this team will need 110% from each of its players to make the dance at this point.

Will there be a player out there who can solve all of Washington’s problems at center in the offseason?  Who knows.  Someone could become available, and if last summer was any indication, almost anyone can be had in the offseason at the right price.  In the offseason. Not at the deadline.

Maybe McPhee pulls off a miracle and is able to get the Capitals what they want and need.  Maybe he isn’t.  Maybe McPhee isn’t employed when free agency rolls around, should Washington fail to make the playoffs.  But that is a story for another day.

On Monday, though, George McPhee decided that the right course of action was no action.  Sure, you run the risk of losing prime pieces as unrestricted free agents in the offseason such as Dennis Wideman and Tomas Vokoun by not selling.  But that’s not as risky as the alternative, and guys like Wideman and Vokoun can be replaced more often than not.

McPhee resisted the short-term help in pursuit of the long-term gain.  He did the hard thing, especially because his owner is raising ticket prices (again).  That takes guts.  

But it was the smart thing.

Maybe, this time, it will all pan out in the end.

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

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