Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, congratulates teammate Nicklas Backstrom, right, of Sweden, after Backstrom scored on Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson (41) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. The Washington Capitals have placed Backstrom on the long-term injured list, starting what could be a busy day at the NHL trade deadline. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Ann Heisenfelt
ARLINGTON, Va. - The Washington Capitals pulled a surprise at the NHL trade deadline—by making no trades at all.
The Capitals opted to stay put Monday, even though they could use a centre while Nicklas Backstrom is out long-term with a concussion—and even though they have two veterans who have been deemed dispensable in the last week.
"We probably talked to every club, it seems, 10-to-15 times in the last three or four days," general manager George McPhee said. "We would have added something to the team if we thought it would make us better, but it had to make us better, and what transpired today really there wasn't anything there that really would have been the right thing for our team."
The four-time Southeast Division champions, who were expected to contend again for a Stanley Cup this season, sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 20 games to play. Alex Ovechkin is having a career-worst season, and coach Dale Hunter has failed to rally the players into any kind of sustained momentum since replacing Bruce Boudreau in late November.
But McPhee said the only deal he could have been would been a mistake that mortgaged the future.
"There are more mistakes made at the trading deadline than at any time in our business because everybody thinks that is the move that puts them over the top," McPhee said. "And then in the summertime you have a lot of managers (saying) 'Geez I wish I still had that young player,' or 'I wish I had that first round pick,' so we weren't going to make a mistake. We weren't going to chase a bad deal."
It turned out to be a relatively tranquil day league-wide. The fact that the post-season remains within reach for so many teams—all but five were within six points of a playoff spot as the 3 p.m. deadline passed—created a one-sided market.
"The theme of this year's deadline was that everybody wanted to add," McPhee said, "and there was no one selling."
Known as a trade-deadline mover-and-shaker in years past, McPhee gave himself some wiggle room to make some deals when he placed Backstrom on the long-term injured list, a move that could net some US$7.6 million in salary cap space. The move is retroactive to Jan. 4, the day after Backstrom was elbowed by Rene Bourque in a win over Calgary.
Even though he's been gone a while, Backstrom still ranks second on the team with 42 points. There remains no timetable for his return, but McPhee implied the Capitals can only go so far in the playoffs without the cornerstone centre.
"We can make the playoffs with this team," McPhee said. "And if he comes back, we can beat anybody in this conference."
After the morning practice, forward Mike Knuble and defenceman Roman Hamrlik were among the players eyeing deadline. Knuble has been a healthy scratch five times this month, including the last two games, while Knuble has been benched for the last three.
"I'm not standing there with my head in the sand," said Knuble, who has a one-year, $2 million contract. "I know the year I've had, and how things have gone of late, and (my) expiring contract. That's a lot of the characteristics that become tradable this time of year."
Yet and Knuble and Hamrlik will stick around, even though Hamrlik took a potshot at Hunter a few days ago. When Hunter cited Hamrlik's penalties as a reason for sitting the defenceman, Hamrlik responded: "You should ask him about the penalties—because when he played I think he make lots of penalties ... so he should know better."
McPhee said he didn't feel the need to move either player just to improve the locker room dynamic.
"You're going to have some players that aren't happy that they're not playing," McPhee said. "I get it; I understand it. If they're happy about sitting out, then you've got the wrong guys."
McPhee didn't have much to say about Hunter, whose contract expires at the end of the season. McPhee said he likes the way Hunter coaches and that the team is playing better defensively, but it's taken a modest two-game winning streak to offer hope that the team can finally get on a roll.
"I finally saw that spark that we've been looking for the last few games," McPhee said, "and I hope that can continue."