Capitals’ deadline moves prove management remains in denial

Adam Proteau
George McPhee (Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
George McPhee (Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

For the second straight season, the Washington Capitals are going full steam ahead with the vision of themselves as a Stanley Cup contender. Well, perhaps “full steam ahead” isn’t the most apt phrase. That suggests they’re a train on a rail line, headed in a linear direction to reach a particular end.

But the more I see the moves Caps GM George McPhee makes, the more I think this team is moving ahead like a speeding car in an action movie, careening over sidewalks and straight through fruit stands, keeping viewers in suspense as to where it will stop. And after trade deadline 2014 came to an end – and Washington loaded up with more veterans – I’m still not convinced they’re a playoff team, let alone a for-real menace to do any post-season damage.

The price McPhee paid to change his team was relatively small – a fourth-round pick to Anaheim for Dustin Penner; disgruntled backup goalie Michal Neuvirth to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak; disgruntled winger Martin Erat to Phoenix for essentially a decent prospect – and they’re not taking on any long-term salary in any deal. Yet for all intents and purposes, the Capitals’ overall picture stays the same. They’ll be expected to push for a playoff spot and then some.

But let’s be honest. With due respect to Washington’s new players, does this team strike you as capable of scaring anybody? Even with a 6-2-2 record in their past 10 games, they’re currently one point out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, but they’re also battling four other Eastern Conference opponents (Columbus, Detroit, New Jersey and Ottawa) for it and they’re only five points ahead of the 13th-place Carolina Hurricanes. One bad week could all but bury them.

And have a gander at the Caps’ schedule this month: Boston twice. Pittsburgh twice. Los Angeles twice. Philadephia. Phoenix. San Jose. Anaheim. You can make the argument they don’t have a single soft-touch game until they take on the Islanders April 5. By that point, their fate may be long-sealed.

Say what you will about the Vancouver Canucks’ utter mishandling of their goaltending situation, but at least they’ve begun the process of altering their core. Can the same be said about Washington? No. There’s still a run on rose-colored glasses going on here and turning to Halak and Penner instead of parceling off attractive assets suggests it’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.

As I’ve noted numerous times in recent seasons, McPhee’s tenure as Capitals GM has reached its best before date some time ago. Last year’s indefensible Filip Forsberg-for-Erat trade is even more odious than it was back then. Even if Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetzov joins the team in the weeks and months to come, he isn’t capable on his own of winning games, or of making them a better defensive squad. The issues with this franchise run deeper than that. But so long as he has the ear of owner Ted Leonsis, McPhee will keep putting band-aids on broken bones. If that happens, expect a Calgary Flames-like descent into year upon year of ninth-and-tenth-place finishes.

It would have been impossible and foolish for McPhee to jam sticks of dynamite in either end of the team today and blow the whole roster up. That’s not what’s being advocated. What’s being advocated is the recognition this group isn’t keeping up with its rivals and likely will be less capable of doing so as the days go on.

Bringing in more veterans on a short-term basis won’t get you to recognize that. All that does is spray a momentary mist of perfume over an environment that hardly smells of roses.