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NHL trade deadline: For Capitals, no news might mean bad news

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General Manager George McPhee has never been shy about making moves to try to improve the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline. In fact, he considers it part of the process in trying to put together a team that will play its best hockey in the spring.

Never has that been more true than this season. For the past several weeks, McPhee has talked about what he thought it would take to make the Caps true contenders for the Stanley Cup: a healthy Mike Green; a healthy Nicklas Backstrom; a rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin; and a trade at the deadline that could give the team a boost for the last six weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.

As of 3 o’clock Monday afternoon, McPhee was 1 for 4.

Green is back in the lineup. That’s the good news.

The rest is not so good: Ovechkin has shown flashes of “Alex being Alex,” but has yet to put together a breakout scoring streak that might put the “great” back into “Great Eight.” Right now he’s “Good Eight” and nothing more.

Backstrom might not play again this season. The Caps put him on long-term injured reserve early Monday, apparently in an effort to give themselves some cap space flexibility if they were able to make a move.

Putting Backstrom on the long-term injured reserve list made several things apparent:

●McPhee didn’t think he could shop unhappy defenseman Roman Hamrlik and his $3.5 million salary.

●Backstrom probably isn’t close to returning from his concussion. If McPhee believed he would be back anytime soon, he wouldn’t have considered using Backstrom’s cap space to facilitate a deal for anyone else.

●McPhee thought there was a deal he could make to strengthen his team.

And then 3 o’clock came and the Caps announced . . . nothing.

“Everybody wanted to add, and no one was selling,” McPhee said. “Sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal.”

So much for making the deadline deal that McPhee had almost been counting on throughout the month of February.

“One of the frustrating things about this season has been that I haven’t been able to make a deal to help us overcome the injuries we’ve been dealing with all season,” McPhee said recently. “That’s the way hockey is. No one wants to make a deal until the deadline. So, we’ll have to wait until the deadline to get something done.”

Nothing got done.

What that probably means is that other general managers were hoping McPhee might be desperate enough to give up too much. Perhaps they wanted one of his two first-round picks in the upcoming draft, which is supposed to be very deep. Maybe they wanted a draft pick and a young goalie and/or one of the Caps’ talented young defensemen, the most coveted of them being John Carlson.

McPhee had to make a decision: mortgage important parts of the future to strengthen the present or stand pat in the hope that Backstrom can come back healthy and that Ovechkin might step into a phone booth and become Superman again. (The fact that phone booths no longer exist could be an issue).

Right now the Caps aren’t in the playoffs. They trail the Florida Panthers by three points in the Southeast Division (Florida has a game in hand) and trail the Winnipeg Jets by one point (with a game in hand) for the eighth playoff spot. If the Caps were to catch the Panthers they would be the third seed and have home ice advantage for the first round even if their opponent finished the season with a higher point total.

That’s the intriguing part of what’s going on right now. In 2007-08, after firing Glen Hanlon at Thanksgiving, the Caps made a late-season charge to win the division on the season’s last weekend. They then overcame a three-games-to-one deficit in the first round to tie the Philadelphia Flyers before losing Game 7 at home in overtime.

“In some ways, that’s the playoff loss that stung the most,” McPhee said. “Part of it was because it’s so sudden when you lose in overtime in Game 7. Just like that, it’s over. I honestly thought that team had a great chance to win the Cup. We were on a roll going into the playoffs, and if we’d come from 3-1 down, who knows?”

This team has the talent to get on that kind of a roll — if healthy and if the player formerly known as Alex Ovechkin ever shows up.

McPhee knows that’s a lot of ifs. That’s why he was hoping to do something to add depth to his team Monday: a second-line center; another scorer; maybe even a puck-moving defensemen in case Green isn’t 100 percent for the rest of the season.

Any one of those three would have helped. If McPhee believed the first three items on his wish list — Green, Backstrom, Ovechkin — were all going to be in place by April, he probably would have pushed all his chips to the center of the table and said, “deal.”

But in the end, there were too many ifs.

The season is far from over. The Caps have won their past two games. In hockey, if you make the playoffs, anything can happen: The 2010 Flyers made the playoffs by winning a shootout on the last day of the season and ended up losing in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.

McPhee was hoping to take a shot at that sort of story Monday. Instead, he held on to his chips, deciding that the team he has watched for the past five months wasn’t worth going all-in on.

Chances are, he made the right decision.

For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com

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