On Hockey: As buyers or sellers, Capitals should be active at trade deadline


General Manager George McPhee has until the Feb. 27 trade deadline to determine whether the foundering Capitals are a few tweaks away from the playoffs. Otherwise, a roster reboot may be in order. (Luis Alvarez/Associated Press)
February 21, 2012

If George McPhee had his mind set on exploring the rental market ahead of next week’s NHL trade deadline, he’s got to be as conflicted as ever after Monday’s debacle in Raleigh, N.C.

And who could blame him?

Because after watching his Washington Capitals put up little resistance in a 5-0 loss to Eastern Conference-worst Carolina, he has to be wondering whether this team is a tweak, or three, away. Or whether it’s in need of a reboot.

Believe it or not, there’s still a compelling case to be made for being a buyer come Monday.

Even after getting shut out by the Hurricanes’ third-string goalie, and suffering their seventh defeat in 10 games this month, the Capitals are only two points out of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. In fact, they’re also only two points behind first-place Florida in the Southeast Division.

And, as we’ve seen as recently as 2010, sometimes getting into the tournament is all that matters. Just consider Philadelphia’s late-season surge two years ago. The Flyers were the last team to qualify for the playoffs and came within a goal of forcing a deciding Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals.

It’s far too early to begin looking ahead to potential matchups, but for argument’s sake, let’s say the Capitals surpass the Panthers and earn the third seed and home-ice advantage, where they own the league’s fifth-best record. And Ilya Bryzgalov and the Flyers fall to the sixth seed. Is there no chance that Tomas Vokoun gets hot and Bryzgalov doesn’t melt down?

Playoff success is often determined by a random confluence of getting a favorable matchup, being on the right side of a referee’s call and having a hot goaltender. And, for the first time in years, the Capitals have a goalie capable of igniting a postseason run.

But an equally strong argument can be made for the Capitals shedding salary at the deadline, too, and getting a jump start on a team that obviously needs retooling.

Everyone is entitled to a bad day. But when a whole team comes out flat in such an important game and gets outshot, 40-17, that would seem to speak to a much deeper problem, one that won’t be solved by trading for short-term help at center and on the blue line.

Sure, the Capitals have sorely missed concussed No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom and, until two games ago, top defenseman Mike Green. Of that there’s no doubt. (We won’t elaborate on the fact Pittsburgh has overcome long stretches without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal.)

Captain Alex Ovechkin and his teammates have been having bad days since November. Remember the beatdowns administered by depleted clubs in Toronto and Buffalo? The prevailing sentiment was that the team had quit on Coach Bruce Boudreau.

And maybe they had.

But it’s impossible to compare what Boudreau is doing in Anaheim and what’s happening here. The Ducks lost Tuesday night but still have earned points in 19 of their past 22 games and are six points out of a playoff berth in the Western Conference.

Meantime, 3,000 miles away, the Capitals’ problems persist under Coach Dale Hunter.

If there was any doubt before, there should be none now. It’s always been about the players.

From the outside, there doesn’t appear to be a strong leader in the Capitals’ dressing room. Players used words like “embarrassing” after Monday’s defeat. But what was said in the room before the game? Between periods of a contest that featured everything but the Capitals waving a white flag?

There was a certain chemistry that defined previous incarnations of this club. This season’s team is missing that cohesion.

If rebooting is the route McPhee chooses, other team’s draft picks, prospects and young players are available. Why wait until the offseason?

It just might take some gutsy decisions. For example:

●Alexander Semin, whose contract expires at season’s end, is underachieving and should be dealt if he doesn’t fit into the future plans.

●If all-star defenseman Dennis Wideman is demanding more than the Capitals are willing to pay, then the pending unrestricted free agent should be in play, too.

●Ditto with Green, who becomes a restricted free agent July 1.

●McPhee said last week he has no plans to deal Mike Knuble. But the 39-year-old is sure to be coveted, even if he’s nearing the end of a distinguished career.

●There’s also a logjam of young goalies, Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. The Capitals only have one net.

There may be a leadership void downstairs in the dressing room. But this is no time for weak leadership in the executive suite.

Capitals notes: Ovechkin was noticeably absent from the Capitals’ optional workout Tuesday in Raleigh. Hunter called it a “maintenance day” for the star left wing, but it is possible that Ovechkin may have suffered an injury.

Ovechkin was limping after Monday night’s loss, during which he skated his second-lowest time on ice this season (15 minutes 43 seconds). . . .

Forward Brooks Laich didn’t play in the final 10 minutes of Monday’s contest, but Hunter said it was “just precautionary. Just give the other fourth-line guys more ice.”

Laich suffered a left knee injury Feb. 5 and appeared to be in pain on the bench Monday, but after Tuesday’s practice he dismissed any notion he wasn’t healthy.

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