By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; D01
With 20 games remaining in the regular season and a double-digit point cushion in the Eastern Conference standings, the question facing Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals isn't so much whether they'll make the playoffs, but rather what they'll do when they get there.
The answer to that question won't be known for months. Clues to the team's thinking about what it needs to ensure postseason success, however, could emerge in the coming hours.
General Manager George McPhee has been steadfast in saying he won't overpay at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline.
McPhee was typically tight-lipped when speaking to reporters this week. But an Eastern Conference official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the veteran general manager has made acquiring a rugged veteran defenseman a priority.
McPhee did not travel to Buffalo with the Capitals for Wednesday night's game and will instead spend the day with his scouting staff and other hockey operations employees at the team's Arlington headquarters.
"We have good players and they're well coached and we have good chemistry and I don't want to tinker with that too much," McPhee said. "But I really like where the club is right now and we've done, obviously, really well."
McPhee has the best poker face in the business and made similar comments in February 2008 before completing separate deals for forwards Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke, and goalie Cristobal Huet.
What happens at this season's deadline could remain unclear until the final moments. What's not so much of a secret is this: one year after standing pat as other teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins loaded up, McPhee is armed with considerable salary cap space, a stockpile of prospects on the club's minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., and eight draft picks (the Capitals also have Phoenix's fifth-round pick).
Even with all that to offer, acquiring an impact player -- at the right cost -- might prove to be difficult given the tight playoff races in each conference. In the Eastern Conference, Florida, the New York Islanders, Carolina and Toronto will be sellers. In the Western Conference, Edmonton, Columbus, Minnesota and St. Louis are open for business.
When the season resumes Wednesday against Olympic MVP Ryan Miller and the Sabres, Washington will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak in which it yielded 16 goals. While spotty goaltending and out-of-position forwards contributed to those woes, Coach Bruce Boudreau was harsh in his assessment of the defensemen after defeats in Montreal and Ottawa, both by the score of 6-5.
"I thought our defense was horrible," Boudreau said in Ottawa. On Tuesday, more than two weeks after that loss, Boudreau backed off, saying, "I was cranky." He spread the blame to forwards who were reluctant to backcheck.
Asked how active he expects the Capitals to be in the trading market, Boudreau joked: "I don't know. There's locks and bolts on the doors" to McPhee's office.
"If we can make our team better, great," he added. "If we can't, I'm happy with what we have. It's a double-edged sword. You want to have the best team in the world, but sometimes the best move is by making no moves."
Adding a rugged defenseman could significantly enhance the Capitals' chances of making a deep run in the playoffs this spring. Right now, John Erskine is the only Capitals defenseman who forces opposing forwards such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby to think twice about crossing through the middle of the ice and loitering near the crease. Erskine, a third pairing blue liner, was scratched for the 12th time this season in the team's last game before the Olympic break.
On Tuesday, the Eastern Conference official said that McPhee made a push for the New York Islanders' Andy Sutton before the 6-foot-6, 245-pound defenseman was traded to Ottawa for a second-round pick. Sutton's contract also expires in July -- a must for McPhee when shopping for players who he does not expect will be in Washington for a long time.
While securing a defenseman appears to be McPhee's primary goal, his team could also benefit from a top forward, preferably a second-line center. The position has been a revolving door for much of the season and most recently was occupied by Tomas Fleischmann, a converted left wing.
Fleischmann, however, had begun to struggle on faceoffs prior to the break, so much so that Boudreau put him back on the wing. In all, Fleischmann won only five of his 25 draws against the Canadiens and Senators.
After Tuesday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the tension was palpable as players thought about what could happen. While core players like Ovechkin looked forward with anticipation, others such as third-line winger Eric Fehr fretted about the possibility of being included in a package deal, shipped from a Stanley Cup contender to an also-ran.
"I don't want to hear my phone ring," Fehr said. "That's the name of the game. It's definitely a nervous time. That's all part of the business."
Capitals note: Tyler Sloan did not practice because of the flu, which Boudreau said he suspects is affecting other players.