When Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee returned to work after a one-month suspension, he feared the worst. The Capitals went 2-6-2 in October, closing the month with a dismal four-game road trip. They couldn't score, and they couldn't keep the puck out of their net.
Upon his return, McPhee met individually with every member of the organization. The Capitals are 7-5-3 since.
Four weeks ago, McPhee and the rest of the team's management wondered if the Capitals would have another lost season, falling well short of the playoffs again. Now the team could be in a position to make a postseason push at the March trading deadline.
"When I met with the players I was concerned they were going to be in a funk we just weren't going to get out of," McPhee said. "I like what I've seen since I've been back. I hate to refer back to the year we went to the finals [1997-98], but that year we played the way we are playing right now. We were in every game, we played tight [defensively] and the penalty killing was excellent. We had to tweak it throughout the year to make the team better, and I hope to do that this year."
The Capitals have made dramatic improvements in their overall play, especially defensively. They drastically cut down turnovers and odd-man rushes since Coach Ron Wilson altered his system to put the center rather than a winger in a more defensive role. Washington yielded 36 goals in the first 10 games and 35 in 15 games since.
One glaring problem remains. The Capitals lack proven scorers and often have trouble finding a way to translate hard work and scoring chances into goals. Only four Capitals are on pace to score 20 goals this season--Peter Bondra (13 goals), Jan Bulis (six), Steve Konowalchuk (six) and Richard Zednik (six). All of them except Bondra formed Washington's only consistent scoring line through much of the season, although Wilson recently split them up. Those four players account for more than half the team's offense--62 goals in 25 games.
Worse for Washington, the Capitals have just seven goals from their defensemen and are on pace to get just 23 goals from their defense; last season defenseman Sergei Gonchar scored 21 goals in his final 40 games. This season Gonchar has no goals (on 50 shots), just five assists and continues to struggle defensively.
Saturday's 2-1 loss to Florida was emblematic of the season. The Capitals dominated a more skilled opponent, outshooting the Panthers 21-4 in the third period, but could not score.
The game followed a pattern set in two previous games against Florida, two against Carolina and in games against the New York Rangers, Dallas and Boston. In those games, the Capitals went 0-4-3. They outshot the opposition 231-161 but were outscored 21-17. With another power-play goal or two, they would have a few more points, but they rank near the bottom of the NHL in that category. Just three Capitals have more than one power-play goal: Bondra, Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen.
"Everybody is looking for goal scoring," McPhee said. "That's something we could use. I don't know whether we're going to get that from within from guys like Zednik, Bulis and [Jeff] Halpern and a big contribution from the blue line, or whether we have to go outside for it.
"But it's harder than ever to make a trade now because most teams have filled their needs with free agents in the summer and the last couple of months there just isn't the level of activity there used to be in this business."
McPhee is calling teams daily to stay informed on available players, constantly evaluating his club to determine its direction in March. The decision McPhee faces is whether to add veterans for a playoff run or part with high-priced veterans, such as Adam Oates, if quality prospects and draft picks can be had.
"I don't know right now if we'll be buying or selling," McPhee said. "It's hard to say at this point."