With the Washington Capitals out of the playoff picture and unable to agree to terms on a contract extension with Dainius Zubrus, the veteran center was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for prospect Jiri Novotny and a first-round draft pick yesterday, just an hour before the NHL's 3 p.m. trade deadline.
Veteran defenseman Jamie Heward also was dealt, to the Los Angeles Kings for a conditional draft pick in 2008, capping a busy 48 hours for General Manager George McPhee, who completed four trades. On Monday, right wing Richard Zednik and seldom-used defenseman Lawrence Nycholat were swapped for draft picks.
Zubrus, reached by telephone as he packed his belongings, said he had hoped to remain with the Capitals, the club he has played for since 2001, but also was excited be going to the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres.
"My reaction is that I'm going to a very good team that has a legit chance," he said. "Last year, they came really close. I'm excited. It's a good team and I've got a chance to win."
The flurry of moves left the Capitals depleted for last night's game at Verizon Center against the Florida Panthers, who blew an early three-goal lead but eventually secured a wild 6-5 shootout victory behind Olli Jokinen's hat trick. Washington's Alex Ovechkin had two goals and two assists, but he failed to connect in the tiebreaker as the Capitals fell to 1-9 in games decided by a shootout.
The trades over the past two days put increased pressure on McPhee and his hockey operations department to deliver on draft day and during the offseason. The Capitals have two picks in first round of June's entry draft and two in the second. And they've got holes throughout the lineup -- first-line center, first-line right wing and top pairing defenseman, to name a few -- that must be addressed.
"We would like to be aggressive through trades or with some free agents," McPhee said. "We expect [2006 first round pick Nicklas] Backstrom, an offensive center, will be here next year. Then we'll figure out what else we need to do to complete the picture. We'll do what we can to make the upgrades we need to make us better."
Whether that happens remains to be seen. But this much is for sure: There is going to be plenty of room under the salary cap, which is expected to rise to $48 million next season. The Capitals' league-low payroll of about $31 million dropped even lower with the departure of the club's third- and fourth-highest compensated players, Zednik and Zubrus, respectively. (Each of the four players who were traded are pending unrestricted free agents.)
Zubrus was seeking a five-year contract worth approximately $17 million, according to sources. The Capitals, meantime, countered with two offers -- the first being a three-year contract worth $10.5 million and the other a four-year deal worth $12 million, according to another source. Although there was some compromise from Zubrus's camp yesterday, it wasn't enough to complete the deal.
"There was a good discussion today, and some movement, but in the end, we had to make this deal," McPhee said.
Zubrus had 20 goals and 32 assists in 60 games for the Capitals while playing on the top line alongside Ovechkin. Last season, the 28-year-old alternate captain posted career highs in goals (23) and assists (34), and is on pace to top those figures this season.
Coach Glen Hanlon said Zubrus's on-ice contributions won't be all that are missed.
"He's helped Ovechkin more than you'll ever know, he's helped [Alexander] Semin more than you'll ever know," Hanlon said of Zubrus, who helped the Capitals' young Russians adapt to a new country. "He's been a leader."
Ovechkin added: "If our boss says he must be traded, he's traded. We can't do nothing. We are just players and they are bosses. Right now, we have a group of guys who stick together."
Asked whether he would consider re-signing with the Capitals in the offseason -- it's unlikely he will remain with the salary cap-strapped Sabres -- Zubrus was noncommittal.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm going to have to talk to George [McPhee]. But I've got to be honest, there's a lot more going through my head right now than coming back here."
Novotny, meantime, is expected to arrive in time for practice today. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound Czech has been hobbled by a high left ankle sprain but is expected to skate.
"He's a big strong kid who's ready to play in the NHL now," McPhee said of the 2001 first-round draft pick. "He's good defensively and he's got some offensive upside. So we think he can fill that third-line hole for us, but he could be better."
Notes:If Heward is re-signed by Los Angeles, the Capitals receive a fifth-round pick in 2008. If he does not, they get nothing. . . . The Capitals also sent minor league defenseman Timo Helbling to the Sabres in the deal. In addition, the Sabres unloaded backup goalie Martin Biron, whom the Philadelphia Flyers picked up in exchange for a second-round draft pick, and acquired backup goalie in Ty Conklin from Columbus in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. The team also traded a fourth-round draft pick for Nashville minor leaguer Mikko Lehtonen.