Thirty minutes before face off at Verizon Center Monday night, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee sat in his office down the hall from the home team’s locker room looking about as serene as someone can look sitting in the eye of a hurricane.
He smiled at the pregame yammering coming from the locker room as his team prepared for its 56th game of what has been a confusing and frustrating season. “If you had told me on opening night that we’d be sitting here right now outside a playoff spot, I’d have been very surprised,” he said. “I liked the team we had put together this summer.
“Of course we’ve only had that team on ice for eight games. We’re 8-0 in those games.”
Unfortunately for the Caps, the NHL doesn’t track records only when teams are healthy. Monday’s 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks, with the building half-empty at the finish, dropped their record to 28-23-5. Their 61 points put them in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 26 games to play.
Which means, quite simply, that a team that began the season with serious Stanley Cup hopes would not be among the 16 teams competing for the Cup if the playoffs began today.
Of course, the playoffs don’t begin until the second week in April. That gives the Caps a little less than two months to get healthy and become something approaching that 8-0 team McPhee likes to talk about.
“I still think if we get our guys back and if we can add something here in the next couple of weeks we’re good enough to win the Stanley Cup,” McPhee said. “Then again, a lot of teams are looking to add something right now, too.”
Which is why McPhee faces a major dilemma with the trading deadline less than two weeks away. He’s going to make some kind of a move to try to improve his team — of that there’s no doubt. The question is how major will that move be; how much will he be willing to risk?
He expects to have Mike Green, the team’s power play quarterback, back in the next week — perhaps even sooner. “If he can get through practice on Wednesday and Thursday it’ll be no more than seven to 10 days and it could be this weekend [in Florida]. That’s a long shot, but I’m not ruling it out.”
Nicklas Backstrom is another story. He hasn’t played since January 3, when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Borque. He still isn’t skating and, as seems to be the case with most concussions nowadays, there is no way to know when he will play again.
“It could be two days, two weeks, two months, two years,” McPhee said. “You just don’t know.”
And then there is the never-ending question in Caps-world: will the real Alexander Ovechkin show up anytime soon? Ovechkin has played better in recent weeks but remains on pace to score fewer than 35 goals and 70 points. In fact, the phrase, “Back when Alex was Alex,” has become as much a part of Caps-lingo as, “Rock the Red.”
Which is why McPhee is faced with trying to come up with answers between now and February 27th when he isn’t sure of the questions. He still believes the team he put together last summer is capable of playing until the weather in Washington turns hot and humid. But he doesn’t know when or if Backstrom will be healthy and when or if Alex will be Alex.
That’s why it probably wasn’t an accident that there were no fewer than 12 scouts in the building on Monday — including Montreal Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier. It probably wasn’t an accident that the Caps decided to call up talented 22-year-old goalie Braden Holtby on the spur of the moment for a spot start.
It also may not be an accident that Mike Knuble, who doesn’t need to be put on display for teams to know what he brings to a locker room, sat out a third straight game. Knuble is 39, one of those guys who can bring instant leadership and maturity to a contending team. Healthy and rested he might be a better trading chip than if he appears tired and a bit out of sorts, which has been the case recently.
McPhee has other chips he can play. If he believes Green is going to be healthy he has two young defensemen, John Carlson and Dimitry Orlov, who many teams would covet. He also has Dennis Wideman, an all-star defenseman who is a free agent this summer. What’s more, he has two first round draft picks in a draft reportedly chock full of talented defensemen.
If any of those players or combination of players could bring in a second line center who can score or anyone who can put the puck in the net consistently, McPhee will almost certainly make a move. History says he doesn’t sit out the trading deadline.
“One of the things that’s been frustrating with our injuries is that there are no trades to be made,” he said. “It’s much harder to make a deal nowadays with no-trade clauses and the salary cap.” He paused. “Except at the deadline. Then it gets easier.”
Nothing is easy on the ice for the Caps right now. The Sharks scored their first goal Monday when Joe Pavelski somehow redirected a shot Dan Boyle had released from beyond the red line and the puck took an astro-turf hop, skittered off Holtby’s glove and into the net.
This is how tough things are for Washington right now: Pavelski wasn’t even trying to score. “I was just trying to tip it so we wouldn’t be called for icing,” he said during a between-periods TV interview.
Still, it is very difficult to judge a team that is without its two best players — and make no mistake about it, Backstrom and Green are the Capitals’ two best players in the era of Ovechkin 2.0, which is roughly the hockey equivalent of Tiger Woods 2.0.
McPhee has to believe that this team’s karma will turn in time to make the playoffs and perhaps, in a departure from recent springs, get on a roll at the right time. In the last four seasons, the Capitals have lost playoff series in which they had home ice advantage — three times losing a Game 7 at home.
Perhaps this will be the year when they begin the playoffs with lowered expectations and produce better results. Right now though, in the dog days of February, they are still trying to figure out who they are as a hockey team.
And who exactly will be playing on their hockey team eight weeks from now when — they hope — they are preparing to start the playoffs.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.