In six games over the past 10 days, the Washington Capitals managed to capture important wins, but they also suffered doubt-casting defeats. They have kept up in the hunt for the Eastern Conference playoffs, but approaching the NHL’s trade deadline, the outlook for the rest of the season — and the future of the franchise — is murky.
That uncertainty will undoubtedly play a role as General Manager George McPhee determines the volume and significance of his final moves before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline in order to best help Washington succeed now and into the future.
“If there’s a way to help the club, we will. If there isn’t a deal that makes sense, then we won’t do it,” McPhee said earlier this month. “You do have to put a team on the ice again in September. We have certainly lots of young talent that everybody would like to have, but we’d like to have them in our lineup, too.”
After back-to-back wins this weekend, Washington sits in ninth place with 67 points. While the Capitals have had unpredictable high and low tides, the fluctuations are largely negated by a similar lack of consistency from the squads they are contending with directly for a postseason berth.
The Capitals are just one point behind the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets and the last playoff spot in the East, and they have two games in hand. They are also only three points behind Florida for the Southeast Division lead, a title that if claimed comes with the benefit of home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Panthers have one game in hand on the Capitals.
With the backdrop of the tight playoff race, the Capitals’ deadline moves will be greatly influenced by the uncertain status of top center Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed 25 games with a concussion. Considering that Backstrom has skated for only five minutes over the past 51 days, it appears unlikely that he would return before the end of the regular season.
Backstrom’s absence also exacerbates Washington’s longtime need for more experienced depth at center, specifically on the top two lines. But the uncertainty in the the 24-year-old Swede’s recovery makes it difficult for McPhee to gauge whether he should pursue a pivot to fill that role.
“It’s hard when you don’t know what you’re going to have,” McPhee said. “Obviously Nicky’s a terrific player and we’ll certainly welcome him back but we don’t know when that’s going to be.”
One option for Washington would be to place Backstrom on the long-term injury list, which would provide an additional $6.7 million in space under the salary cap to add at the deadline. As the roster currently stands, the Capitals have approximately $1 million in wiggle room under the cap.
In recent days it’s become increasingly clear that veterans Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik are not part of the Capitals’ future plans. While McPhee previously said he had “no interest” in trading Knuble, the 39-year-old alternate captain was a healthy scratch for both games over the weekend, making it the fifth time in the past nine games that he sat out. He could be a coveted piece for Stanley Cup contenders looking for power-play presence and additional leadership.
Knuble, who is on a one-year deal worth $2 million, is one of five Washington players — along with Alexander Semin, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Halpern and Tomas Vokoun — set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Hamrlik, meantime, has been a healthy scratch for three straight games and lashed out at Coach Dale Hunter earlier in the week for the decision. Although the 37-year-old, who has one more season on his current contract at $3.5 million, said he hasn’t requested a trade, his frustration is readily apparent.
“It’s not easy,” Hamrlik said. “It’s real difficult on your body and your mind.”
There have been few blockbuster deals across the NHL thus far, with the exception of Los Angeles acquiring center Jeff Carter from Columbus for defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick. The calm trade waters likely speak to the tight postseason battles, as only two teams in each conference are eight or more points out of eighth place.
Whether that makes for a dizzying few hours of trades on Monday is unclear. But as the Capitals wait to see what McPhee will opt to do, the players know they can’t let the deadline impact them.
“It’s that time of the year, but we have to be professionals about it,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We have to focus on what we’re doing at the present time, and that’s trying to win hockey games.”
Capitals notes: Washington reassigned Keith Aucoin to the AHL’s Hershey Bears on Sunday.