The list, at this point, is long, and when Jaroslav Halak arrives and pulls on a Washington Capitals sweater, it will get longer by one. But it’s worth restating: Olaf Kolzig giving way to Cristobal Huet, back when merely making the NHL playoffs was a novelty around here. Jose Theodore, then Semyon Varlamov, then Michal Neuvirth, then Tomas Vokoun, then Braden Holtby.
Throw in a little Philipp Grubauer, some veteran backup work from Brent Johnson and there they are, the nine Capitals goalies since 2008. Three have been in net for victories that clinched playoff series. At least that many have had their names chanted so fervently that Verizon Center rocked.
Will Halak be the next? And as the Capitals try to make the playoffs for a seventh straight season, will it make a difference?
The NHL’s trade deadline ended with a bang-bang-bang series of moves Wednesday afternoon, and just when it looked as if the Capitals would take power forward Dustin Penner and say they had done due diligence but passed on the rest, here came Halak from the Buffalo Sabres, who had him for a week after acquiring him from St. Louis. He is 28 years old with an expiring contract and a bit of potential.
He doesn’t arrive as the clear-cut No. 1 to replace Holtby, upon whom General Manager George McPhee lavished praise Wednesday. He doesn’t arrive as a backup either. He arrives as the latest participant in this game of musical chairs, a guy who might — might — warm up when April arrives and push the Capitals not only into the playoffs but deep into them. We can dream.
“He’s a good goalie, and he can get hot,” McPhee said. “The objective was to try and upgrade the tandem, and we did.”
The tandem, now, is Holtby and Halak, and the order will be decided by how they play over the next month. Left unstated when McPhee spoke Wednesday was that some in the organization feel goaltending has cost the Capitals points in the standings. Eight? Ten? Certainly the difference between being in and looking in at this point. And there is no escaping Halak’s leading role in the Capitals’ April demises, the three games in which he saved 131 of 134 shots for Montreal to take an opening-round series Washington led three games to one back in 2010.
But let’s not overstate Halak’s playoff legacy here. For one, it’s certainly not a reason to make this move. Yes, he was a primary factor why the eighth-seeded Canadiens beat the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals (remember those coast-into-the-playoffs days?). But he was hardly infallible. He allowed six goals in Game 2, was yanked in Game 3 and was a flip-of-the-coin choice to start over Carey Price in Game 5. He got Montreal past Pittsburgh in the next round but struggled to an .884 save percentage in losing four of five to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
That offseason, the Canadiens chose Price and traded Halak to St. Louis. His postseason ledger since: two games in the 2012 first round, during which he suffered an ankle injury. Groin problems cost him the top job for St. Louis in the lockout-shortened 2013 season; he didn’t play in last year’s playoffs. At all. And when St. Louis — a Cup contender, with the same aspirations the Caps say they have — wanted to upgrade the position, they dealt him away as part of the package that landed Ryan Miller from Buffalo.
Still, there is a strong case to be made that the Capitals’ goalies weren’t winning them games and that trading away the disenchanted Neuvirth — who was unhappy playing behind Holtby (and, for a time, the 22-year-old Grubauer) — while receiving a third-round pick as well is a good, solid hockey deal. But those people who have spent all that money on all those season tickets and all those red jerseys also know that since the Capitals began making regular playoff appearances, they have needed a bruising, defensive-minded defenseman built for the playoffs. They didn’t get that. They got another goalie Wednesday.
“There wasn’t much out there at that position,” McPhee said. “There wasn’t much that moved. There were no guys that moved that moved the needle. There were no guys that moved that we didn’t already have that kind of player.”
So a team that ranks 22nd in the league in goals against average and 21st on the penalty kill addressed, instead, the final line of defense, not the guys in front of him. McPhee stuck up for, in some order Wednesday, the suspended Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen, returning from injury. He called Mike Green “a talent” and said John Erskine can be physical when necessary. John Carlson is having his breakout season; Connor Carrick is on the rise. These are his guys, and he’s sticking with them.
“It’s a young group, but they’re good,” McPhee said.
A good group that, before Wednesday night’s game at Philadelphia, sat fifth in the Metropolitan Division, tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference, outside the playoffs either way.
In a similar situation a year ago, the Capitals traded prospect Filip Forsberg for forward Martin Erat, who failed here — scoring two goals — and was dealt away Tuesday. The crazies among Capitals fans seem to root for Forsberg to succeed as a way to damn that deal, as a way to put a black mark on McPhee’s record.
McPhee’s message Wednesday: When something doesn’t work out, figure out why and move on.
“With anything we do, if it didn’t go the way I wanted, then you analyze it,” McPhee said. “And so I changed a few things in the way I do things, and I like the way this deadline went.”
The goalie situation in Washington, over the short- and long-term, has not worked out, not to the level in which one player — pick one — can carry a flawed team through April and May and into June. On Wednesday, McPhee changed it again because — as the 10th goalie in seven years arrives — different results are expected.
More on the Capitals: