Thirty-six games into this shortened season, the Washington Capitals sit in a rather unremarkable position, having only just reached the NHL’s version of .500. But while their year has largely been defined by inconsistencies, injuries and various other roadblocks, over the past two weeks the Capitals have begun to see the potential they believed was there from the beginning.
Predominantly healthy for the first time all season, Washington went 5-1-1 in its seven games prior to the NHL trade deadline on Wednesday, and catapulted itself from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings to two points out of the Southeast Division lead.
So when the deadline arrived, General Manager George McPhee opted not to subtract a single player, but to trade a top prospect and add a top-six winger. The move made the clear statement that the Capitals believe they have a shot at winning in the present, even if this season so far hasn’t gone the way they scripted it.
“You’re here to win. We’ve been in that mode for a while. This is six years of trying to win a Cup,” McPhee said. “We had our rebuild phase, we sort of rebuilt things on the fly here, but we’d like to continue to make the playoffs while we’re doing it.”
Washington traded highly regarded 2012 first-round draft pick Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for veteran winger Martin Erat, who has recorded at least 49 points in eight consecutive seasons prior to this shortened year, and a minor-league prospect, Michael Latta.
Shipping out Forsberg, 18, the organization’s second best prospect, is at odds with what has been McPhee’s long-view approach since the 2004-05 lockout of building through the draft and carefully grooming young players. But in this case, future risk was worth bolstering Washington’s present depth at wing, McPhee said.
“They’re never easy decisions. It takes some guts to do deals sometimes,” McPhee said. “With respect to giving up young players, you’ve got to be careful doing that, but we’ve drafted well enough that we can do it. And I wanted to help this team now.”
Erat, 31, should do just that. The Czech native, who was tied for Nashville’s scoring lead with 21 points, will ideally slot into a top-six role for the Capitals. He has two years remaining on his current contract with a salary cap hit of $4.5 million per season.
Erat waived a no-movement clause in order to join the Capitals, saying he wants to play for a team that’s a contender.
“I was getting older,” said Erat, who could wind up as Washington’s top-line left wing. “I don’t have seven, eight years to wait for another chance.”
McPhee said he “wasn’t interested” in trading any of Washington’s pending unrestricted free agents — including veteran center Mike Ribeiro or gritty Matt Hendricks — because he didn’t believe it would send the message, publicly or to the team, that the goal is to win now.
Those postseason aspirations and expectations are the same things the players hold for themselves. Before the trade deadline passed, several Capitals said they hoped management would show the confidence in the current roster to help it fight for that opportunity.
“I think we have a good thing going here. Close to our division, close to making the playoffs,” said Ribeiro, who has confidence in Washington’s improved play. “We know how good we can be and how to play when we win and now it’s just a matter of keep doing it.”
Ribeiro, 33, was confident earlier in the day Wednesday that he wouldn’t be traded but added that he wasn’t on the verge of re-signing with Washington. He isn’t focused on a contract extension now, though, but simply helping the Capitals find a way to succeed.
“I hope to go all in because I don’t ever want to write off a season or anything like that,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “The fact that we’re on the upswing right now and playing good hockey, it doesn’t matter where we finish.”
As the Capitals and the entire NHL have learned in recent seasons, where a team ends up in the regular season isn’t necessarily an indication of how it might fare in the postseason. Find a way into the playoffs, and anything is possible.
With 12 games remaining, a sixth consecutive postseason berth seems well within Washington’s reach. The Capitals not only sit two points back of division-leading Winnipeg, but they also have two games in hand, making a fifth division title in the past six years a genuine possibility.
Washington’s remaining regular season games include plenty of winnable matchups — four games against teams currently out of the playoff picture, along with games against fellow bubble teams the New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets. Even though they face teams comfortably in a playoff spot six times, given the way the Capitals appear to be finding their stride under Coach Adam Oates, winning two out of every three games the rest of the way doesn’t seem all that far fetched.
Certainly not to McPhee at least. After his deadline-day addition of Erat, his directive is in full view — win now.
“As players, that’s our only priority is this year — right now and making the playoffs,” Troy Brouwer said. “We squeezed into the playoffs last year and had a good opportunity to make a deep run. . . . This year is no different; I think we have a better team this year than we did last year. I think we sputtered a little bit at the beginning of the season, but we have all the pieces that we need to be a good, competitive team in the playoffs.”