Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Caps Off to McPhee

At roughly 12 p.m. Tuesday, this column looked very different. Under the assumption that the Washington Capitals would likely sit idle as Tuesday's NHL trade deadline passed, I had already outlined my disappointment that there would be no additions to a team that sat just five points out of the third seed in the Eastern Conference. I was going to lament about how the recent downturn in the Capitals' play, five losses in their last six games, might have convinced the front office that this team would require too much help. I was going to talk about how the economics of the situation might have argued for such deadline augmentation. After all, boosting the team's playoff chances might pay dividends through the additional revenue stream such an appearance offers.

About three hours later, following the additions of Cristobal Huet, Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke to the Capitals, this column is starting to take a much more optimistic bend.

As exciting as the name Fedorov is, particularly when paired with either Alex (Ovechkin or Semin), Huet is the big get on deadline day. While he's not quite in the same category as Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, Huet is among the upper echelon of goalies in the league today and is an upgrade over Olie Kolzig. The Caps' veteran netminder has long been a pillar of the D.C. sports community, but his stats have been a touch shaky this season. His save percentage of .888 ranks last in the league among goalies with 27 appearances. Last year, he finished 17th out of 41 netminders in that category with a mark of .910.

Kolzig had looked sturdier of late — allowing more than two goals just once since the start of February — until the Hurricanes buried Olie and the Caps under six goals on Feb. 23. That the slip up came in what was probably his most important start of the month probably didn't reassure the front office much. Though to be fair, Kolzig did face 42 shots.

But now here comes Huet, who will likely start Friday and continue until he proves faulty. McPhee said in a press conference Tuesday that the acquisition of Huet does not necessarily mean the end of the line for Kolzig in Washington. Both Kolzig and Huet are unrestricted free agents after the season after all. Just reading the tea leaves though, I don't think things look too good for Kolzig. Had Kolzig been carrying the Caps in the crease like he's done in years past, Huet would not have been brought in. Beyond this season, Washington will be looking for a netminder who can bridge the gap to hot prospects Michal Neuvirth and/or Russian Simeon Varlamov. Kolzig may have strong ties to D.C., but Huet is about five years further away from age 40.

Of course, maybe this will serve as new motivation for Kolzig. Facing the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday after the trade announcements, the veteran did his best to impersonate Humpty Dumpty's fatal vantage point. He turned aside 34 shots in a 4-1 Caps win, and the one goal he did allow — a deflection off a Minnesota forward's thigh — was about as flukey as they come. So, maybe Huet's acquisition will force aside Brett Johnson instead. It's a possibility.

While it's no guarantee that Washington will improve because of these trades, it is encouraging that the front office believes that these three pieces, none of whom are guaranteed money after this season, might be enough to put the Caps in the playoffs either as the Southeast Champions or as a seven or eight seed in the East. Moreover, McPhee didn't even have to sacrifice too much of Washington's future talent to acquire the trade-deadline trio.

The fact that the Capitals got a No. 1 goaltender for a second round pick in 2009 is mind boggling. In fact, the most impressive part of McPhee's deals may have been how little the team gave up. The most costly piece was Matt Pettinger, thus far scuffling with just two goals, for Cooke. For Fedorov they parted with Theo Ruth, a freshman defenseman at the University of Notre Dame.

As an aside, how great would it be to be a college freshman and be able to tell people you were traded for Sergei Fedorov, one of the most prolific goal scorers of his generation. That has got to be a golden line for the ladies … at least it would be at The Loose Moose in Toronto.

If the moves are going to propel the Caps back to the playoffs, the players better gel quickly. On March 18 the Caps start a six-game road trip that includes dates with all four other Southeast Division teams. They'll finish off the season with a three-game home stand against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida.

The late slate of divisional games is a blessing and a curse to the Caps. The good news is that eight of the Caps' final 18 games are against the weakest division in the NHL. The bad news is that, to this point, Washington holds just a 10-11-3 record against those teams.

But perhaps after Tuesday's trades those results will soon look different as well.