Picking Splinters: Caps Near Deal Deadline

The NHL trade deadline hits this coming Monday at 3 p.m., which means the Washington Capitals have some serious matters to consider before then. In fact, you could make arguments that the Caps need to upgrade in all three areas of the ice – at forward, on defense and in the crease. While GM George McPhee figures out his next move, I thought I’d look at each area to see which may be the most pressing.

The Crease

The conventional wisdom is that young goalies don’t win Stanley Cups. Of course conventional wisdom said rookie Antti Niemi wouldn’t be able to carry the Chicago Blackhawks to the promised land last season, so what does conventional wisdom really know?

With Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov the Caps have a very capable tandem between the pipes. I don’t see how McPhee muddies the waters by trying to trade for another goalie. Varlamov has playoff experience in Washington and Neuvirth was MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs as a minor-leaguer in Hershey. It’s not like having Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek in net, but I think both represent upgrades on Jose Theodore who started the last two playoffs for Washington. Trust me, the Caps will stand pat in goal.

The Blueline

The thing that may have broken the conventional wisdom of rookie goalies falling flat in the playoffs may have been the Blackhawks’ remarkable defensive corps. Shots were as rare as a two-headed unicorn against Chicago last season and when you reduce the number of shots against, the stats say you’re going to cut down on the number of goals allowed as well.

The Caps aren’t anywhere close to what the Hawks were last season. In fact, with Mike Green out (but due back soon) and Tom Poti still battling injury issues, the blue line looks rather thin at the moment. I like Tyler Sloan as much as the next guy, but if the Caps are rolling a tandem of him and John Erskine into the playoffs, I don’t think that’s optimal. Not to mention the team’s best defensive pairing has been rookie John Carlson and Karl Alzner. They’re both capable with big, big upsides, but how much do you really want to rely on them now?

Up Front

For whatever reason, the Caps just can’t seem to score. The power play has struggled. Alex Ovechkin’s shots are down, as are Nicklas Backstrom’s. Yes, Alexander Semin and Green have been hurt, but this unit is a shadow of the dominant force it was last season.

You keep waiting for this team to throw the switch and score five goals a game. But here we are, a little over a month left in the season, and the Caps are still eking out 1-0 wins.

While it’s good that the Caps have been forced to learn how to win without a four-goal lead, it’s also getting a little problematic that scoring has been so sparse. While the defense seems to be far better than last season, I don’t think anyone has much confidence that this team can stand up to top offenses in Philadelphia, Tampa or Detroit and Vancouver out West. If the Caps can’t start scoring more they don’t seem like true Cup contenders this season.

So, what should be on McPhee’s shopping list? Maybe I’m misguided with this, but I still think the top concern should be the blue line. I have to believe that the offense will come around. And there just aren’t a ton of second-line centers available on the market. I mean, does anyone think Ales Hemsky or Tim Connolly is a massive upgrade over Mathieu Perreault? And at what cost in prospects and draft picks?

I’d love to see the Caps nab Bryan McCabe from Florida, but the price is likely to be sky-high judging by what the Boston Bruins yielded for Tomas Kaberle (top prospect, first-round pick and second-rounder). But if they can find a second-tier guy that can provide a little depth if Poti’s not up to par and has some veteran chops to help the kids out, I think that would be a very savvy addition for the stretch run.