McPhee, Caps Can’t Stand Pat Forever

In many ways, Capitals GM George McPhee did the best thing he could in free agency – nothing. It’s easy to overlook just how important it is in the salaray cap era to avoid signing bad long-term deals. He deserves a ton of credit for not giving in to the urge to sacrifice the future for the present.

Sure, the Capitals could have used Anton Volchenkov, Paul Martin or Dan Hamuis, but the price simply wasn’t right for any of them. This was a thin free agent market with lots of competition to sign good players and there simply wasn’t a whole lot McPhee could have done that would have made sense.

Still, it’s hard to be content with the layout of the Caps’ roster as it currently stands. It’s not comforting when a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations but lost in the first round doesn’t address any of the problems that led to the disappointing finish. It’s concerning when a team that has been pushed to seven games in every playoff series for three years approaches the fourth year with the exact same personnel and philosophy.

Teams that have enjoyed deep playoff success in the post-lockout NHL generally have two things in common that the Capitals lack: depth down the middle and experience on defense.

It appears that the Capitals are planning on using Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, both of whom are still 24 years old, as their shutdown pair. As great as John Carlson and Karl Alzner may prove to be in the NHL, they’re even younger than that. Tom Poti is a shoe-in for one of the other spots, but other than that, this defense really needs a leader who can calm the kids down when the pressure is on.

This has been an ongoing issue for the Caps ever since they got good again, and McPhee has so far failed to mitigate it. Now, if the recent rumors that he’s shopping Tomas Fleischmann for a defenseman are true than he deserves credit. If I were McPhee, I’d be doing three things:

  1. Calling Vancouver to see what they want for D Kevin Bieksa, who carries a reasonable $3.75 cap hit for the next year, kills penalties and is a legitimate top-four defenseman.
  2. Calling D Willie Mitchell’s agent every 20 minutes for updates. Mitchell is an experienced, responsible defenseman who would easily slot into the top-four on the Capitals and settle everyone into their right places. His concussion history is worrisome, but as long as he’s healthy for the playoffs, who cares?
  3. Trying to pry D Robyn Regehr from the Flames. While Regehr has mentioned how much he loves Calgary, how much more losing can he take? The Flames are going nowhere and he’d be just the anchor the Caps need.

Then there’s the issue at center. Up front, it’s difficult to believe that the current lineup of ceners is good enough to go all the way. While having Ovechkin at LW mitigates some of the urgency to be strong down the middle, the Capitals simply don’t have a capable second-line center at the moment. They have two fourth line centers in David Steckel and Boyd Gordon, two third line centers in Mathieu Perreault and presumably Eric Belanger, and, well…Tomas Fleischmann. If the Capitals are going to make a run with this squad, they’ll likely need to sacrifice some talent via trade to fill that void.

Here’s what the Capitals’ front office absolutely cannot do – they can’t fall into the trap of thinking that these issues are non-existent when the team is inevitably racking up regular season points thanks to superior offensive talent. These issues may not fully manifest themselves until it’s too late. McPhee has to be proactive via the trade route for this team to have success.

Odds are McPhee is well aware of the same issues that we are. All of his additions in free agency and at the last three trading deadlines have aimed to address the problems that have ailed the team in April and May, even if some of them didn’t pan out (ahem, Joe Corvo).

How this season plays out will have major consequences in determining the direction this franchise is going to take for the next few years. With so much on the line, it would be pretty shocking if the front office didn’t do everything in its power to win now. Expect the Capitals to be very active on the trade market.

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