Brooks Laich in July 2008, soon after signing his current three-year deal. Photo by Stephen Pepper
"[I]t's really hard to make a trade right now. It's the cap and free agency. There's a lot more free agency now. If you've got a guy who has one year [remaining on his contract] and the other guy has two years, it deters you from doing things. Teams are also trying to fill their needs during free agency in the summer and are reluctant to give up [assets] during the season." - Capitals GM George McPhee, November 5, 2007.
What was true a year and a half ago is still very much the case today: it's extremely difficult to pull off trades in the big league. But the art of the deal also happens to be McPhee's forte. While the team still has a couple of holes to patch in its Stanley Cup contending roster (most significantly the second line center position), the free agency period is only a starting gun, not a finish line. And the trade has always been the most likely method of repair utilized to fix those holes.
Here's a rough breakdown of how each post-lockout Cup champion was built (using discretion in including all players who made a significant impact on the team), followed by the current makeup of the 2009-10 Caps (assuming that all RFAs who received QOs a few days ago are resigned):
* Trade deadline acquisitions in the Cup-winning season.
Looks to be about in line, doesn't it?
Perhaps McPhee's best work in the trade department is yet to come, several months from now. There certainly hasn't been a more crucial time in McPhee's career as Caps' GM than in this upcoming 2009-10 season to pull off a move to vault the club to the Finals, be it one made during the languid days of summer . . . or in early March. Patience, grasshopper.
After assessing the career work of George the free agent provocateur, and before that GMGM the drafter, we review here the body of work of Trader George. And what we find is a quite impressive record, ranging from decent swaps to downright fantastic fleecings. McPhee has made dozens of deals during his tenure -- many of them were picks-for-picks, or deals involving strictly minor league depth, or exchanges of prospects that never blossomed, or for those nebulous future considerations (for example, D Enrico Ciccone was once dealt straight up for cold, hard cash) -- but let's focus on his top 15 most significant trades, to wit:
- 1998-03-08 -- acquired Esa Tikkanen from Panthers for Dwayne Hay and a conditional 1999 pick (#103-Morgan McCormick)
- 2001-03-13 -- acquired Dainius Zubrus, Trevor Linden, and a 2001 second round pick (#61-Andreas Holmqvist - later dealt by Caps) from Canadiens for Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik, and a 2001 first round pick (#25-Alexander Perezhogin)
- 2001-07-11 -- acquired Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera from Penguins for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, Ross Lupaschuk, and future considerations
- 2001-11-10 -- acquired 2002 first round pick (#17-Boyd Gordon) and 2003 third round pick (#94-Zach Stortini - later dealt by Caps) from Canucks for Trevor Linden and 2002 second round pick (#55-Denis Grot)
- 2002-03-19 -- acquired Maxime Ouellet, 2002 first round pick (#26-Martin Vagner - later dealt by Caps, see below), 2002 second round pick (#59-Maxime Daigneault), and 2002 third round pick (#92-Derek Krestanovich) from Flyers for Adam Oates
- 2002-06-12 -- acquired 2002 first round pick (#13-Alexander Semin) from Stars for 2002 first round pick (#26-Martin Vagner), 2002 second round pick (#42-Marius Holtet), and 2003 sixth round pick (#185-Francis Wathier)
- 2002-11-01 -- acquired Michael Nylander, 2003 third round pick (#83-Stephen Werner), and future considerations (2004 conditional third round pick) from Blackhawks for Andrei Nikolishin and Chris Simon
- 2004-02-18 -- acquired Brooks Laich and 2005 second round pick (#52-Chris Durand - later dealt by Caps) from Senators for Peter Bondra
- 2004-02-27 -- acquired Tomas Fleischmann, 2004 or 2005 first round pick (Capitals option) (2004 #29-Mike Green), and 2006 fourth round pick (#122-Luke Lynes) from Red Wings for Robert Lang
- 2004-03-03 -- acquired Shaone Morrisonn, 2004 first round pick (#27-Jeff Schultz), and 2004 second round pick (#62-Mikhail Yunkov) from Bruins for Sergei Gonchar
- 2005-08-04 -- acquired Chris Clark and 2007 seventh round pick (#199-Andrew Glass) from Flames for 2006 seventh round pick (#187-Devin DiDiomete), and 2007 sixth round pick (#155-Jens Hellgren)
- 2006-03-09 -- (re)acquired Kris Beech and 2006 first round pick (#23-Simeon Varlamov) from Predators for Brendan Witt
- 2008-02-26 -- acquired Cristobal Huet from Canadiens for 2009 for second round pick (#45-Jeremy Morin)
- 2008-02-26 -- acquired Matt Cooke from Canucks for Matt Pettinger
- 2008-02-26 -- acquired Sergei Fedorov from Blue Jackets for rights to Ted Ruth.
In the eleven instances where McPhee has faced the crucible of trade deadline dealing, he's been the "buyer" four times: 1998, 2001, 2003 (acquiring the oh-so-briefly a Cap, Sergei Berezin, for a 2004 fourth round pick), and, most notably, 2008. And in only two of those six purchases did he deal away a player on the active roster, and in three of those six swaps did he send away a first- or second round pick (or in Ted Ruth's case, an unsigned second rounder). McPhee has proven himself quite adept at executing successful "buyer's" trade deadline deals, and with limited or no impact to the team's daily lineup. Finally, for what its worth, he works equally with Eastern and Western Conference dance partners (seven and eight times, respectively, out of the above 15 trades).
The team retains all of its seven draft selections in 2010, and still has prospects at its disposal, already under contract and not anticipated to make an impact next season, that could be dealt, such as forwards Jay Beagle, François Bouchard, and Mathieu Perreault, defensemen Joe Finley and Josh Godfrey, and G Braden Holtby.
Bottom line is this: The Caps are right there, and there's plenty of time. What we're finally seeing unfold with this organization are the finishing touches on the time-tested model for building a champion. It's what has been beaten into our heads for years -- you build through the draft and with astute trades made both during the off-season and at the deadline, and add a precious few short-term veteran free agents to pull it all together.
And then there's that cliché that the Stanley Cup isn't won in July. Or in December. Or guaranteed by a 50-win season. Or even home-ice advantage. But get into salary cap trouble in July with too many "instant" free agent fixes, and that same 50-win team may find itself (again) incapable of executing the trade deadline deal to propel it into June playoff hockey.