When word came out yesterday that Mike Fisher had been traded to Nashville, it instantly became a central topic of conversation (and spawned more than a few Carrie Underwood-related comments…did you know they were married?). Not only was it a trade that sent Fisher away from the only team he's ever played for, but it also marked the first "big name" center to be scratched from the pre-trade deadline shopping list.
And for the Caps, it was a move that makes the next few weeks that much more interesting – and difficult.
Washington’s lack of a true second line center isn't a new problem, nor is it a new topic of discussion among anyone who follows the team. The domino effect of not having someone to anchor the second line is felt throughout the lineup, impacting point production, offensive zone starts and faceoff numbers from the top down. And as we close in on this year's trade deadline, filling that role has to be done while facing two major obstacles.
First of all, the Caps are facing a problem that has existed since the lockout: parity. A quick glance at the standings tells us that playoff races are extremely tight in both conferences, but especially among the Western teams (also known as teams more likely to trade with an Eastern Conference team). Ten points separate third place from fourteenth out West, and on any given night teams are bouncing in and out of the playoff picture. More teams believing they can make the playoffs means fewer teams selling off assets and focusing on next year, which means a small pool of available players that just got smaller.
And that brings us to the second problem facing the Caps, which is the ever-increasing number of teams who are now buyers – and who are all looking for the same thing the Caps are. In recent weeks a rash of injuries has targeted centers among Eastern Conference playoff teams, ramping up the desperation level and wish list of teams with whom the Caps are in direct competition.
Last week the Bruins announced that center Marc Savard would be shut down for the rest of the season and the playoffs after suffering yet another concussion, his second in ten months. In New York, the Rangers have lost Chris Drury (...again) for six weeks with a knee injury that will require surgery, leaving a significant void in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill. And of course we’ve all been following the ongoing saga of the Penguins, who first lost Sidney Crosby to a concussion a little over a month ago. Since then they’ve also lost Evgeni Malkin and Mark Letestu to knee injuries, the former a season-ending injury, and after calling up Dustin Jeffrey from the AHL (who was injured in last night's game) they're in the unenviable spot of having exactly zero remaining centers on NHL contracts in Wilkes-Barre.
In other words, it's shaping up to be a race to the deadline, a contest of who can get the most for the least and beat out the rest; it always is, of course, but this year Capitals GM George McPhee really has his work cut out for him. The price tag for Fisher (a first round pick and a conditional pick) might have been a little steep for a player of that caliber but now that price can only get steeper. McPhee will have to decide soon whether he wants to dive in at the current market price, or allow his colleagues to set the bar even higher and further limit his options.
So the question becomes, is this the year that McPhee is willing to go all in to get what he wants? If he thinks this is The Year…he might just have to do that.