As fans, we often view the trade deadline as this magical date on which all problems with our team will be addressed; our belief going into that day, regardless of what anyone has said leading up to it, is that our GM will pull off a handful of shrewd moves that both fleece the other GMs but also turn our team into a surefire Cup winner (or at the very least put them on the right track). In many cases this isn’t a completely ridiculous notion. Rarely do ALL issues get fixed but we’ve seen teams pull off The Deal that solidifies them as a contender (on paper), and we’ve seen George McPhee swing trades that, in the short-term, seem to be the perfect deal for all involved.
This year, however, the Caps – like many other teams – chose not to make a single move. And this is something that has caused a great deal of ire among many Caps fans who, after a season of frustration, were hoping to see McPhee pull off the kind of magic we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
Admittedly as word came out yesterday that the Caps would stand pat and not make any moves before the deadline, I experienced this same level of frustration. I wondered how a general manager of an underachieving ninth-place team could look at the market, look at his roster and think "nah, not worth it, let’s stick with what we’ve got". I questioned the logic behind not making a single move, not bringing in a single warm body, not even jettisoning a pending UFA for at least a pick. As the dust settled, though, I looked around at the moves that had been made and the players who found themselves in new cities…and it made more sense. (More after the jump...)
The situation the Caps are in right now is not an uncommon one. They were neither buyers nor sellers, a somewhat arbitrary designation anyway in a League where all but a handful of teams are seemingly "out". Nothing about their performance this season says that they are just one or two depth pieces away from being a bona fide contender, but nothing about it says that they should start selling off pieces to the highest bidder, either. Yet. It’s a position that many teams find themselves in right now, and it’s a big part of why this year’s deadline was pretty uneventful across the board. Looking around at the moves made yesterday, there were none that I saw and thought "gee, I wish the Caps had gotten [Player X]".
The Caps have a few areas that need improvement, but the biggest need is (and has been) a legitimate second-line center who could comfortably fill the first-line role when needed. Admittedly this is an area the Caps have needed to improve upon for some time, now, but waiting hasn’t seemed that crazy when the assumption was that Marcus Johansson could fill that role adequately. It’s only been this season, when the Caps have played a significant number of games without Nicklas Backstrom and Johansson’s abilities to fill in could be questioned, that the need seems that much more pressing.
But if you look at the centers who were seemingly available – and let’s face it, in this market where everyone needs center depth they moved if they were available – which ones legitimately fill that hole? Paul Gaustad and Sami Pahlsson are serviceable depth players but neither would have been The Guy for the Caps. And considering that Gaustad required a first-round pick to be
rescued wrested from Buffalo and Pahlsson took a prospect and two picks to get out of Columbus, they would have had to overpay to get either one yet still not have addressed a significant need. That’s hardly the logical route to take for a team that’s not right there right now, as frustrating as that may be – and it’s the only route they could have taken in a trade market featuring few big names, high price tags and more buyers than sellers.
So what of the team’s pending UFAs? I’ve seen the argument that it’s poor asset management to not move these guys now when their value would be high, that the Caps are going to lose them for nothing this summer anyway so they’d be better off turning them into picks. It’s an argument that, while seemingly logical on the surface, actually makes little sense to me for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, this is a team that is very much still in the hunt, one point out of a playoff spot and just three points off the division lead. Teams that sell off pending UFAs at the deadline are very often the bottom-dwellers – teams who are looking to get rid of expiring deals and veteran leaders in order to stockpile picks and prospects, to rebuild. Say what you will about the Caps needing to make a change, and perhaps a fire sale is on the horizon, but it’s not now – to dump guys like Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun, Alexander Semin or Mike Knuble when the team is fighting for their playoff lives sends a horrible message to the team. Not making a move yesterday isn’t giving up on the season; selling off those pieces and others for a handful of picks absolutely would have been.
For another, it’s not poor asset management in the way losing someone like Semyon Varlamov last year would have been. In fact it’s hardly poor asset management at all so much as it is reality. Every team is going to lose players to unrestricted free agency over the summer; very few are going to be able to turn those pending UFAs into anything of worth. And of the biggest potential unrestricted free agents on the team, Wideman, Vokoun, Semin and Knuble, only Wideman actually cost anything outside of a contract – a pick and a prospect, or essentially the same price people were clamoring for the team to pay for a rental this year. If they lose them, they lose them, but it won’t – and shouldn’t – be until after this team has done whatever it can do to get to and make a run in the postseason.
And for yet another, there's a chance that the Caps did try and move at least one of these pieces but found the market simply wasn't there. If you can turn an asset into another asset, great, but if you're getting a 6th- or 7th-round pick for a veteran like Knuble or Hamrlik, or anything less than a 2nd- or 3rd-rounder for Wideman, is it worth it? My instinct says no.
It’s very hard as a fan to see inaction and recognize that, while it may not be a good thing per se, it’s also not the worst thing in the world. The harsh reality that the Caps didn’t make a move this year should be softened by the fact that numerous other teams didn’t, either (and the ones that did were largely limited to small, minor-league and/or complementary moves rather than the jaw-dropping overhaul we all crave). This wasn’t McPhee sitting on his hands while the teams around the Caps became vastly improved (because they didn’t), while names that could have been perfect fits found new homes outside of DC (because there were none).
This also didn't seem to be a GM afraid of taking a risk so much as it was a GM reading the market the way many of his colleagues did and choosing to not mortgage the next four, five, six years and beyond of viability because one year the team underachieved, choosing not to panic when to do so would have been incredibly easy to do. Whether or not McPhee faced pressure from above to squeeze out a couple of playoff games at the expense of moving players for picks is unknown; how much concerns about job security, perceived or otherwise, drove McPhee's decision-making at the deadline, the same. What we do know is that the "easy" move would have been something drastic - and likely regrettable. To that end, it was better to hold off.
That this team has issues is not in question; that they could be fixed yesterday or even in the few weeks leading up to yesterday, is. Uncertainty surrounds this team, from whether their top center will be back to whether they'll make the playoffs to how far they can go if they do (and even whether they'll be the sacrificial lamb in the first round or not, which isn't exactly a guarantee - as we've seen, who you draw in the first round makes a difference). And while I may be in the minority here, I’d much rather see this team make the final push as constructed than see deals made for the sake of making deals. Inaction, at times, is better than reaction, and is most certainly better than overreaction.
Let the issues be sorted out over the summer if need be. Let the team figure out whether the core as it stands is the core they want going forward (or even if the GM and coach they have now are the GM and coach they want going forward). For now I’m content, if not happy, to see how this season plays out with the guys who have been there all year.
Because as has been the case in the past, the message being sent is clear: from here on out, it's up to them.