Now That the Dust has Settled
Thanks to everyone who took the time to visit this page on Tuesday, and to those you took the time to make comments. There was a lot of good dialogue going back and forth there. Since it would be impossible for me to address them all, I’ll try to address some of the concerns here.
Deadline day is a tough day around the NHL, and it’s always harder on the management, coaches, players and fans of the selling teams. This year’s was even harder than most, because the Caps had to play a home game just hours after the deadline. I talked to a few players who said they’d prefer the NHL have that as an “off day,” where no games are scheduled. It’s not a bad idea at all.
Four players who were members of the Caps on Monday morning were off to other organizations by midday Tuesday. Washington was one of the busiest teams at the deadline, and the Caps did what had to be done, and did it well from my perspective. Every player in the NHL is someone’s favorite player, so it’s tough see players move. That’s especially true for the ones who have been around for a while. It’s a game, it’s a sport, and it’s a passion for all of us, but underneath it all it is still very much a business and must be operated in such a manner.
The new CBA has changed the way teams do business, which is why activity on deadline day was so brisk this season. Once it becomes apparent that the playoffs are out of reach, a club owes it to its fans and its future to manage its assets in the wisest and most efficient fashion. Rather than let impending unrestricted free agents walk away without receiving anything in return at season’s end, teams must shop those players to contending teams for the best offer of future players, prospects and draft picks. Because those contending teams have designs on winning the Stanley Cup, they themselves can rarely afford to trade away marquee talent. Since the players they are receiving are usually “rental” players (just there for the remainder of the season and the playoffs), they generally aren’t expected to pay such prices anyway.
Dainius Zubrus had a six-year tenure with the Capitals. He originally came to Washington on Mar. 13, 2001 in a deal with the Montreal Canadiens. That swap brought Zubrus and Trevor Linden and a pick to Washington. The Caps sent Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis to the Canadiens along with a pick. He played in 331 games in a Washington uniform, totaling 86 goals and 216 points. We watched him evlove from a raw young right wing, to a mature center who was good at both ends of the ice and capable of playing in any situation. At the time of his departure, only Olie Kolzig, Brian Sutherby and Matt Pettinger had been members of the Washington organization for a longer continuous period of time. Zubrus helped usher Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin along as NHL players in the longstanding NHL tradition of vets bringing the kids along.
The Caps were interested on keeping him in DC, and he was interested in staying. The clock ran out before the two sides could agree on an extension, but the two sides did come closer to reaching an agreement in the final hours before the deadline. When it became apparent that there was still a gap in Zubrus’s perceived worth, Washington began entertaining trade offers. Several teams kicked the tires, and at least three clubs made bona fide offers to obtain Zubrus. In the end, the Buffalo deal was the best fit. The Caps get young center Jiri Novotny and Buffalo’s first-round choice in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. That’s a very good return for an impending unrestricted free agent: an NHL player and a first-round choice.
Needing a scoring winger for their top two lines, the Caps dealt a third-round choice in the 2007 Entry Draft to Montreal for Richard Zednik last July. Zednik was bothered by some minor injuries early in the season, and then was felled by a sports hernia just as he was hitting his stride. That the Caps were able to replace the third-round pick they expended to get Zednik with a second-rounder is a good thing. Zednik is healthy now, but the Caps need to use the season’s remaining 18 games to get an idea of how well rookies Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann can play at the NHL level.
The face of Washington’s defense changed a bit since the season started in October. John Erskine came up from Hershey in November, establishing himself as an effective penalty killer and a physical force in front of the net. Lawrence Nycholat came up in December after the blueline had been battered with injuries and played very well for a stretch. First-year pro Jeff Schultz came up from Hershey and played better than anyone could expect of a 20-year-old (he’s 21 now) NHL freshman. And then the Caps obtained Milan Jurcina from the Bruins on Feb. 1.
With all those defensive developments and the return to health of Erskine, Brian Pothier and Bryan Muir after each of those three missed various stretches of games because of injury, the Caps suddenly found themselves with a wealth of NHL defensemen, at least in sheer numbers. There were 10 of them. The Caps sent Mike Green to Hershey, not because he had played poorly enough to be demoted, but simply because he was one of the few who could be sent to the AHL without passing through waivers. Even at that point, there was still a logjam.
Monday’s trade of Nycholat to Ottawa and Tuesday’s trade of Jamie Heward to Los Angeles help alleviate that numbers problem. Washington was able to obtain a sixth-round choice and a minor league blueliner (Andy Hedlund, who has reported to Hershey) for Nycholat and a conditional pick for Heward. Nycholat was a key cog in Hershey’s Calder Cup drive last spring. He could not have been sent back to Hershey without clearing waivers, and he would not have cleared. So the Caps were able to give him a chance to stay in the NHL while more or less replacing him at the AHL level and adding a pick to their portfolio.
Heward is a guy who came to Washington in the fall of 2005 and played his way into a roster spot after a three-year absence from the NHL. A consummate pro and a thinking man’s hockey player, he’ll be a coach somewhere someday if he wants to be. Having him on the ice was like having an assistant coach out there with whatever young defenseman was serving as his partner. Despite a few gruesome injuries this season, Heward played well for the Caps, even though his ice time had been diminished from last season. Los Angeles needed a defenseman for the final quarter of the season, and the Capitals need to be watching, developing and evaluating their younger defenseman the rest of the way.
The 35-year-old Heward was always available after games, win or lose, and would patiently answer questions until the last notebook and tape recorder had been filled, no matter how bad or difficult the loss. Those types are rarer than you think, and he set a good example for the Caps’ young stable of players in that respect.
In the process of writing a story about road trips, I once asked Heward which NHL city was the best in which to spend an off day. He didn’t hesitate.
“Los Angeles,” he said. He and his family will be spending all their off days there for the remainder of the season. I hope they enjoy them. Good luck to him and all the departed Caps the rest of the way, and over the rest of their careers.
Here’s to hoping the Caps are among the buying teams at next season’s deadline. The Caps are poised to make significant improvements to the roster this summer. With the right additions, Washington should be among the contenders in 2007-08.