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Hanging on to Varlamov already paying off for Caps

by Dan Rosen
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington GM George McPhee fielded calls and listened to the inquiries, but never once did he even entertain the idea of parting ways with goalie Simeon Varlamov at the trade deadline.

Not for Chris Pronger. Not for Jay Bouwmeester. Not for Bill Guerin. Not for anybody.

"He was never on the block," McPhee said Sunday after most of the media had left Kettler Capitals Iceplex following Washington's optional practice. "When we were talking to teams about what might be available they immediately tell you they're looking for young players and they start telling you what young players they want off your roster. We weren't interested in doing it."

McPhee's resistance to deal Varlamov is easily the best trade that never got done at this year's deadline.

The 21-year-old Russian rookie has been surprisingly superior since being called upon to start Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers. He is ranked first or second in all major goaltending categories in the playoffs with a 5-2 record, two shutouts, a .950 save percentage and a 1.29 goals-against average.

He also made what could be called the save of the year on Sidney Crosby in Sunday's Game 1 against Pittsburgh, getting his stick down on the goal line and deflecting away what appeared to be an easy score into a wide-open net.

"We weren't close at all (to trading Varlamov) because we want to be a good team for a long time and we had two real good building years here, but we still had more to do and more to add," McPhee said. "We think we have it in the organization, so to give it away for a rental didn't make sense. We've done a good job of drafting and developing and it didn't feel right to give it away for rentals."

At the time, though, it was a gamble not to go after an elite defenseman like a Pronger or a Bouwmeester, or a top-six forward in the mold of a Guerin or a Mark Recchi.

Instead, McPhee trusted that Brian Pothier would be cleared to play and Chris Clark was going to return from his wrist surgery in time to make a difference in the playoffs.

Pothier was suffering from post-concussion syndrome, but as the deadline approached he was close to being cleared. Pothier said he spoke with McPhee 15 minutes before the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline on March 4 and the GM asked him if he would go to Hershey of the American Hockey League for a rehab stint.

"He said we weren't going to do anything, and we'd like to get you going and try to get you back in the lineup," Pothier said. "I knew at that point I was hopeful to get close to 10 games in the regular season and sort have my own little training camp and hopefully get into a playoff situation."

Pothier played four games in Hershey and nine with the Capitals before the playoffs began. He sat out Game 1 against the Rangers, but, like Varlamov, was inserted for the injured Jeff Schultz in Game 2 and hasn't looked back.

"If you're going to get a real high-end defenseman, you're going to have to give up something for it," Pothier said. "Not that I was sitting up in the office, but I imagine the asking price for those defensemen wasn't worth our future."

He's right.

With McPhee gambling on Pothier, there was no need to even think about trading Varlamov, even though Anaheim specifically asked for him or Michal Neuvirth, the Caps' other goalie prospect who is already 5-0 for Hershey in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

The other ingredient to all of this was Clark, who missed all but 18 games last season with a smattering of injuries and hadn't played since Jan. 27 this season due to a wrist injury that required surgery.

McPhee could have tried to go after someone like Guerin or Recchi, veterans who did eventually get traded from their foundering teams, but he had faith that the rugged Clark would find his way back, or someone like Donald Brashear could fill a role.

Clark was cleared to play before the playoffs, but he didn't get in until Game 7 against the Rangers because Brashear was suspended for six games following his hit on Blair Betts in Game 6. The Capitals' captain has played well in the last two games and it doesn't appear that he'll be left out of the lineup any time soon.

"I hope we look back at this in six weeks and say, 'Yeah, (not making a trade) was a great move,' " Clark said. "It could have been something that we maybe regret (giving up a young player) in the long term for short-term success."

Seeing how quickly Varlamov has emerged as a starter, it's fair to say McPhee and Caps would have already regretted any move that involved him. Odds are that without Varlamov, they would not have spent Sunday preparing for Game 2 against the Penguins.

"It was a bit of a role of the dice, but it felt like the right thing to do," McPhee said. "To have those guys (Pothier and Clark) come back in and then have the young goalie do what he has done, it sure makes you feel good about what you're trying to do."

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