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McPhee negotiating tricky trade market

by Corey Masisak /
So this hasn't been the best of weeks for the Washington Capitals.

To recap: The No. 1 goaltender has the flu, the former No. 1 right wing is frustrated by being scratched and might want out, the No. 2 goaltender was surprised to learn two hours before a game that he was being replaced by the No. 3 goaltender, and the No. 1 defenseman and No. 1 center remain out with injuries.

Oh yeah, and the Capitals have lost three straight games and now are four points behind the Florida Panthers in the Southeast Division with four straight games coming up away from Verizon Center; they've lost 18 of 27 on the road this season.

Got all that?

The challenge for Capitals General Manager George McPhee is trying to figure out what to make of his club's current predicament, and if there is a way he can fix in the next two weeks.

One thing that is clear is that McPhee is trying to fix it, and not waiting around to see if and when injured defenseman Mike Green and center Nicklas Backstrom can or will return. CBC's Elliott Freidman wrote in his "30 Thoughts" column today that, "Apparently, no GM is burning up the phone lines more than George McPhee."

"I still think if we get our guys back and if we can add something here in the next couple of weeks we're good enough to win the Stanley Cup," McPhee said to John Feinstein of the Washington Post. "Then again, a lot of teams are looking to add something right now, too."

Added owner Ted Leonsis, on his Ted's Take blog: "Wish us speedy recovery to some of our players -- and hope we can add some jump via the trade markets during the next few weeks."

McPhee has a few potential roadblocks in the way of making a deal. One is what he already stated -- the market is full of buyers right now and not many sellers. Another is the status of Green and Backstrom. If both are back and healthy, it is great for the team but not for McPhee's ability to make a move -- Washington is already using the long-term injured reserve relief from Green and Tom Poti to stay below the salary cap.

Another issue is trying to determine what the Capitals need if Green and Backstrom are healthy. As McPhee pointed out to Feinstein, the team is 8-0-0 when everyone (sans Poti) is available.

The best way for McPhee to try and improve the team -- or at least shake up the roster and hope that sparks some improvement -- probably is to try and walk a delicate line of being a buyer and a seller as the deadline nears.

For the Capitals to add salary, McPhee is going to have to move some out (assuming Green and/or Backstrom can be ready before the end of the season). If Knuble wasn't an option to be traded before this week, he certainly might be now.

The 39-year-old right wing has three goals this season, and he's been a healthy scratch the past three games. He told reporters he hasn't gone to McPhee to request a trade, but that sounds like a plausible outcome if he doesn't start playing again soon.

"I don't know. I haven't thought that far ahead yet. I just kind of got through this weekend with three games in (five) nights -- just wanted to get through it and see what (would) happen," Knuble said to reporters. "Obviously we all saw what happened so it gets you thinking.

"If a player is not going to be used, or in the near future you don't have plans, then that player probably wouldn't want to be there. That's how we are in our League -- you want to go somewhere where you're going to play and contribute to your team and if you can't do it in one place, then you've got to go."

Knuble carries a $2 million cap hit. Another player in that price range who has not played a lot of hockey recently for the Capitals is defenseman Jeff Schultz. He's been a healthy scratch quite often since Dale Hunter became the coach, and his cap hit checks in at $2.75 million. Dealing Schultz would cut into Washington's depth on defense, but whether the team has seven NHL-caliber defensemen or nine won't matter if Washington doesn't qualify for the postseason.

A more radical move would be to deal Alexander Semin, who is on a one-year, $6.7 million contract. Semin has his warts even when he's producing at a high level, but he's been far from that this season. If McPhee could move him to a team willing to take the risk for more offense, he could then use the extra cap space to replace Semin and maybe address another need.

The final issue then becomes what future assets McPhee would be willing to trade to try and salvage the season. McPhee has proven to be a bit of a pack rat when it comes to young assets. He's yet to deal an impact prospect in a trade since this current group of players started making the playoffs consistently. The only young player with significant upside he has dealt was goaltender Semyon Varlamov -- and that was for an overwhelmingly great return and a player who easily was replaced.

Using those parameters, it is easy to take Evgeny Kuznetsov off the table, and probably rookie Dmitry Orlov, as well. Would McPhee part with Marcus Johansson in a deal for an established No. 2 center? How about goalie Braden Holtby, or forwards Cody Eakin or Stanislav Galiev? His history says no, but given how radically things have changed this season in Washington, it is plausible that he takes a different approach.

McPhee has proven to be someone who will make deals at the deadline, but this might be his trickiest two weeks to maneuver since the Capitals returned to prominence five years ago.
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