I spoke with Caps' GM George McPhee last Thursday heading into the NHL trade deadline
, and he told me that the Caps would not be dealing any of their young goalies or top prospects or first-round draft choices. Now that the dust has settled, we see that GMGM was true to his word on all counts. He and his staff also brought in three veteran players -- forwards Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott and defenseman Dennis Wideman -- with about 2,500 games worth of NHL experience among them. Shortly after the deadline passed, I sat down for another exclusive conversation with the Caps' GM. Here's how it went:
You’ve been planning and scheming for this day for weeks. You and I talked for a while on Thursday. That was before Sturm became available. What were your thoughts when you saw him on waivers, and what was the conversation like internally at that point?
“We actually scouted the last game that he played in [with Los Angeles] and he played very well. He was on waivers the next day, and we saw an experienced player, who’s been a consistent 20-goal scorer but has had some injury issues, but just played a pretty good game. I guess nothing ventured, nothing gained. We thought we could get him for nothing and it was worth a try. If he’s over the injuries and he can play the way he can play, he’s a good player. He’s sound positionally, coachable, can bring speed and brings goals. We saw it as an opportunity to add an experienced player to our lineup that could help us.”
Did that alter at that point anything that you had been planning on doing heading up to the deadline?
“No. We’ve managed the cap so well, [assistant general manager] Don Fishman has done such a good job that it didn’t preclude us from doing anything. We did more things than most people expected today because we maneuvered under the cap in some pretty neat ways. “We picked up some expensive players today with what looked like not much cap room. But it didn’t get in the way of us doing anything else. I wasn’t expecting to add a defenseman, but with the uncertainly surrounding Tom Poti and now Mike Green, I felt we had to do it. We got a guy that supplies something we needed. We needed more goals on the back end and somebody who could help us on the power play. And we did it at a fair price.”
You bought a year of term with Wideman, too, giving you three right-handed puck-moving defensemen under contract for next season. I’ve got to think that’s going to make Bruce pretty happy.
“Looking at our roster, we had plugged in room for another defenseman for $3.5 to $4 million. We had it built into next year’s plan. So this won’t affect anything else we need to do in the summer."
Does it affect Scott Hannan at all? His contract is up at the end of the season. To my eyes, he’s played very well lately. Is he someone you would see as a fit here if terms and everything else are agreeable?
“We like him a lot. He’s been a great addition to our team, a fabulous leadership guy. There are ways to do things. We’re looking at this year’s team but also with an eye on next year’s team. We felt what was most important was to help this year’s team. We’ll worry about next year’s team in the summer.”
Getting Wideman gives you another guy with workhorse ability, the ability to play 24 or 25 minutes a night. Having added Hannan and Wideman in the middle of this season, and with the development of John Carlson and Karl Alzner as a young but effective shutdown pair, makes your defense so much better and deeper than it was at this time last season.
“If we get healthy it’s going to be pretty darn good. We think it’s good enough now, but if we get healthy it’s going to be tough to beat. We wanted more versatility, we wanted better special teams and we wanted more experience.”
If Green doesn’t get hurt the other night, does the Wideman deal still go down? Was that trade more of a reaction to Poti or Green?
“I think we started to think about another defenseman when we got worried about Tom. When Green went down, I felt like I had to make a move to help this team, and to make sure we had another guy.”
Are you worried about Poti’s injury being a lingering injury?
“I don’t think it’s career-threatening. We just had to figure out how to manage it. It seems like it’s getting better but we’re not sure. Because of that uncertainty, we had to get another defenseman. I don’t know where we’ll go with Tom. We’ve sent him to the best specialists in our business. He does not require surgery. It’s just a matter of working with it and rehabilitating it and getting it to a place where he is able to play. Now we can take our time; we don’t have to rush him back.”
What’s the prognosis on Green?
“It’s going to be a couple of weeks at least, and then we’ll go from there.”
Looking at the landscape a month ago or so, it seemed like Mike Fisher was the best fit for you guys. Once Ottawa traded him – and they obviously didn’t shop him at all – the options drop drastically as far as true second line centers. You could even argue that Arnott at this stage of his career might not fit the description of a true No. 2 center. Where do you see him fitting in lineup-wise?
“That’s up to Bruce. We just wanted to get another veteran center. We think there are a number of combinations that we can come up with, and Bruce is pretty good at coming up with combinations throughout a game. That’s one of the things that makes him a good coach; it’s hard to match lines against him because he uses so many different combinations. I don’t know exactly where he’ll play, but with him and Sturm it gives us options that we didn’t have a few days ago.”
Sturm is a guy who has worn a letter on his sweater. Arnott has worn the “C,” and he’s won a Cup. How important were those elements?
“We thought it was important for this team to have more of that, not unlike what [Sergei] Fedorov brought us a few years back, the veteran in the room that’s been there and done it. It’s nice to have another one of those guys in the room.”
How much did you watch Arnott lately or this year?
“We watched him a lot. Like the rest of that team, he wasn’t playing very well early on. But all reports lately have been really good, much better.”
Did the emergence of Jay Beagle help make Steckel expendable in that deal?
“We didn’t necessarily want to trade Dave. There were a lot of teams asking about Dave. This was the one thing that would make the deal work for New Jersey. For us, we weren’t going to give up our top prospects. We love Dave on face-offs, but some of our other guys are coming along in that area or are good in that area. Nicky Backstrom and Boyd Gordon are both good in that area. So we were comfortable that while we’re taking a guy out of our lineup, hopefully we’ll be better for doing this.”
Mike Knuble said the other day that he thought adding so many guys to a team that was already fairly well set at the deadline caused some issues because you had guys sitting out who didn’t deserve to. To me, it seems like these three guys fit more organically. They can be plugged in – at least right now – without anyone who’s not already used to being out of the lineup being out of the lineup.
“I think that’s a fair assessment of last year and a fair assessment of this year. We’ve been a little bit thin this year and these guys have filled holes whereas last year we were adding depth and sort of pushing people around, but it may have been too many people. But this year, we had defined needs and these guys filled them.”
Talk a little bit about the machinations of the weekend. You added three players, each of whom carries a cap hit of $3.5 million or higher. How did that work as far as the salary cap is concerned?
“We have a couple players like Fehr and Poiti who we put on [long-term injured reserve], because they’ve already missed 10 games or 24 days. When you use LTI properly, you can go and replace their salaries with another player’s salary. So we created the room in that way. If we have injuries going forward, we still have room to activate them. How that’s done is up to [assistant GM] Don [Fishman], but he did a masterful job of allowing us to do all these things and not put us in jail.”
Talk a little bit about the roster going forward. At what point can you exceed the 23-man roster limit, and at one point are you limited to just the four recalls from AHL Hershey the rest of the way?
“You’ve got four recalls beginning at 5 p.m. today [Feb. 28]. The roster can be whatever you want it to be now.”
So D.J. King, who cleared waivers, does not have to go to Hershey and is still a member in good standing with the Capitals.
“We did not want to assign him, and we explained that to him when we did that that it was a moot point, we though he wouldn’t be going anywhere and we want him with this team. In the unlikely event that we needed some cap room, we were doing this. But it has all worked out. He is here and deserves to be here. Hopefully he will get into some games down the stretch.”
The goaltenders, Marcus Johansson, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Cody Eakin and Dmitry Orlov. Were there GMs who tried to pry them away from you?
“Yes. But we had a list of untouchables. And we told everyone at the start of all conversations, here are five players you can’t have.”
With all of the injuries at goaltender organizationally, did you have any interest in claiming any of the three goalies who were put on waivers on Saturday?
“We’ve got four out. We have six goalies in the organization and four are out. [Philipp] Grubauer is back in Germany with mono. Varly is out. [Dany] Sabourin is gone for the year and [Braden] Holtby is out. “I considered claiming a goaltender, but we expect Varly or Holtby to be ready in a week or so. I didn’t want to have three goalies a week from now. That would not have worked. It never works.”
What are the challenges of three veteran players like this coming into your lineup all at the same time?
“This is welcomed. Sometimes it takes a little while to develop chemistry and it’s not easy to plug three guys in right away. But we had to do this. The real challenge was in determining in the last couple of days that we’re going to be missing a few guys for a while. That made this job even harder, because you’re looking to add maybe one player and then you’ve got to add three. It’s hard to do. But we did it without giving up our first-round pick. We did it without giving up any of our top prospects. “I’d like to think we did a pretty good job. We’re happy with the results. And I’m really happy with the job our pro scouting staff did. Our pro scouting staff is really good. They are smart, decisive and confident in what they are doing. I am obviously the front man because I am sitting here talking to you, but when things are going on in that room, I am relying on them 100%. They’re not making the final decisions, but it’s pretty close.”