Caps GM George McPhee held court for the local media this afternoon, but I had to be at Dulles for the Caps’ trip to Buffalo, so he graciously gave me a few minutes of his time on Thursday afternoon. McPhee won’t discuss contract issues for impending UFA (or even RFA, for that matter) players, and he won’t tip his hand as to what he is working on or has planned for the upcoming NHL trade deadline, which is this Wed. April 3. That’s why questions along those lines weren’t asked; a question isn’t really a question if you know the answer before you ask it.
Those caveats aside, here’s how the interview went:
We all knew going into this season that it would be different in a lot of ways with the schedule being a lot shorter and also a little tighter, with a first-year coach and without the benefit of a full training camp. With all those factors taken into account, what’s your assessment of this team this season?
“The biggest disappointment has been the poor start because it seems to affect the rest of the season. Psychologically, it always seems to be a big hole to get out of. We’ve been close a few times in getting to .500 and we strongly believe that once we get to .500 this team is really going to take off. I think the team has demonstrated recently how effective they can play, how well they can play. The system is starting to become ingrained and I believe when we’re all in, when we’re healthy and playing the way we can, it’s a very good team.”
You’ve had a handful of players come back into the lineup recently and are as close to what you originally projected as your opening night lineup as you’ve been all season. How much of an impact has that had on the ice, and how much impact do you expect it to have with what you do off the ice going forward here, not just in the next six days but into the summer as well?
“In most cases in this league – I think there’s one exception this year – if you have four or five injuries and four or five players out, it’s going to hurt performance. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it except continue to play right and try to win games. So we’ve missed a couple of people, whether it be a [Dmitry] Orlov or a Brooks Laich that were out from day one. When you start with two guys out and they’re out most of the year, you start [the season] without them. Now any garden variety injury really starts to hamper your team because now it’s three, four or five players every night. So it’s been an issue for the club. But those players have made a real impact since they’ve returned and our team starts to line up the way that we thought it would and we’ve become a good team. There is not a whole lot that needs to be taken out of this team. We like this team going forward. We like the players we have in our system; they’ll be real good fits for this team the way things are lined up now. The organization is in really good shape and it’s a real solid team. We’ve just got our fingers crossed that we can get a little bit healthier here and have a real nice run.”
What have been the biggest surprises for you this season?
“I think you can point to a lot of individuals who are playing really well, whether it be [Mike] Ribeiro, or we really like the way Marcus Johansson is playing now; we like the lines of Marcus with [Nicklas] Backstrom and [Alex] Ovechkin and we like Laich with Ribeiro and [Troy] Brouwer. That seems to be working out. We like some of the young defensemen in Tomas Kundratek and Steve Oleksy and they way they’ve played and the way [Karl] Alzner and [John] Carlson have been steady. [John] Erskine has had a terrific year. So individually, there are some people who are playing really well. Collectively, there are nights when we are playing the way we can play, there are glimpses of how good we can be. I am really happy with the way our team is coached. Adam has done a very thorough job and continues to get better. We like what we’ve seen out of [Braden] Holtby recently. He had a tough start to the year but we know what he’s capable of and we think Neuvirth can do exactly the same thing. He can carry the club when needed. There are a lot of positives.”
Did you anticipate the depth you’ve had on the blueline? Nine different defensemen have played 20 or more minutes for you this season and I’m not sure there is another team in the league that can make that claim.
“We’ve sort of changed our blueline on the fly here the last few years and have created this mobile blueline that can generate some offense. We like the looks of it and we’d like to keep it together for a while because they seem to defend well, they move the puck well and they can generate offense at the other end of the rink.”
With three games to be played between now and this year’s deadline, will the team’s performance in those games factor at all into what you do with the team and its roster at the deadline?
“Not necessarily. I don’t think we’re going to know any more than we know now, that we’ve got a chance to be a real good team and have a good run. I don’t expect it to really influence the decisions at the deadline. I’m not going to do anything at the deadline that in my mind would set us back. If I make a trade or two – whether it’s somebody going out or it’s somebody coming in – I’m going to do it with the intention of making the playoffs.”
Having a strong No. 2 option up the middle has been significant for this team this season after so many seasons of trying to find the right guy to fit into that slot. What sort of factors go into your decision-making in looking at the short- and long-term future of that spot on this roster?
“It’s simple. It’s what’s best for the team. We’ll do whatever is best for this hockey team. If you look around the league, if you have two elite centers, you’re usually playing for a Cup. But it’s hard to find that second one. We think we have one that is coming in [Evgeni] Kuznetsov.”
And you should have him around this time next season. What about Fillip Forsberg? Is there a possibility of him coming over and getting a taste in with Hershey when his season is over in Sweden?
“Yes. We’d like to do that if the seasons work out well. I think the earliest he can be finished is April 5th or something like that.”
What do you realistically see as a starting point for him next season?
“I’m not sure. I’d have to see him this year in Hershey. I’d like to take a look at him this year to be able to project ahead and see where he should be.”
Have you and the scouts seen him play much this season?
“I haven’t since the World Championships. But our scouts have watched him. He’s doing well, so we’ll see.”
“I saw Wilson last week. He’s a handful to play against. He’s one of those guys the other team always knows when he is out there because he doesn’t stop working and he is very involved. He was scaring the [crap] out of those kids last weekend. I wasn’t at the first game, the Friday night game, but one of the scouts from [another NHL team] came up to me and said, ‘This guy drove one of the players on the other team in front of their own bench and they quit. They were done for the game. They lost 11-1.’ Wow. And then they came out with a lot more fire; he sort of embarrassed them. They played a lot harder the next night. They won 3-2 and he got the game-winner. But he’s a handful.”
Is there much or any difference in the type of roster that you would build for a Bruce Boudreau-coached team than that that you would construct for an Adam Oates-coached team?
“There are differences, sure, that we’re paying attention to with respect to the roster and what we might want to do in the short term and the long term, yes.”
Going into last year’s trade deadline, the team was in a similar on-the-fence position as far as making the playoffs. How does the team’s situation this time around differ from last year’s deadline?
“I don’t view it as any different. I felt then that if Nicky Backstrom got healthy that we could beat any team in the conference and I think I said that. We ended up beating the best team in the conference in the first round, and I believe that we could have won the second round but for a little bad luck. I feel that this team – when we get to full strength – is capable of beating anyone and capable of making the playoffs.”
In your past years as a seller – 2004, 2006 and 2007 – you were able to pry multiple first-round picks from “buying” teams. In the past few years, first round picks seem to rarely move at all. What do you think are the reasons for that change, and does the general unavailability of first-round picks make the selling position any less palatable?
“The reason for that is it’s a draft and development league more than ever now because it’s hard to get what you want through trades. There aren’t a lot of trades in this league anymore. You see some activity in the summer and you see some activity at the trade deadline, but during the season you hardly see trades of any significance any longer. That’s what the [salary] cap has done to the league. You need your first-round picks to draft and develop players. Because it’s harder to get players in trades and because free agency seems to be so unpalatable sometimes with salary demands and [contract] length, if you want to be a good team you have to draft and develop well. I think we’ve done that and we want to keep doing that.”
For the first time in the salary cap era, the cap is going down year to year, and it is going down by a significant percentage. What sorts of challenges does that present for you as a staff?
“It doesn’t present any challenges for us because we’ve prepared for it. We don’t have those issues going forward. We’ve put together some lineups for next year and it looks like we’ll be fine.”
So you believe that whatever RFAs you still have unsigned and whatever holes you project to have in the lineup, you’ll be able to sign and come in under the new cap?
“We’ve done all our projections on salaries for our personnel and where everybody should be and we’re fine.”
Have you run projections on how much that salary cap drop would alter the supply and demand of the free agent market this summer?
“I think it’s going to affect things that happen at the deadline. Clubs may rent a player knowing they’re not going to be able to re-sign them. So how much do you pay for that? I think it could keep some teams out of the process. I think it’s going to be a factor in how things happen here over the next three or four months. Because there are some clubs here who are going to be really pinched. They’re going to have to do some gymnastics with their rosters to get out of it.
Absolutely, for sure. But how do you think it’s going to affect the free agent market this summer?
“I think the market is really going to come down this summer. I think things are going to be tight this summer. There will be a few players who get some good deals and there could be a number of players who find it a little lonely out there.”
Does the new landscape with realignment and being in an eight-team division next season and beyond alter your approach in any way?
“No. You just keep trying to put good teams on the ice. We’re looking forward to playing in that division. We like the old Patrick Division; we think it will be fun to be in it. We like playing in those buildings and those markets. We’ll put the best team we can on the ice and we’ll see how we do.”