Idle Plans: Why The Capitals Watch And Wait

The last opportunity for there to be fundamental change in the 2011-12 Washington Capitals has come and gone.

The dust has cleared on Monday’s relatively quiet trading deadline, with several teams tinkering in a flurry of last-minute deals. Going into the final day of transactions, it seems the Caps were poised to make a deal, either conceding the final twenty games of the season to fate and building for tomorrow, or refusing to back out of a tight race for the back door of the NHL playoffs and adding temporary reinforcements.

Days ago, vice president and general manager George McPhee seemed open to strategies, depending on where the Capitals, now in 9th place in the Eastern Conference, stood at the trading deadline. Ultimately, he adopted neither. As McPhee explained the lack of deals, “there wasn’t anything there that would’ve been the right thing for our club.” McPhee went on to elaborate that there were only a few sellers league-wide, and a few were in the Capitals’ division, making player movement a difficult task in an already tough market.

Given the context of the current roster and the season it has underwent, McPhee was right in not forcing movement. If an ideal trading parter wasn’t available, then the Capitals were faced with the possibility of taking a loss on whatever deal they made. Mortgaging the team’s future for a temporary boost over the final 20 games would’ve been the fan-friendly move, but ultimately would’ve hurt a future version of the franchise that has a healthy first line center for 82 games and a more varied scoring attack. Writing off 2011-12 as a loss, with so many possible points left on the table, in order to stockpile young players and draft picks, would’ve proved just as detrimental. You can’t win a Stanley Cup if you don’t make the playoffs, and even when you come in as an also-ran, you cannot throw away a perfectly achievable invitation to the 16-team tournament because the circumstances aren’t ideal.

There’s a way to spin this that feels better than the reality of the situation. “We like the players we have,” or “the team has played very well the last couple of games,” are things you’ll hear from upstairs. I don’t doubt those things are both true. The team has played very well the last couple of games, and faces an upcoming homestand that presents a timely opportunity to hoard points while they have games in hand against Winnipeg.

The economics of the scenario tell a less rosy story. The Capitals have a limited amount of bargaining chips, and they didn’t think they could get enough in return for them in a single day. Despite the tumult of playoff disappointments, a coaching change, and the silence of their starts, they’ve built up enough good will to endure a playoff miss for one season. By standing pat, they are conceding that it’s a real possibility that the current group does not play postseason hockey.

Thus, it appears McPhee would prefer to rebuild in the summer rather than now. The 2011-12 Capitals are a used car that isn’t worth discarding to charity, but also isn’t worth putting any more money into for repairs.

There are two narratives that can take hold from here. The first embraces the pragmatic view that if the season ended today, the Capitals would be on the outside looking in. If this happens, it may be a surprise in the long-term narrative compared to prior years, but in the short term, a middle-of-the-pack finish will be nothing less than what a middle-of-the-pack team can expect. Sure, there will be grumbling and hand wringing, but it would also give cause for the fundamental changes the team desperately needs. It’s a lot easier to justify remodeling a ninth place team versus a first place team.

The second narrative is one of the optimistic persuasion. This same group of players, who have at brief times shone as brightly as their potential indicates, but more often than not fizzled, evolves at the right time. The scrappy Caps, written off by everyone, book their ticket to the NHL playoffs in the final days of the season, and make enough noise that a few jobs are saved and the memory of the regular season begins to heal over.

By doing nothing, McPhee has constructed a reality where both of these timelines are equally possible. Indecision has, in a way, made the outcome of this season much clearer than it once was.

Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report and b’s video game blog “Game Cache.” Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.