WASHINGTON — — With his Washington Capitals outside the playoff picture and no sign of when the franchise center will return to action, general manager George McPhee chose to not make a move before the NHL trade deadline passed Monday.
McPhee said that while he did make calls, he was never close to making a deal before the deadline. It was a slow day for trades across the NHL — only 16 transactions were made, the fewest on the final day of trading in the seven seasons since the 2004-05 lockout.
"We would have added something to the team if we thought it would make us better, but it had to make us better. What transpired today, really there wasn't anything there that would have been the right thing for our club," McPhee said. "Everyone seemed to want our players, but they wanted to give us futures and prospects. I wasn't interested in doing that."
One of the greatest factors weighing on McPhee's decisions at the deadline was the continued uncertainty surrounding the health of top center Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed 25 games with a concussion. Backstrom has skated for only five minutes over the past 53 days, and McPhee said there remains no indication of when the 24-year-old Swede might be able to return.
Washington placed Backstrom on the long-term injury list Monday morning as a pre-emptive move to allow for more flexibility under the salary cap in case a significant deal presented itself. No such deal surfaced, according to McPhee. Backstrom was placed on the list retroactive to Jan. 4 and can be activated from the list at any time because he has already missed the minimum of 10 games and 24 days.
At worst, the Capitals' ceiling is limited with Backstrom out of the lineup. At best, their flaws are more pronounced, but McPhee believes that the team as constructed can still reach the postseason.
"Well, I certainly think we're capable of making the playoffs with this team right now," McPhee said. "If Nicky Backstrom came back, it certainly would improve our chances of being able to win a Cup. We can make the playoffs with this team. And if he comes back, we can beat anybody in this conference."
Much earlier in the day, goaltender Tomas Vokoun was asked whether he believed the Capitals could succeed with the roster they had. He offered a view based on the team's yearlong inconsistencies.
"Well, I think it depends how we play," Vokoun said. "I think in the past we kind of been sometimes two-faced team. Sometimes we look awesome, sometimes we don't look so good. There's a lot of good players in this locker room, it just they've got to play up to their capabilities."
McPhee said he didn't come across any trades that he believed would have significantly improved the Capitals in a market that he described as having only three or four teams truly willing to sell off valuable players. One reason the market is limited is that many teams' postseason hopes are still very much alive. Before the conclusion of Monday's games, only two teams in each conference sat eight or more points out of playoff position.
McPhee offered a window into his reasoning and the high prices for buyers when asked specifically about one of the deals made Monday. Buffalo sent pending unrestricted free agent Paul Gaustad, a big-bodied but low-scoring center who is primarily suited for third- or fourth-line roles, to Nashville for a first-round draft pick. McPhee said he didn't believe Gaustad would have fit and that he wouldn't have given up a first-round selection for a player who would become a free agent in the summer.
When it came to the Capitals players who seemed to be the most tradable commodities —namely disgruntled veterans Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble, both healthy scratches of late — McPhee dodged questions as to whether he sought to move them or whether he was concerned about the effect their frustration might have on the team's morale.
He added that he wanted to maintain depth and that he doesn't expect or want players to be happy about sitting out.
McPhee insisted he wasn't "interested in moving anyone out" and consistently repeated that he wouldn't make a "mistake" by throwing young players and prospects into deals that would jeopardize the future of the franchise.
"We have some terrific young players in our lineup right now because we didn't make mistakes the last three or four years," McPhee said. "And we're going to have some terrific young players going forward because we didn't give them away today. Just not going to make that mistake. Sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal."