George McPhee made a trade Wednesday that told Washington Capitals fans, “Hey, I’m not going anywhere.”
He traded away 25-year-old backup goalie Michael Neuvirth for what he says is another goaltender who just happens to be the net minder who destroyed the Capitals season four years ago.
Jaroslav Halak, who shut down the top-seeded Capitals in the Montreal Canadiens first-round upset in 2010, is now a Capital, acquired before the NHL trade deadline Wednesday from the Buffalo Sabres, in exchange for Neuvirth.
Halak was the starting goalie not in Buffalo, but in St. Louis, until the Blues traded for Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, in a Feb. 28 trade, sending Halak to Buffalo, where he never played a game.
They may have upgraded some in goal with Halak over Neuvirth, although McPhee said that the organization still believes in Braden Holtby.
“We love Braden Holtby,” McPhee said. “Love his talent, love his character, love the way he battles. He’s going to be here a while, a long time. There’s lots to like about him. He’s only 23. [Former Caps goalie] Olie Kolzig came in, he was about 27, so he still has lots to learn and lots to develop.”
But this wasn’t about getting better this year on the ice. This was about getting better financially next year, just as the deal was to get rid of unhappy forward Martin Erat to the Phoenix Coyotes the day before – an Ernie Grunfeld-like trade, erasing McPhee’s own bad decision by acquiring Erat in the first place and trading away a prospect like Filip Forsberg.
Halak earns $3.75 million, but he will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Neuvirth is due $2.5 million a year through 2015. Dustin Penner, the forward they obtained in a trade with Anaheim Tuesday, will also be a free agent after the season.
This is about putting the Capitals in a better position for next season. McPhee wouldn’t be doing that for his successor.
“We got two players out that weren’t all that happy,” McPhee said. “We got two guys in that are experienced guys that have been in the spotlight and had success,” McPhee said. “We cleared a lot of cap space for next year. We’ve added two really good picks for the 2015 draft (they also got two fourth round picks in the flurry of deals). It’s a real good draft. Much better than this summer’s draft.”
Again, McPhee is not likely setting the table for the next general manager to take advantage of that good draft. This wasn’t the trade of a GM desperate to save his job, as the Capitals fight to make the playoffs.
They could catch lightning in a bottle down the stretch with Halak, who McPhee said will compete with Holtby for playing time the rest of this season.
“It was more about now, and [Halak has] played well in Montreal, he’s played well in St. Louis and we hope he can come here and play well,” McPhee said. “He’s a good goalie and he can get hot. The objective was to try to upgrade the [goalie] tandem and we did.”
Actually, the object, if it was more about now, would have been to get some defensive help for whoever was in goal. It really won’t matter if it’s Halak, Holtby or Kolzig himself in the net if he is trying to stop 40 shots a game.
But there was no real defenseman on the market – a commodity that is hard to come by, since defense is so valuable in the Stanley Cup playoffs, as witnessed every season by Capitals fans with their team’s early playoff exits.
Still, despite six straight playoff appearances and never making it out of the second round to show for it, these moves indicate that George McPhee will likely return for his 18th season as Capitals general manager.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,”noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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