If one were to liken the NHL trade deadline to a 30-man game of poker, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee would be the consummate player.
Cagey, stoic and intelligent, McPhee has no tell and never tips his hand, favoring generic statements like "we like our team" or "there may be nothing happening, there may be a lot happening" to describe the Capitals' deadline M.O.
Such statements serve to make each season's trade deadline -- which is quickly approaching Wednesday afternoon -- an annual lesson in speculation and impatience in Washington.
The Capitals find themselves in a precarious position nearly 24 hours ahead of the 3 p.m. cutoff. Entering their game with the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday, the Capitals are in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the eighth-place New York Rangers and four points behind the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets with two games in hand. That places them in the grey area between buying and selling.
Feasibly, Washington could bolster its arsenal for a push toward the playoffs (which McPhee, as expected, clearly stated was the goal last week). Or they could elect to trade assets to build toward the future.
Any attempt to decode McPhee will prove futile, but studying his history as general manager could shed some light on his thought process.
Since being named to the position on June 9, 1997, McPhee has made 95 trades.
Sifting through these transactions, one thing is abundantly clear: McPhee is incredibly thrifty and resourceful. He has a knack for turning nothing into something. (See: Theo Ruth for Sergei Fedorov; Steve Eminger and a 2008 third-round pick for a 2008 first-round pick that ultimately turned into John Carlson; Jake Hauswirth and a 2011 third-round pick for Dennis Wideman.)
His trade deadline rental deals fall under the same category, recently acquiring the likes of Cristobal Huet, Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo and Jason Arnott for nothing more than draft picks and depth players.
Yet McPhee has arguably only made one trade in nearly 16 years that could be described as a "blockbuster": the July 11, 2001, trade that brought Jaromir Jagr (and Frantisek Kucera, but that's not important) to Washington for Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek and future considerations (none of them are really important, either).
To extend the poker analogy, McPhee is a small-stakes player; he takes low risks and hopes to reap high rewards. But right now, McPhee holds the league's most valuable trade chip between his fingers: Mike Ribeiro.
The 33-year-old unrestricted free agent-to-be is Washington's leading scorer and its most consistent player this season. Ribeiro, however, wants long-term stability in the form of a four- or five-year contract, something that McPhee has rarely done for a player of Ribeiro's age.
Ribeiro's fate has become one of the franchise's more polarizing issues among its fans in recent memory. McPhee has experience trading a leading scorer, having traded Robert Lang (who became the first-ever NHL leading scorer to be traded in the middle of the season) during the infamous fire sale of 2004, but that was a different time. The Capitals essentially put their entire roster up for sale knowing that it had to be rehauled, and McPhee created most of the current team's core by doing so. (By trading Lang, Jagr, Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra, the Capitals received Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and Brooks Laich.)
Some would argue the Capitals could and/or should undergo a similar, yet smaller retooling, but McPhee likely disagrees, and trading Ribeiro, who is one of the most valuable and realistically available assets that he has possessed since the aforementioned fire sale, would likely be perceived by him as a white flag.
So what does all of this suggest about the next 24 hours? The Capitals are rarely sellers at the trade deadline, and that trend will likely continue. Ribeiro should be a Capital after 3 p.m. and if any sort of trade is made, it will likely involve depth players that will not make a considerable long-term impact.
But then again, if we knew anything about hockey, we'd be in it.
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