By Chris Gordon
Coming into the 2014 NHL trade deadline, some fans feared Caps general manager George McPhee would make a drastic move in the hopes of securing a playoff spot. Instead, he made three reasonable ones. The Caps got better this year without harming themselves in the future.
The biggest deal was the final one, with the Caps sending Michal Neuvirth and the newly acquired Rostislav Klesla to the Buffalo Sabres for Caps killer Jaroslav Halak and a third-round pick.
“I think we start with Neuvirth, and he wasn’t happy being a number two,” McPhee told reporters at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “We tried to accommodate him. We brought in an experienced guy. I think it’s an upgrade on the tandem which is what we wanted to accomplish.”
Halak was just acquired by the Sabres when they traded away Ryan Miller. He never suited up for the squad, but posted a record of 24-9-4 with goals against average of 2.23 and a save percentage of .917 this season with St. Louis Blues. Caps fans will remember when he powered the Montreal Canadiens to a seven-game win over Washington in the 2009 playoffs. Halak will now compete with Braden Holtby for starts.
“He’s a good goalie and he can get hot,” McPhee said of Halak. “Both guys will start games. We’ll see where it goes.”
While Washington’s biggest problem this season has been defense rather than goaltending, Halak, an unrestricted free agent after this year, provides an upgrade at the position. Neuvirth wanted out anyway. It seems likely Holtby and Philipp Grubauer could be the tandem next year, though Halak may always re-sign here.
“We like Grubauer a lot and we’ll see,” McPhee said. “I can’t project for September right now.”
Holtby, however, seems to be the goalie of future.
“We love Braden Holtby,” the general manager said. “Love his talent, love his character, love the way he battles. He’s going to be here a while. Long time. There’s lots to like about him. He’s only 23.”
“He still has lots to learn and lots to develop,” McPhee added of Braden. “Sometimes there are some rough stretches with young goalies.”
Meanwhile, McPhee traded for Dustin Penner, now slotted in as the second-line left wing. He gave up a fourth round pick to Ducks to get him. The Caps needed another LW to replace Martin Erat, who they finally got rid of later in the day. Penner is a net crashing winger who has played most the year with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, one of the best duos in the NHL. He should compliment the Capitals top-six well.
“Everyone once in a while you call a team and they raise a name and go ‘Geez, that fits for us’ and you know right away,” McPhee said. “I got off the phone and said to our guys ‘This make sense. Right now, it makes sense to me.’”
“I like the fact that he’s a big guy,” he added. “He can play on lots of different lines. I sure like what Knuble did for us a few years ago. It’s nice to have those guys who can just go to the front of the net and just hold people off and jam pucks in.”
All in all, the Caps are a stronger team than they were Monday, especially with Evgeny Kuznetsov heading over in the coming days. Even for proponents of a rebuild, these moves are far more benign than McPhee’s big deadline maneuver last year.
We’ve got about five weeks left in the regular season. This should be fun.
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