As the Capitals' season-long malaise pushed into late February, the cries that this was simply a roster unfit for the Stanley Cup grew louder. At one point or another, fans and writers alike said the Capitals lacked experience, leadership, a second-line center, depth on the blue line, goaltending and many of the other buzzwords used to describe "playoff hockey." The collective Capitals fans' finger pointed everywhere, including at general manager George McPhee.
Yesterday at the NHL trade deadline, McPhee responded in a big way. In acquiring Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman for spare parts and no significant long-term assets, McPhee pulled a rabbit out of his hat. This isn't like last year, when McPhee looked around and was forced to settle for Joe Corvo, Scott Walker, Milan Jurcina and Eric Belanger. This time, McPhee's in-season acquisitions (including Scott Hannan) hit right at all the issues the Capitals had coming into the year.
But McPhee's moves were also significant for a far different reason. Sure, they upgrade the roster, but in a different way, they were also a threat to the existing players who have underachieved all season. McPhee's moves mean one thing: if the Capitals fall short in the playoffs again, it's all on the players.
None of McPhee's brilliance matters unless the players currently on the roster get things in order. I don't really have a huge problem with the Capitals showing some lethargy in their play this season. Seeding matters less in the NHL playoffs than in any other sport, and given the rallying cry from so many fans ("April is all that matters"), it's understandable that the Capitals would get bored with the regular-season grind from time to time.
But we're now past February, and the Capitals are still sleepwalking through games. Last Friday's 6-0 home loss to the New York Rangers was the kind of loss that just can't happen at this time of the year. This is when the Capitals need to make their push, and instead, they're still on cruise control until the playoffs. I can accept an eight-game losing streak in December because it is in December. I cannot accept a mail-in effort at home against an average team with the playoffs on the horizon.
On paper, the Capitals made significant upgrades on Monday. Arnott's skills aren't what they once were, but he's still good enough to stabilize the second line and provide valuable experience and leadership as the Capitals push into the postseason. Hannan and Wideman provide blue-line depth, which is key because Mike Green's injuries are clearly a concern. All these additions cost the Capitals were a spare winger on a team filled with them (Tomas Fleischmann) and a one-trick pony with a mediocre contract (Steckel). The Capitals now have scoring depth, a fortified defense and solid goaltending, all things you need to win in the playoffs.
The problem is that games are not won on paper. It's a cliche, but in this case, it's relevant. Teams this good on paper should not be in fifth place in the East and losing home games 6-0 to teams lower than them in the standings. And so, the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of the guys who have been mainstays with this organization. Alex Ovechkin needs to continue to pick up his effort. Nicklas Backstrom has to shake off a finger injury and go back to looking like the man the Capitals invested so much money in last summer. Alexander Semin has to somehow fix his on-again/off-again play and provide some consistency. Bruce Boudreau has to make his season-long transition into a more defensive-minded coach pay off when it matters. Everyone else? They just need to start doing the blue-collar things needed to win games this late in the season.
At this point, the excuses just don't fly anymore. George McPhee has done his job. Now, it's time for the players and coaches to do theirs. If they don't, none of the euphoria from Monday's moves means anything.