Much of the media glare in the NHL’s Eastern Conference this week has been on Pittsburgh, Montreal and Ottawa.
The Penguins had the biggest catch in the conference at the trade deadline in star winger Marian Hossa, the Canadiens frustrated their fans by failing to add anybody, and the Senators fired their coach.
Perhaps lost in that shuffle were developments in Washington and Buffalo – two clubs who made interesting and calculated decisions on deadline day.
The Capitals are only one point ahead of a Toronto team that was in sell mode Tuesday and yet Washington went the other way. They were big-time buyers. That’s because the Caps are a young team on the upswing and they got a vote of confidence from their GM on trade deadline day with three rental acquisitions to help their playoff drive in goalie Cristobal Huet, centre Sergei Fedorov and winger Matt Cooke.
“Everyone knows we deconstructed the team and we’re rebuilding it and we think everything is going according to plan,” Caps GM George McPhee told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “This team has played so hard and so well over the last three months that we felt we owed it to them to see if we can give them a push.”
The Sabres, meanwhile, could not afford to let all-star blue-liner Brian Campbell walk away July 1 with no compensation – not after losing centres Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in that fashion last summer. But they were also sitting in a playoff spot. What do to?
GM Darcy Regier gets high marks for coming up with a solution that satisfied both needs – he got a high return from losing an asset like Campbell but on top of a first-round pick in the trade with San Jose also got a top-six forward in Steve Bernier who can help his team right now.
“It wasn’t a give-up trade,” Regier said in an interview Thursday. “And that was important when we looked at it. Because we could have had what amounted to two different first-round picks (from other teams). But those were futures. If we did that we weren’t going to bring a player back into our dressing room.
“I think it does matter to your team,” added Regier. “They do want to see that you’re bringing back help in another form to help them and that you’re not giving up on them. I think that’s important.”
His team responded with an emphatic 8-4 win over Nashville on Wednesday night with Bernier scoring on his first two shots as a Sabre.
“You’re happy for him to get off to the start he did,” said Regier. “It does a lot for him to endear himself to the fans and to his teammates. It’s only one game but it’s a good start.”
The Sabres, who host Montreal on Friday night, occupied the eighth and final spot in the East before other teams took the ice Thursday night. The Caps have some work to do before getting there. They’re five points behind Buffalo and were also five behind Southeast Division-leading Carolina before the Hurricanes played the New York Rangers on Thursday night.
“We’re going to keep our fingers crossed here and hope we can play well and sneak in,” said McPhee, who team plays New Jersey on Friday and Toronto on Saturday. “It will be very difficult but it was worth the try. It’s nice to send a message to your fans and to your team.
“It just feels nice to be able to do this and it would be nice to get in.”
McPhee also may not have been this aggressive at the deadline had it not been for injuries to centre Michael Nylander, forward Brett Clark and defenceman Brian Pothier.
“That’s three good veterans out of your lineup,” said McPhee, who lost Nylander for the season. “So the next time someone has a two-game groin pull or the flu, now you’re down four or five players. It can catch up to you and we felt that was happening after the all-star break.
“So we thought, if we can help them with a few things here it might make a difference and give us a chance to sneak in.”
It’s been a patient rebuild for McPhee but watching a young club led by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green turn the corner this season has been heartening.
“It’s been a fun group to work with,” said the Caps GM. “The young players are really talented, energetic and excited to be out there. They really have a lot of creativity in their game. Bruce has a style that’s fun to play. So our team has been playing much better and it’s an entertaining team.”