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Washington Capitals GM George McPhee rebuilt his team into a Stanley Cup contender with six seperate deals beginning in 2004. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (Luis Alvarez)
Washington Capitals GM George McPhee rebuilt his team into a Stanley Cup contender with six seperate deals beginning in 2004. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (Luis Alvarez)

Eric Duhatschek

The art of selling in the NHL Add to ...

Soon after Monday's NHL trading deadline passes at 3 p.m. Eastern time, there will be the immediate rush to judgment - a quick and dirty analysis of who won and who lost in the dozens of 11th-hour deals that usually take place at this time of year. There may even be a second, more sober analysis, after the playoffs, to see if any of the new faces made any sort of tangible difference to a team's Stanley Cup pursuit, or if all the machinations and intrigue amounted to little of consequence.

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What rarely happens, however, is the long, long view of winners and losers - and even when it happens, it rarely comes from the perspective of the team doing the selling, the one not in the playoff picture and thus in the mood to rebuild, sometimes from the ground up.

The Ottawa Senators are in that club this year and the Edmonton Oilers are there again, two teams looking for reasons to get re-energized about their futures after grim and difficult years.

Ultimately, what they need to do is duplicate the work that George McPhee did with the Washington Capitals in the run-up to the 2004 trade deadline, when a once promising team featuring Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang and others was going nowhere fast.

Frustrated by what he was paying Jagr and the rest, owner Ted Leonsis determined that the team go all scorched earth. In a span of a little over a month - beginning with a deal that sent Jagr to the New York Rangers in February - McPhee made six separate deals, and nearly every one paid a lasting dividend to the Capitals, who won the President's Trophy last year as the NHL's top regular-season team.

In that short trading window, McPhee landed two No. 1 draft choices that he turned into his starting defence pair, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, along with two prospects up front, Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich, who have turned into serviceable NHLers.

And the next season, after play resumed following the NHL lockout, McPhee flipped Brendan Witt to the Nashville Predators at the deadline for a draft choice, which he turned into his starting goaltender, Semyon Varlamov.

Earlier this year, Fleischmann was swapped to Colorado for Scott Hannan, meaning that now, one half of the Capitals' starting defence corps, plus its No. 1 goalie and Laich, an important power-play net presence, were all added in that brief bit of inspired horse-trading.

It is a success rate that the league's current most active seller, the Ottawa Senators, can only hope to duplicate with their myriad pre-deadline machinations, which will continue right up until Monday's 3 p.m. witching hour. Too often in the past, teams that sold off assets at the deadline ended up with little of consequence to show for their efforts - think Atlanta Thrashers and Marian Hossa. Washington got it right, but even McPhee will acknowledge, the art of being a seller is inexact.

"They're not all going to work out," cautioned McPhee, "but you hope that some or most of them do.

"But you have to be realistic. You're not going to get someone's 'A' prospect. It was hard then, it would be almost impossible now because of the cap value that goes along with a young guy. So you try to be realistic and get as good a pick as you can and hope that it's a good draft."

Generally speaking, any team in a position to sell assets has had a disappointing season, with no playoffs in sight. Accordingly, the trade deadline becomes their de facto postseason - the last bit of meaningful rebuilding they can do until the entry draft comes along in June.

"If you're not going to make the playoffs, the challenge is still there, that we all look forward to in life, to do something well," McPhee said. "It's very competitive - and you're just as nervous and anxious about being a seller as if you're trying to buy and find that piece that makes the team better for playoffs.

"As a seller, you're hoping that the deal is there, so you can say, 'boy, this will make our organization better,' or 'it gives us a chance.' "

Now, some seven years after doing all that selling, McPhee is in the opposite situation. He is casting around for help at the deadline, looking for that one commodity that is going to push the Capitals further along the playoff path than they managed a year ago. Marco Sturm joined via the waiver wire Saturday. Other moves are pending, and even with the pre-deadline flurry that took place this past fortnight, there will still be multiple transactions on Monday. The only question is, will they be a whole lot of minor tweaks, or will the action be spiced up by a major move?

"There are times when the deals come together quickly and with time to spare and you're comfortable with them and there are times when you're half an hour from the deadline and you have nothing and something develops," McPhee said.

"People will overpay at the deadline because they understand, 'this is going to make my team better.' Managers who worry about how a trade is going to be rated or evaluated on the outside, won't make trades. Some guys have the guts to say, 'I know this is too much, but this is the piece we need to make our team better so we have to do it.'

"It's quite an event; quite an experience to go through that."

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