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The Globe and Mail

Capitals the early winners on deadline day

On a deadline day that lacked excitement, at least as far as big names were concerned, the focus was on the NHL's losers rather than the winners.

In the Eastern Conference, the losers were the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, who both failed to address big problems - goaltending and scoring, respectively. The winners were the Washington Capitals, who beefed up their defence and added depth to their forwards, and, to a much lesser extent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who did the same.

The lack of movement was summed up by Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, who went after forwards Wojtek Wolski, Ray Whitney, Keith Tkachuk and Raffi Torres among others and came up empty-handed. In the end, Chiarelli said, he decided only "marginal improvement" was possible from a marketplace where the prices were too high.

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"I just wanted the difference to be bigger," he said.

As for the winners, they were qualified victories, in keeping with a day on which most of the biggest names stayed put - Tomas Vokoun, Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman, Nathan Horton, Brad Boyes et al. In the Capitals' case, many thought general manager George McPhee should have landed a goaltender because youngster Semyon Varlamov is coming back from two serious injuries and the kindest thing you can say about Jose Theodore is that he is inconsistent.

The Penguins were looking for a sniper to play with Evgeni Malkin and had to settle for former Toronto Maple Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky. But, Penguins GM Ray Shero said, Ponikarovsky's winger on Malkin's line is fellow Kiev, Ukraine, native Ruslan Fedotenko. "They've known each other since they were five years old," Shero said.

However, the Capitals are the best team in the Eastern Conference by a mile this season and they got better.

Joe Corvo is hot and cold as a scoring defenceman but throw him in with Mike Green and it makes the Caps much more potent from the back end.

McPhee also landed centre Eric Belanger from the Minnesota Wild and Scott Walker, who came from the Carolina Hurricanes along with Corvo. Belanger is a decent two-way centre who is on his way to a career year offensively with 35 points in 60 games (his best is 37), which gives the Capitals a checker who can score. Walker will give the Caps some grit on their fourth line and a solid presence in the dressing room.

Another winner, in a quiet way, was the Ottawa Senators. GM Bryan Murray improved his team at centre, long a sore spot, by getting Matt Cullen a couple of days ago, and made it a little tougher on defence when he received Andy Sutton from the New York Islanders.

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Chiarelli knew he had to get a scorer to pull the Bruins out of an extended funk. He cleared up some cap room in the morning by trading defenceman Derek Morris ($3.3-million salary, all currency U.S.) to the Phoenix Coyotes and getting Dennis Siedenberg ($2.25-million) from the Florida Panthers.

But he decided the asking prices for goal-scorers were too high. "I can't lose sight of the fact I have a responsibility to improve this team in the short-, middle- and long-terms," said Chiarelli, who went into the day with five picks in the first two rounds of this year's entry draft and hung on to four of them. He also has four in the first two rounds of the 2011 draft.

The Bruins GM said he knew the fans will not be happy but insisted his team, which is last in the NHL in scoring with an average of 2.3 goals a game, can find a way to score. This is curious, since centre Patrice Bergeron came home from the Olympics with a groin injury.

More angry fans can be found in Philadelphia, where Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren elected to stick with fringe goaltender Michael Leighton after losing Ray Emery for the season to hip surgery. Leighton is riding a hot streak but has never been more than a backup in his well-travelled six NHL seasons.

On the whole, though, most GMs had the same opinion as Chiarelli and Holmgren. There were too few sellers and too many buyers to make it worth any gambles. Plus, the really big names like Ilya Kovalchuk and Dion Phaneuf moved well in advance of deadline day.

"I have a friend that in the past would call me at this time of year and say 'Pierre, I want to mess up my club, what can we do?'." said Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier who, as promised, did not trade either of his young goaltenders, preferring not to play with his team's chemistry. "Team play is a big thing. With 15 to 20 games to go, you don't want to change the mix."

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Perhaps the biggest winners were those who will not make the playoffs. Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford shipped out a long list of veterans with big or expiring contracts in exchange for a mixture of draft picks, players and prospects that leave him in good position to rebuild. Leafs boss Brian Burke did much the same, plus be brought in Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère a few weeks ago.

With a report from Sean Gordon

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