Caps GM Brian MacLellan talks second-line centers, Mikhail Grabovski


(Chris O’Meara/AP)

As Washington’s search for stability at second-line center continues, again thrust into flux with the pending free agency of Mikhail Grabovski, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said his priority and “overall philosophy will be developing from within.

“I think that’s hard to add in free agency,” MacLellan said Monday afternoon on a teleconference that followed the promotion of Ross Mahoney from director of amateur scouting to assistant general manager.

Though the first question of MacLellan’s phone call asked about Mahoney and the 16 years of experience that offered reassurance to the rookie general manager, things veered quickly to what should become a busy offseason for the Capitals. (On that note, more posts about defensemen and goalies and free agency and the NHL draft are pending, so stick around.)

Mutual interest clearly exists between Washington and Grabovski, who joined the club last season after being bought out by Toronto. At a $3 million cap hit, Grabovski enjoyed plenty of success for the one-year stint, leading all forwards in the puck-possession metric Corsi-for while scoring 35 points over 58 games. The window for NHL teams to begin interviewing unrestricted free agents runs between June 25 and June 30, so the Capitals have some time with Grabovski to negotiate if they so choose.

“We’re working through that right now,” MacLellan said. “We’ve been in contact with his agent a few times. We liked the job Grabovski did for us last year, but we’re also balancing what we’re going to do with our roster and the dollars we’re spending on our roster. I think one of the priorities for me is to upgrade our defense. Depending on the cost of that and overall cap room, we’ll make a decision on Grabovski.”

Based off recent salary cap projections, the Capitals could have somewhere between $13 million and $15 million in space, but MacLellan made it no secret that strengthening the blue line and adding a second goaltender behind incumbent starter Braden Holtby was a priority. Last week, Grabovski’s agent said he believed there was mutual interest in re-signing Grabovski.

“I believe [management has] interest in Grabo,” Gary Greenstin said then. “We have interest to stay in Washington. We’ll see what’s happening.”

Even if Grabovski heads elsewhere – Greenstin said he is committed to remaining in the NHL – MacLellan named three current Capitals he believes can fill that second-line center role, despite the revolving door that has hampered the team in recent seasons.

“We have some options,” he said. “I’d like to explore [Evgeny] Kuznetskov playing his natural position at center to see how well he can handle that. [Marcus] Johansson’s played there a little bit. He’s been back and forth. I know the previous coach [Adam Oates] liked him on the wing.

“Brooks Laich has been in and out. I guess my overall philosophy is we’re going to have to develop one of our young guys to play second-line center. I think that’s hard to add in free agency. If the cost of Grabovski makes sense to our overall structure, I think we would consider bringing him back and playing in that role.”

Later, when asked about feeling any burden to differentiate himself from his predecessor George McPhee, MacLellan again invoked the trio of returners to demonstrate his position on offseason shakeups.

“The truth is, I don’t think it’s about me,” he said. “It’s about improving our team. If I really thought there was a guy who would be a lot better than Kuznetsov, Johansson or Laich, I’d pursue it. If the possibility’s there, I’ll pursue it. I just think there’s been limited possibilities. It’s a position that needs to be developed.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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