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Capitals GM Brian MacLellan: ‘Need to evaluate’ before contract extension talks

Barry Trotz, left, talks with GM Brian MacLellanduring the NHL draft in June. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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With 11 Washington Capitals hitting restricted or unrestricted free agency, General Manager Brian MacLellan will face many decisions about the future of the organization at season’s end. So far, 15 games into his debut season helming the team, MacLellan remains entrenched in an assessment mode.

“I think we need to evaluate where our team’s at first of all,” MacLellan said Thursday, during a sit-down interview with beat writers that lasted around 30 minutes. “We’ve been inconsistent so far. I like the direction we’re going. As we experience more success, I think we’ll be better able to evaluate how we’re moving forward with players.”

Agents for forward Joel Ward (unrestricted) and defenseman Mike Green (unrestricted) recently confirmed no contract extension talks have yet begun, and based on MacLellan’s comments, it would be safe to assume the discussion lines haven’t opened for any of the remaining nine: forward Marcus Johansson (restricted), forward Eric Fehr (unrestricted), forward Jay Beagle (unrestricted), forward Evgeny Kuznetsov (restricted), forward Aaron Volpatti (unrestricted), defenseman John Erskine (unrestricted), defenseman Jack Hillen (unrestricted), defenseman Nate Schmidt (restricted) and goaltender Braden Holtby (restricted).

“I think we need to let it sort itself out, let people settle into their roles and see where we are as a team, what level we’re at,” MacLellan said, adding the shadow of an expiring contract might offer additional motivation for some players. “You need to have a good year.”

If only for the frequency of his name injected into trade rumors, Green will be the most intriguing negotiation to follow, if it indeed begins. MacLellan maintained the wait-and-see stance expressed during the preseason, even as Green surged to a scorching start, with 11 points in 14 games, tied for eighth among NHL defensemen.

Skating mostly with Nate Schmidt on Washington’s third defensive pairing, Green has received sheltered ice time with a higher rate of offensive zone starts and weaker competition, while the Brooks Orpik-John Carlson and Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner pairings handle the tougher defensive assignments.

“Yeah he’s had a good year,” MacLellan said. “Coming into the year, I think he had an off-year last year. I think we’re probably both going through an evaluation is he comfortable with his role, does he want to stay and play in that role, and are we comfortable with him in that role he’s playing in now?

“Is it going to work for us as an organization, as a team, are we going to have success with Mike Green playing where he’s playing and doing what he’s doing, and is that a big part of our team moving forward? Just as he needs to evaluate, do I like this coach, do I like this situation, am I comfortable here? I think we’re both going through an evaluation period and we’ll come to a decision at some point.”

As for Kuznetsov, the 22-year-old rookie whose entry-level will soon expire, MacLellan echoed Coach Barry Trotz’s view of Kuznetsov as a franchise centerpiece, indicating extension negotiations might be in order.

“I look at him as a prospect,” MacLellan said. “He obviously has the skill-set that’s pretty high-end, but he’s developing he’s learning a North American game. He’s learning to play in a smaller rink. He’s learning a whole bunch of things, culturally and what the NHL’s all about. We have to be patient with him, and we have to give him more when he can handle more, and I think Barry’s done a good job with it.

“At times he’s shown that he can handle more, then at times we have to pull him back because of some mistakes he’s made. He’s real willing to learn; he puts the effort in; he’s liked by all his teammates; he’s done all the right things. And I think all the stuff, the effort, the coaching, the development part of it will come and show its results. I’m not sure at what point, but I think it needs to go in the right order.”