With the All-Star break lurking around the corner, the Washington Capitals currently sit tied for third place in the Metropolitan Division, firmly grasping one of two Eastern Conference wild-card spots and sniffing the teams ahead of them. They recently suffered consecutive regulation losses for the first time since early December, still have snatched points in 18 of 21 games and can enter a much-awaited respite with a win over Edmonton, the NHL team with the fewest wins.
And yet, addressing reporters Monday afternoon at the team’s practice facility, Coach Barry Trotz wasn’t shy about proclaiming his desire to add veteran forwards for the postseason push. When asked whether he believed the Capitals were a “playoff team that can win,” he said yes, then added, “We still need a piece or two, I think.”
“We have some guys that are at this level pretty good contributing players, but the playoffs are another level, and I don’t know if some of our guys are ready for that,” Trotz continued. “We’ll see. We’ve still got another 40 games to go, but some guys that looked like they weren’t going to be ready for the first part and they got it turned around. I think we have enough pieces to be a real good threat, but we still, our depth hasn’t been really tested to the point that we need to do that.”
Indeed, the Capitals’ forwards corps has enjoyed relative stability and health, particularly through their recent torrid stretch. Except for Eric Fehr’s lower-body injury that sidelined him Friday in Nashville, Trotz has deployed the same four trios in seven straight games. And not since forward Brooks Laich experienced shoulder issues in November has a forward missed significant time due to injury.
But the top-line right wing spot beside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has rotated characters – seven total, including second-year 20-year-old Tom Wilson and, most recently, 19-year-old rookie Andre Burakovsky – and the Capitals have allowed 22-year-old rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov to develop without interruption as their second-line center. Trotz seemed to indicate a more experienced presence was needed for both spots.
“That’s something we’re working with, and that’s why you need the young guys to continue to develop and you need to have depth in the organization,” Trotz said. “I think we’re pretty deep on defense as an organization, I think that’s one areas where we’re pretty deep … But at forward we could use a little more, and that’s just waiting for guys to develop. Guys like Burakovsky are coming, guys like Wilson and Kuznetsov and people like that.”
Later in the interview, which lasted almost 18 minutes, Trotz returned to this idea and indicated, like general manager Brian MacLellan had earlier this season, that the market for such players is thin.
This offseason, the Capitals focused their attention on signing defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to deals that combined for $67.75 million and brought them close to the salary ceiling. As a result, they were unable to address their second-line center need, choosing to develop from within.
The Capitals have roughly $1.6 million in available cap space, according to the now-offline CapGeek.com, so adding a veteran player would likely demand freeing room, either in that deal or somewhere else.
“We still have some work to do,” Trotz said. “That’s why it’s imperative that we develop the players we have, the young guys, because there’s not a lot out there in terms of that elite stuff. We’re a cap team. I think it was important we got a couple of solid defenders in Orpik and Niskanen. They’ve been a part of the organization, a championship organization, they’ve played in those high-level situations, and that helps. When guys are not in the right seat, you can’t have long-term success.”
MacLellan is scheduled to speak with reporters Tuesday following the Capitals’ morning skate, before the team faces Edmonton and disperses for the All-Star break. The trade deadline is 3 p.m., on March 2.