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Capitals GM: Trade route ‘the way to go’ this offseason

Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp kisses the Stanley Cup, but cap restraints means he’s likely headed out via trade. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)
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During his first twirl atop the Washington Capitals’ front office last summer, General Manager Brian MacLellan stormed into free agency with a short checklist, plopped two massive offers onto the table and loudly patched his club’s holes by signing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen with a combined $67.75 million. It was a steep, eye-popping price that rippled through the league, but the Capitals were firm in their justification. They had money to spend and so they attacked July 1 with gusto.

“We had specific needs and we were willing to overpay for them, and we addressed it,” MacLellan said last weekend at the NHL draft in Florida. “There was a decent free agent market last year, the UFA market I thought had a little more opportunity for teams to grab guys.”

Contrasting the 2014 crop with the comparatively thin upcoming free agent class, which can formally sign offers with other clubs on Wednesday at noon, MacLellan envisioned the Capitals making far less of a splash this summer, at least among unrestricted options. With goaltender Braden Holtby, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and forward Marcus Johansson still unsigned as pending unrestricted free agents, MacLellan admitted the Capitals could not afford to leap into the inflated market.

[Top 20 free agents, led by Capitals’ Mike Green]

“This year’s a little tighter,” he said. “It’s a little thinner and it’s going to be more competitive and I think you’re going to have to really overpay to get guys, because it’s more competitive for guys this year.”

Instead, MacLellan continued, the Capitals’ quest for a top-six winger will likely take them down the trade route, which he called “the way to go for improving your club.” This offseason, Chicago’s Patrick Sharp and St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie have been rumored to be available, while Washington also expressed interest in Colorado’s Ryan O’Reilly, before he was moved to Buffalo at the draft.

“There were a couple opportunities that were discussed, and might be still ongoing, we’ll see what happens over the next few days and weeks,” MacLellan said after the second day finished. “I think there’s a lot of talk that went on in general over the past week, and some things happen, and some things didn’t. Some things are still ongoing.”

Without specifying, it’s safe to assume any talks have involved a top-six forward arriving in Washington, unless the Capitals feel compelled to acquire a third-line center as insurance for Eric Fehr’s potential departure, or a No. 7 defenseman, which will also likely be available via unrestricted free agency once the dust from July 1 settles.

The Capitals still have all seven picks available in the 2016 draft to dangle as bait, but MacLellan predicted the asking price from potential partners would now shift from selections to bodies. They haven’t shopped anyone specific, but have several defensive prospects who could be attractive to suitors and, depending both on the salary of the incoming piece and the values of the extensions handed to their RFAs, might need to clear room in the process.

“It’s probably always different,” MacLellan said. “I think it becomes less about picks and more about players after the draft. As you come up to the draft, people are interested in getting picks and moving up in picks. Picks are involved in the trade talk coming into here, and player-for-player will be involved after.”

[Capitals draft four players, turn to free agency]

Of course, there are still several potential options available as unrestricted free agents like Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey and Los Angeles’ Justin Williams, depending on their asking price. MacLellan said the Capitals might invite one player for a visit to Arlington, like they did with Orpik and Peters last summer.

“Just bring a guy in, if he’s interested in meeting the coaches, management, ownership, see the facility, etc.,” MacLellan said. “I anticipate not being active right off the hop. I don’t know if we have the money to be able to do that, but we’ll see what goes on the first day. We’re going to monitor the market, see what the levels are at financially and see where we could fit in.”

NOTE: Forward Joel Ward, who seems destined for unrestricted free agency and, unless the Capitals swoop in with an agreeable offer, a new home in 2015-16, continues to draw interest from Eastern Conference contenders, including at least five teams that reached the postseason, according to a source. He had not scheduled any in-person interviews as of Sunday afternoon, however.