The Washington Capitals have separated themselves from the rest of the NHL this season, and they’ve done so in historic fashion. They’re the fastest team in league history to reach 40 wins. But with the trade deadline at the end of the month, the Capitals and General Manager Brian MacLellan will have to consider if their current roster is enough for the long playoff run they desire.
Washington is unlikely to make a splashy move before the deadline because that would mean significantly altering the team as it is right now, and when you’ve had as good a regular season as the Capitals have had, that wouldn’t make sense. Washington may decide the team it has now is the one best suited to win a Stanley Cup, but if it was in the market to add another piece, it would be for depth.
The Capitals are already cramped at forward. When center Jay Beagle returns to the lineup, they’ll have two extra forwards and seven players who could play center. Coach Barry Trotz said Beagle could start practicing with the team again this week.
“I got that question, ‘What happens when Beags comes back?’ ” Trotz said. “Probably you could put him, Brooks [Laich] and [Michael Latta] and [Mike Richards] and a sort of combination of that. During a game, you could flip flop and put Beags in the middle and [Marcus Johansson] back up and do things like that. I think what it’ll do is it’ll probably even the minutes back out a little bit for everybody and you can get away from matchups. You can throw out a line of Richie and Beags and, say, Brooks Laich and not feel like you’re going to get overwhelmed or anything like that.”
It’s more likely Washington is in the market for a depth defenseman. Brooks Orpik has missed 40 games with a lower-body bone injury, but he could be back in the lineup when the Capitals play the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday. In his absence, the team’s other blue liners have flourished, especially Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, both pressed into greater roles with more minutes and against other teams’ top lines because of the injuries to the defense.
Unless the Capitals dress seven defensemen and 11 forwards when Orpik returns to the lineup, Taylor Chorney is the most likely candidate to be the team’s extra defenseman, a shame considering how admirably he’s played while Orpik has been hurt. A fringe player throughout his career until this season, Chorney has played in 45 games and is a plus-11.
“There’s no point in worrying about that,” Chorney said. “All I can do is play. Once I start thinking about that kind of stuff, it’s going to affect the way [I] play. It is what it is when he comes back. Obviously, someone is going to have to come out of the lineup, and I’m just going to try to take advantage of every opportunity I have while I’m still in.”
Washington has repeatedly shown hesitation to place its players on waivers. Stanislav Galiev has played in just 15 games this season, but the Capitals have kept him on their roster instead of having him get top-line minutes in the American Hockey League because they’d risk another team swiping him if they put him on waivers. Similarly, Washington would be unlikely to place Chorney on waivers if they acquired another defenseman. (Before you suggest Brooks Laich and his $4.5 million annual cap hit being waived to the AHL, Washington would only get $950,000 in cap relief, and it’s just not likely to happen).
Teams don’t have to observe the 23-man roster limit after the trade deadline, so the issue is how to fit everyone under the salary cap. With Orpik on long-term injured reserve, Washington has in the neighborhood of $6 million of salary cap space, but he’s expected to be activated this week. According to generalfanager.com, that would leave the Capitals with about $1.15 million in cap space at the trade deadline on Feb. 29.
Washington is most likely in the market for a player who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, a loaner of sorts. Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis is considered to be the best available and has a past connection to Trotz, but he carries a $4.5 million annual cap hit and it’s unlikely the Capitals would be willing to move $3.35 million in the deal. The Canucks could retain up to half of his salary, which would leave $1.1 million of annual cap hit to be moved.
Assuming the Capitals stay healthy on the blue line for the rest of the season and then the playoffs, their three defensive pairs could be set, so Washington may just be looking for an insurance piece. A player as pricey as Hamhuis may not be worth it, so someone like Buffalo’s Mike Weber may be a better fit.
Weber has a cap hit of $1.66 million, which would only leave the Capitals with about $500,000 in salary to move to make it fit. Like Hamhuis, Weber is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and the 28-year-old has averaged 16 minutes in the 34 games he’s played this year. Toronto’s Roman Polak, 29, has a $2.75 million cap hit and is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and the Leafs would likely want a prospect or a pick in return. Polak has one goal and 11 assists in 52 games played, averaging more than 19 minutes per game this year.
The imminent return of Orpik will likely give the Capitals a better indication of whether they need to act at the trade deadline, but Washington has already learned it can withstand injuries to its lineup.
“Maybe we don’t need to go and do a whole lot come trade deadline,” Trotz said. “Maybe it’s just a tweak. Maybe we don’t do anything based on that. You find a lot about people and your team when it’s going through injuries, even tough stretches when you’re not playing very well. I think we’ve gone through a lot of the tough times in that area.”