NEW YORK – In the second year of what Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has previously described as a “two-year window” with this current core of players, the Washington Capitals are once again in win-now mode. Ten players on the roster will be in need of new contracts this summer and the Capitals are already guaranteed to lose one player in the expansion draft. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner will all be unrestricted free agents this summer, and Washington will likely be able to afford to keep just one of them.
To summarize: The Capitals won’t look the same after this season, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever have a roster this talented around superstar captain Alex Ovechkin again.
So, in a pivotal season, Washington’s approach at the trade deadline a month from now will influence how far the team advances in the postseason. And in all likelihood, the moves will be measured, if the Capitals make any at all. The indication is that front office is hesitant to tinker too much with what already appears to be a playoff-ready team, sitting atop the league with 72 points 50 games into the season.
Injuries ahead of the deadline could change the plan, but the Capitals are believed to be especially content with their forward corps. A trade for center Lars Eller this summer filled Washington’s need for a third-line center, and free-agent signing Brett Connolly has turned out to be a bargain with a $850,000 cap hit. He has eight goals in 35 games this season.
Those moves speak to the Capitals’ philosophy of making their roster tweaks in the offseason.
“We get guys at the trade deadline every year, and it takes guys a while to assimilate to your team and your culture,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “It really became clear to me just looking at Lars Eller. We got him in the summer. We made that sort of trade in the summer, which we probably had done other years at the trade deadline. The first 20 games, probably he would say he wasn’t as good as he could be. Now, you watch him, and it’s totally different. So, maybe our trade deadline, we learned something from that. Maybe you don’t have to tinker as much because you can get stuff done in the summer.”
The Capitals also intend to have rookie wingers Jakub Vrana and Zach Sanford, both currently in the American Hockey League, on the NHL roster when the team gets to the postseason, as the two have played a combined 32 games with Washington. Vrana had one goal and two assists in 12 games, and his speed would seem to be an asset in the playoffs, especially if the Capitals played against a quicker team like Toronto, New York or Pittsburgh.
“Earlier in the season, we wanted to look at our depth in our whole organization,” Trotz said. “I pulled some guys out, and I got a really good feel for where we are organizationally. It really is a benefit to us going into the trade deadline knowing our depth, not trying to guess at our depth. We were able to leave a little bit of flexibility if we need to add something at the end of the year.”
Washington may be in the market for blue-line help at the trade deadline. The challenge is that most other playoff contenders are looking to upgrade their defense, which inevitably drives up the asking price. The team will also be somewhat limited financially. Savvy salary-cap management is expected to leave the Capitals with enough space to acquire a player with a roughly $1.7 million annual cap hit at the deadline, according to capfriendly.com, without requiring a corresponding move. That’s important for a Washington team that has been riding lineup chemistry recently.
The parity across the league could also make for a quiet trade deadline, as few teams are truly out of position for a postseason berth at this point, so there may be some hesitation by clubs to part with quality players around March 1. Rather than trying to acquire a top-four defensemen at the deadline, Washington will likely opt for depth, as the current roster is the league’s stingiest with 2.10 goals against per game. Acquiring depth at the deadline would also fall in line with MacLellan’s previous trade deadline moves.
In 2015, MacLellan traded for Tim Gleason, and the stay-at-home defenseman played on the team’s third pairing in the postseason. Last year, Washington traded a third-round pick for Mike Weber, who played in 10 games. The Capitals were pleasantly surprised by the Gleason addition and they weren’t unhappy with how their trade for Weber turned out, as they stood by their rationale for getting him, insurance in case injuries took a toll on the blue line in the playoffs. They went after a physical, stay-at-home blue-liner because they already had puck-movers in Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, so Weber provided additional variety.
With Washington largely avoiding injuries on defense this season, it’s possible MacLellan again adds another defensemen, just in case players start to break down in the postseason. With prospect defenseman Madison Bowey out indefinitely because of a tendon laceration injury, the organizational blue-line depth isn’t as far along as it is with for forwards. But even if the Capitals make a move by March 1, it’s not currently expected to be flashy.
“You see so many guys that are traded for pretty high picks and have very minimal impact,” Trotz said.