PHILADELPHIA — The past two Stanley Cup-or-bust seasons, Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan did not hesitate to make bold moves to position the Capitals for a championship. If he saw a hole in the roster, he addressed it, parting with some high draft picks and valued prospects in the process. But as that window closed with another disappointing second-round playoff exit, MacLellan did what he could to open a new one by re-signing some key players. The goal of a Stanley Cup remained, but the willingness to mortgage the farm to perfect the roster disappeared.
“We’re making decisions based on now and in the future,” he told The Post earlier this month. “Last year, it was, ‘What’s best for us now? What can we do to max this out and give our guys the best chance to win?’ Now it’s more reserved.”
It is a subtle change in organizational philosophy, and it’s already being tested just six games into this season. In the Wells Fargo Center press box before Washington’s game in Philadelphia on Saturday, less than 24 hours after top defenseman Matt Niskanen injured his hand against the New Jersey Devils, MacLellan was asked if he’d consider a trade to address the Capitals’ blueline depth.
“I think we’re considering it,” MacLellan said.
MacLellan then explained how Washington will explore its internal options before it takes that step with the season still so young and the situation not yet dire. The Capitals’ defense — a unit that helped Washington allow the fewest goals in the NHL last season — took a considerable hit this summer when Nate Schmidt was swiped by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft and the team didn’t re-sign unrestricted free agents Karl Alzner or Kevin Shattenkirk. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and Philipp Grubauer were all due new contracts in restricted free agency, and those deals coupled with an extension for forward T.J. Oshie left Washington without the cap space needed to acquire another proven defenseman.
The Capitals instead turned to their strong collection of young blueliners, prospects the team expects will one day play significant roles on the NHL squad. Washington now finds itself balancing properly developing those players with the need to win games in the interim.
Niskanen’s injury undoubtedly complicates matters. He was placed on long-term injured reserve on Saturday, meaning he’s not eligible to play until a Nov. 7 game against the Buffalo Sabres. MacLellan said he expects Niskanen to return to the lineup around that date. Before he got hurt, Niskanen was playing on Washington’s top defense pairing, averaging more than 23 minutes per game as he faced opponents’ top goal scorers and contributed to both the power play and penalty kill units.
Without him, the Capitals’ blue line has three experienced defensemen in John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik. The team’s other options on the roster are Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney, who are 27 and 30, respectively, and have bounced between Washington and the American Hockey League for most of their careers, and two rookies in Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, who both made their NHL debuts in the past week. Washington’s depth on NHL-caliber defense was thin even before Niskanen got hurt. Washington allowed the sixth-most shots against in the league through the first five games.
Before MacLellan makes a move for another defenseman, he wants to see what the team has in Djoos, Bowey and the team’s other young blueliners. With both Djoos and Bowey in the lineup on Saturday against the Flyers, the Capitals lost, 8-2, but MacLellan isn’t likely to make any decisions based on one game — the second leg of back-to-back road games — and the struggles in that rout extended far beyond the rookies.
“You know, how are we going to use Djoos? I don’t know yet,” MacLellan said. “He’s been effective so far. We’ll see what Bowey is here now. We’ll see how he handles it and kind of get a sense of where they fit into the whole thing. I’d like to get [Jonas] Siegenthaler up and take a look at him, too. He played good at the end of [training] camp. I’d like to see him in a few games also.”
Washington’s plan was to ease those players into the lineup. Djoos made the team out of training camp in part because he would have been exposed to waivers if he was sent down to the AHL, meaning another team could have swiped him. Bowey is still waivers exempt, and he was one of the last cuts from the training camp roster. Unlike Djoos, Bowey hasn’t had two full seasons in the AHL; he only played in 34 games for the Hershey Bears last season after a skate blade lacerated a tendon in his ankle.
MacLellan was happy with how Bowey performed in training camp, and if the decision had been based purely on that, the 22-year-old would have made the opening-night roster. But the Capitals had hoped Bowey would start the season in the AHL and get some more experience and confidence before recalling him. Needing another right-shot after Niskanen’s injury, that timeline accelerated.
“You want to set your guys up for success,” MacLellan said. “You don’t want to just throw them in. I mean, people think, ‘Oh, he’s good, just throw him into the top four.’ What if he gets crushed or his confidence gets hurt playing against top players? It’s going to be a struggle for a little bit. There’s got to be a progression.
“I mean, what the coaches are doing with Djoos right now, they’re slowly getting him more ice time as he gets more comfortable with the game. He’s done a good job. I’ve got to imagine he was petrified that first game against Pittsburgh, you know? And they did a good job moving him in, moving him out, getting him in the right spots, not exposing him too, too much. That’s part of development. We’re trying to develop our young guys. It’s just not like, ‘Put him in! Get him up! You said you’re going to do it.’”
Even in the Capitals’ game against the Flyers on Saturday, their first without Niskanen, Djoos and Bowey were rarely on the ice without Carlson, Orlov or Orpik. But those sheltered minutes come at a cost. Carlson and Orlov are averaging career-highs in time on ice with 25:59 and 23:32, and Orpik’s 21:50 average ice time is up four minutes from last season. It’s unclear how sustainable that will be going forward.
MacLellan said that perhaps it would have benefited Orlov to go through this sort of slow integration process six years ago, when he first broke through to the NHL. Orlov is a top defenseman for Washington now, but at the time, “he lost confidence, he showed some stuff, made some mistakes and got a lot of criticism for the mistakes he made, where if that would’ve been him handled a little different, maybe he would’ve evolved differently, quicker or whatever,” MacLellan said.
Washington’s top blueline prospects in Hershey are Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams, Tyler Lewington and Siegenthaler, who MacLellan said might be more ready than some of the others because of his mature 6-foot-3, 206-pound frame and his experience playing against men in Switzerland’s top league.
If the Capitals did explore a trade, the most obvious partner would be the Golden Knights, who have nine active defensemen on the roster, meaning three are scratched every game. With an affordable $800,000 cap hit, left-shot Griffin Reinhart is seemingly the best fit, but the 2012 fourth-overall pick also represents something of a project having played in just 37 games since 2014. There’s no guarantee he would bring stability to Washington’s defense. The free agent options available — a list that includes Jakub Kindl, Roman Polak and Dennis Wideman — aren’t inspiring either.
But before the Capitals go either route, expect them to take a patient look at their internal options.
“Our job is to identify the guys we think are going to play, then slowly integrate them into our lineup,” MacLellan said. “Our goal is by the end of the year to have a better picture on our D, not right now.”
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