Not for a lack of trying, but in-season contract extensions like Lars Eller’s new five-year, $17.5 million deal Saturday have been rare in the four years under Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan. The stars aligned for the two sides quickly, and the contract came together in just a few days. It will have a ripple effect on Washington’s plans for the next few months.
The NHL trade deadline is less than three weeks away, and especially now that Eller has re-signed, the Capitals have a very clear free agent priority: John Carlson, who’s expected to land a hefty next contract as a top defenseman. Locking up Eller early rids MacLellan of at least one concern before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Had the contract not come together, MacLellan might have looked to add a center with term left to replace Eller going forward.
“It’s nice to know that Lars is going to be here going forward, so that takes that option off the table for us to consider,” MacLellan said. “We have a third-line center going forward.”
MacLellan said the Capitals have started contract discussions with Carlson’s representatives and the team is “going to do everything we can to bring him back.” How those talks progress in the coming weeks could dictate what Washington will be looking to buy before the trade deadline. If MacLellan is optimistic about re-signing Carlson, then it seems unlikely the Capitals would trade for a blue-liner with term. And if it seems like Carlson wants to test free agency this offseason, then perhaps Washington will explore what potential replacements are available in a swap because the internal options are too green for top-four responsibility.
In any case, the Capitals’ most obvious trade-deadline need is on defense, with two rookies currently in the top six. But while the past two seasons were “all-in,” and MacLellan was willing to part with a first-round pick and a prospect to pull off the Kevin Shattenkirk blockbuster a year ago, the approach will be more measured this time. On the other hand, it would be a shame to waste a season with 32-year-old captain Alex Ovechkin on pace for 50 goals, and Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division, even as the club hasn’t looked dominant all season largely because of the roster’s inexperience.
“I’m fairly happy with the way we’re evolving,” MacLellan said. “The team changes, you know? The young guys are improving. There’s maybe a little inconsistency there, but I think it’s for us to balance between continuing to develop our young guys and winning. That’s the trick for us.”
In other words, adding a veteran defenseman before the trade deadline pushes one of the rookie blue-liners in Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey out of the lineup, which isn’t ideal either. The team also doesn’t have much salary cap space to work with. CapFriendly.com projects Washington will have roughly $1.9 million in annual cap room at the trade deadline.
There has been some speculation that 23-year-old forward Andre Burakovsky, who has a $3 million cap hit, could be on the trading block with how miserably his season has gone; he missed 20 games with a broken thumb and has been a healthy scratch a handful of times since with just four goals and seven assists in 28 games. MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz seemed to both give Burakovsky a vote of confidence Saturday.
“He’s going to be a good player in the league,” MacLellan said. “You know, he got off track with his injury and missed some time and got out of sync. I’m really confident that he’s going to be a good player here, and he’ll find it down the stretch for us.”
Said Trotz: “It’s my job to make him better. Sometimes, it’s almost like a parent where it’s some tough love. Sometimes, it’s letting him work it out as a young adult. Sometimes, it’s putting a little heat and making him miss it a little bit, you know? It’s like when my kids were young and they did something wrong, I said, ‘You know, clean your room, and if you’re not going to clean your room, you get no TV privileges.’ So, if you’re not playing the way you need to play and producing and all that, then I’m going to take your privilege of playing away a little bit. . . . There’s so many good things about Andre that we want him to succeed, because if he succeeds, then we all succeed.”
With Washington intent on re-signing Carlson, who could command a cap hit in the $6 million to $7 million range, and Eller now on the books with a $3.5 million cap hit through 2022-23, it’s unclear where that leaves pending unrestricted free agent center Jay Beagle. Anchoring the Capitals’ fourth line, Beagle is 32 years old and has six goals and 11 assists through 56 games.
Washington also has pending restricted free agents Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Madison Bowey and Philipp Grubauer to consider, though Grubauer could be traded this summer because the 26-year-old goaltender is arguably ready for more responsibility than the team can offer with Braden Holtby under contract for two more seasons after this one.
Before a game in Columbus this past week, Trotz made it clear that how the team performs at this stretch of the season will dictate the Capitals’ upcoming decisions.
“These games for me give me a lot clearer picture of what we have,” Trotz said. “The regular season starts at a certain level and then gets ramped up about this time. You see everybody is tightening up in a lot of areas, the intensity goes up, the speed and the execution goes up, and all of that will tell a lot to me and the organization about what we truly have and where we need to get back.”
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