DALLAS — The NHL draft has historically been a busy time for Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan. He made at least one trade at the event in his first three years on the job, acquiring third-line center Lars Eller on draft day two years ago, and though he didn’t deal anything last year in Chicago, MacLellan inked forward T.J. Oshie to an eight-year contract.
“There’s only certain points in the year where people are willing, so you’ve got to take advantage of the conversations, and if you have a need, you’ve got to try and fill it at that time,” MacLellan said.
Expect Washington to be active again this weekend. MacLellan met with pending unrestricted free agent defenseman John Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, on Thursday night and has plans to chat with other agents in Dallas now that the salary cap ceiling has been set at $79.5 million for next season, a $4.5 million jump. That’s still not as high as the Capitals likely wanted, but MacLellan remains confident that the team can re-sign Carlson, who’s coming off a career season with 15 goals and 53 assists while averaging nearly 25 minutes per game.
“We’re going to put our best foot forward and see what we could do for him,” MacLellan said.
MacLellan took a similar approach with Oshie, who ultimately signed an eight-year deal worth $5.75 million annually. That eventually spelled the end of top-six forward Marcus Johansson’s tenure with the Capitals, traded for a second- and third-round pick later in the summer because of salary-cap constraints. Carlson is expected to get a deal in the neighborhood of $64 million for eight years. So, with the salary cap rising to $79.5 million, can Washington keep Carlson and perhaps fellow pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny without dealing a roster player to clear room?
“I never said that,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes here in negotiations.”
The Capitals will be looking to make at least one trade. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer has expressed a desire to be a No. 1 netminder, and with Washington committed to Braden Holtby, MacLellan said he’s “trying to accommodate his wishes.” He described the interest in Grubauer as “pretty good,” but it’s been historically difficult to get premium return on goaltenders.
After three solid years as the Chicago Blackhawks’ backup, Scott Darling’s unrestricted free agent rights were traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for a third-round pick last April; Darling was a late-bloomer, already 28 at the time of the trade. Robin Lehner, 23, was dealt to Buffalo for the 21st pick in 2015, but the Sabres also had to take David Legwand and his $3.5 million salary-cap hit in the deal with Ottawa. When the New York Rangers traded Cam Talbot, then 27, to the Oilers, they fetched the 57th, 79th and 184th picks in 2015, perhaps less than what was expected for a goaltender Edmonton made its starter. The Boston Bruins got a 2016 first-round pick from San Jose for 25-year-old Martin Jones, Jonathan Quick’s backup in Los Angeles for two years.
Grubauer is 26, and he has 101 games of NHL experience — more than Darling, Talbot and Jones at the time they were traded. He’s coming off a career season with 28 starts, out-dueling Holtby down the stretch of the season to start the first two games of the playoffs. In the 27 appearances since he recorded his first win in late November, Grubauer was the steadiest goaltender in the league with a .937 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average. But with Grubauer a restricted free agent, any team that gets him also has to sign him, something that could hurt his trade value because he’s one year away from becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Potentially interested teams include the New York Islanders, the Detroit Red Wings, the Hurricanes, the Senators and the Blackhawks. The Islanders have two first-round picks — the 11th and 12th selections — and Carolina’s No. 2 overall pick isn’t getting moved. Asked if the Capitals could get a first-rounder for Grubauer, MacLellan said, “yeah, he’s roughly in there,” because of the thin goaltending market this offseason.
“He’s the best option that’s out there,” MacLellan said. “When you look at the past goalies who have gone, it’s probably a late first or an early second.”
Washington has a pick in every round but the fifth — the team didn’t draft until the fourth round a year ago — and while the organization’s policy to draft the best-available player regardless of position, the 31st overall pick could be used to help replenish the team’s forward prospect pool. And no matter how the weekend goes, when the Capitals take the stage to make that first selection, they’ll be able to announce themselves as the Stanley Cup champions for the first time in franchise history.
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