Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has never stood pat at the trade deadline in his five-year tenure, tinkering with his roster in some fashion every February. But with his team halfway through a season in which it hopes to repeat as Stanley Cup champion, MacLellan doesn’t see any real holes on his roster. “I don’t think we have any glaring weaknesses we’re going to try to address,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with reporters Friday afternoon.
But just because MacLellan is satisfied with the state of his team through 43 games doesn’t mean he won’t be active over the next month as the Feb. 25 trade deadline nears. He has traditionally gone for defensive depth, but he said this season, “the only thing we’re going to look for is: Is there a hockey trade to be made — salary for salary, player for player — in the forward group?”
MacLellan didn’t explicitly say winger Andre Burakovsky is the forward he might be looking to swap, but there has been plenty of speculation around the 23-year-old this season. He was a healthy scratch for Thursday’s 4-2 win at the Boston Bruins, his fifth time out of the lineup this season, and he’s on pace for career-low production with just five goals and four assists through 38 games. Teams have inquired about Burakovsky’s availability, which is expected when a young forward with offensive upside looks like he might need a change of scenery.
Based on MacLellan’s comments Friday, if Washington were to trade Burakovsky, it would want someone who immediately could plug into his usual third-line role while not exceeding his current $3 million salary cap hit.
“He’s taken a step back, but we anticipate that he will find his game and become a better player after he goes through all of this,” MacLellan said.
At issue with Burakovsky is that he’s a pending restricted free agent, and a qualifying offer to retain his rights would have to match his current salary of $3.25 million. Based on his current rate of production, that would arguably be too much, but not tendering a qualifying offer would lead to him becoming an unrestricted free agent, at which point Washington could risk losing its 2013 first-round pick for nothing. If a team trades for him, it’s essentially risking the same thing.
“We’re trying to help him to get to that next level as a player to become more consistent,” MacLellan said. “He’s got above-[average] skill, above-average shot, above-average skating, and those should translate into being a solid NHL player. If he can do it consistently and do things the coach wants him to do within the system, he’s going to be a good player. … I mean, young guys go through stages in their career, I think, where they have trouble finding it. They lose their confidence and then they get their confidence back and then they find their way."
Burakovsky’s future in the organization seemed bright when he had 17 goals and 21 assists in 79 games during the 2015-16 season, but he has had injuries to both hands in each of the past two seasons, contributing to a gradual decline in scoring each year. But while he has built a reputation for prolonged slumps, he also has had some brilliant flashes, such as when he scored two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning last year.
“It’s frustrating in the fact that it’s there and you want to see it every night,” MacLellan said. “I mean, I think young players go through that, and it is frustrating for me to watch him be frustrated. I think he shows it, and it’s hard for him to get through this. . . . Last year, I think he struggled with the injuries. The inconsistencies I think were correlated with being out for long stretches of time. This year, he came in and hasn’t quite found it yet.”
Asked about getting future assets, such as draft picks and prospects, in return in a hypothetical trade before the deadline, MacLellan indicated his preference would be getting something back that could help the Capitals defend their title.
“I mean, it’s important for us to have as much depth as we can down the stretch and into the playoffs and to be healthy,” he said. “That would be ideal.”
Djoos to start skating soon
Defenseman Christian Djoos has missed the past 13 games after compartment syndrome forced surgery on his left thigh last month. The Capitals have said Djoos is out indefinitely, but MacLellan said the 24-year-old has started off-ice workouts and could get back on the ice this week for a “light skate.” Washington is expected to have more clarity on his timetable to return in the next two weeks. When Djoos is healthy, he typically skates on the team’s third pairing.
MacLellan has acquired at least one defenseman ahead of the trade deadline in four straight years, but with Djoos on the mend, veteran Brooks Orpik recently back in the lineup after missing 27 games because of a right knee injury and youngsters Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler playing well, MacLellan seemed happy enough with his depth on the blue like to leave it as is.
“I feel comfortable where we’re at there, barring injury,” MacLellan said.
Vrana could get a long-term deal
Burakovsky has struggled in his contract year, but 22-year-old Jakub Vrana has set himself up well for a big payday this summer. He has set a career high in goals with 15, and he still has half the season left. The 2014 first-round pick has established himself as a no-doubt top-six forward and arguably the fastest player on the team, and MacLellan said he could start contract discussions with Vrana’s representation this month.
MacLellan said he would feel comfortable signing Vrana to a long-term deal as opposed to a bridge one.
“I think since we drafted him he’s been a big priority,” MacLellan said. “He’s an offensive, skilled guy that we’re just starting what he can do in the NHL. We want to have him around for a long time. . . . I think in January here, it’s a normal progression that we start talking to his side and see if there’s some common ground that can get done, and if not, you wait until the end of the season. You don’t want it to be a distraction on what we have going down the stretch.”