From the moment the Washington Capitals hoisted the Stanley Cup for a first time last June, they started thinking about how they could do it again this year. General Manager Brian MacLellan has typically spent his summer trying to identify what the Capitals were missing, but now that his club seemingly had all the right ingredients to win, he just tried to hold onto to most of them — and he did. There are just two players, fourth-line center Jay Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer, from Washington’s Stanley Cup finals lineup that aren’t on the team anymore.
MacLellan had hoped that bringing back a near-identical roster from last season would mean the chemistry carried over, too, but it’s possible that the group has grown stale with eight losses in the past 10 games. Perhaps the success has caused the Capitals to take for granted how hard they worked to get that championship.
MacLellan has said he doesn’t favor tinkering too much this late into the season — that blockbuster for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017 is a good example of how it can be hard to incorporate a big-name player on an accelerated timeline. But he is looking to make some kind of change before the trade deadline on Feb. 25. Expect it to be in the forward group.
“We’re active," MacLellan said Monday. "We’re always active. We’re trying to see what’s happening in the market. You like certain guys, are they going to be available? Are they not going to be available? Does it fit your long-term plan? Does it fit cap-wise? We continually talk to teams and monitor what they’re thinking, and you try and find matches. ...
“I like to think our chemistry’s stayed the same, but it’s changed a little bit. And if we can affect the forward group, we try and affect it, if we thought we could make a move that would solidify it.”
Speaking to reporters less than a month ago, MacLellan said he was interested in swapping one forward for another with comparable salary, but when asked Monday if he would do a deal for future assets, like draft picks, MacLellan seemed open. “I think we look at everything,” he said. Winger Andre Burakovsky is the forward most likely to be on the move, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Capitals have asked for a pair of mid- to high-round picks for him. Those could then be packaged in a separate deal for someone to play in Washington’s middle-six forward corps, where the team hoped Burakovsky would be.
The 23-year-old has struggled with six goals and six assists in 46 games this season, a healthy scratch earlier in the year and now a fourth-liner. The organization’s 2013 first-round pick, Burakovsky is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and retaining his rights would require tendering him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million, steep for his current production. That hurts his value in a trade, because while he could flash his considerable skill and offensive upside with a change of scenery — it wasn’t that long ago that he scored two goals in a Game 7 against Tampa Bay during the Eastern Conference final — a team would have a short window to evaluate that before making a decision on keeping him or risking him signing elsewhere in free agency.
“I want him to do well,” MacLellan said. "He’s a good young player. He’s got upside. We’ve all seen it where he’s played in the playoffs in a top-six role and played well. That’s the player we want to have here. We still have two more years of rights on him and we’re hoping that he gets back to that level as soon as we can get him there.”
When the Capitals traded winger Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils before last season, they got a return of a second- and third-round pick, and while Johansson was three years older than Burakovsky at the time of the deal, he was coming off a career year with 24 goals and 34 assists. He was also under contract for two more seasons with a $4.583 million cap hit, reasonable for that 58-point season. Burakovsky’s cap hit is lower ($3 million) and it expires at the end of the year. Washington also would be selling low: Burakovsky has played fewer than nine minutes in each of the past three games.
“He’s getting some chances, but I think he’s a player that we need to get more from,” Coach Todd Reirden said this week. “His overall game probably is better than it was earlier in the year, when I thought his play was erratic, but I think the consistent scoring is something we need from him. Right now, other players are taking more advantage of those opportunities, so he has to wait his turn and bide his time until he gets into those spots, and then he’s got to take advantage of it when he gets there.”
According to CapFriendly.com, the Capitals have less than $40,000 in salary-cap space, so whatever salary they clear in a trade, they wouldn’t be able to take on much more than that unless there was some retained by another team. Washington was hesitant to part with its first-round pick at the trade deadline last season, and MacLellan instead moved a third-round pick for defenseman Michal Kempny, his shrewdest deal to date. The Capitals currently have five draft selections for 2019 — they don’t have their own fifth- or sixth-round pick — and MacLellan said last month that he expects the Capitals to again “be a little more conservative on giving assets away." That means the price for some marquee forwards available, like pending unrestricted free agents Wayne Simmonds, Micheal Ferland and Mats Zuccarello, might be too rich for Washington. The Capitals are last in the league on faceoffs, but MacLellan has indicated that he’d rather find an internal solution to that than acquire a specialist.
The tightly packed standings make it hard to totally identify which teams are buyers and which are sellers because some that were thought to be out of the playoff race are now back in the race. But some oft-mentioned names on the market that could appeal to the Capitals are Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist, though there would need to be some salary retained on the pending unrestricted free agent, Anaheim’s Jakub Silfverberg, if the Ducks don’t try to re-sign him, or Ottawa’s Ryan Dzingel.
Washington could try to get Johansson, a pending unrestricted free agent, back by the trade deadline; the team knows what he can do offensively when he’s healthy, and it’d be an easy transition given his familiarity with the system and the locker room.
Second-year defenseman Madison Bowey has played in just five of the team’s past 16 games, and with Christian Djoos nearing a return from injury, perhaps getting back into the lineup by the end of this week, Bowey will be even further down the depth chart. The 2013 second-round selection would have value in a trade, but MacLellan has said that he’s happy enough with the team’s defensive depth that he doesn’t anticipate making a move by the Feb. 25 deadline. Moving Bowey would weaken that, especially since he’s the only right-shot the team has behind John Carlson and Matt Niskanen.
And while MacLellan wants to shake things up some, there was a reason he worked so hard to keep as much of last season’s roster together as he could. It’s proven.
“I think it’s the same team that found it at the end of last year and went on to win a championship," MacLellan said. "It’s the same players. I think there’s aspects of our game that need to be improved, and we’re looking for that up until the trade deadline, that if we feel there’s something there that can help us get over that hump in certain areas, we’ll pursue it.”