While the rest of the NHL went down to the wire of Monday’s trade deadline, the Washington Capitals’ war room was quiet. General Manager Brian MacLellan picked up the phone a handful of times, but he mostly just monitored what other teams were up to. He had made two trades to bring in defenseman Nick Jensen and winger Carl Hagelin days earlier, and he ultimately decided this roster could win the Stanley Cup for the second straight season.
“It’s pretty much the same roster,” MacLellan said. “Maybe a little better, in my mind.”
A year ago, MacLellan sent a third-round draft pick to Chicago for defenseman Michal Kempny — not the blockbuster deal some other clubs opted for but one that addressed Washington’s need for another puck-moving blue-liner and helped the team hit its stride going into the postseason. This time, MacLellan wanted to fortify his struggling penalty kill, which is ranked 23rd in the league at 78.5 percent, and add speed and depth to a lineup that has been inconsistent of late.
He traded a 2019 third-round draft pick and a 2020 conditional sixth-round selection to Los Angeles for Hagelin on Thursday. In Hagelin, MacLellan sees a fast, versatile forward who can play anywhere from the second to the fourth line and is also expected to be on the top penalty-killing pair. Then, on Friday, MacLellan added Jensen, the most sought-after rental defenseman available, and a 2019 fifth-round pick in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick and second-year blue-liner Madison Bowey. MacLellan was so high on Jensen that he asked to check in with his agent before the trade was finalized to gauge whether the sides would be able to agree on an extension. That came a few hours after the trade, when Jensen was re-signed for four years and $10 million.
“I like what he’s done this year,” MacLellan said. “He’s taken his game to a new level. First of all, I like his speed, I like his compete level, and I really like the way he’s played lately against top players in the league. He’s defended really well and has established himself as a really good defender.”
In Jensen’s Capitals debut Sunday, a 6-5 overtime win against the New York Rangers, he skated 14:16, including 2:30 shorthanded, and was on the third pairing with Brooks Orpik. That pushed second-year defenseman Christian Djoos out of the lineup. Djoos has played just eight games since returning from left thigh surgery this month. MacLellan said Monday it will be Coach Todd Reirden’s decision whether Jensen plays with Djoos or Orpik going forward. And while the team might be easing Jensen in at the moment, the plan is for him to lighten the time-on-ice load for John Carlson (25:21 per game) and Matt Niskanen (22:06).
This is the fifth straight year that MacLellan has acquired a blue-liner before the trade deadline, and in early January, he indicated that he might not go that route this year because he was happy with his team’s defensive depth.
“I was comfortable unless you can add a guy that’s better than what you do have,” MacLellan said Monday. “I don’t know that there was another guy out there that we would have said, ‘This is a must-have for us,’ but given the way he plays, I think it’s a perfect fit our team.”
The moves the Capitals didn’t make were also notable. MacLellan acknowledged that “there’s a lot of teams that checked in and made some inquisitions, talked about some transactions” for 24-year-old winger Andre Burakovsky, but Washington held onto him. Burakovsky has eight goals and 11 assists in 57 games this season, and because he will be a restricted free agent this summer, the Capitals would have to tender Burakovsky a $3.25 million qualifying offer to retain his rights. Burakovsky struggled to start the season and was a healthy scratch for six games, but the 2013 first-round pick has two goals and five assists in his past seven games.
“I think he’s slowly getting his confidence back,” MacLellan said. “He’s starting to put up some points, playing with a little more energy. My expectation is he carries this forward and continues to play at that level to get back to where he was before this year.”
MacLellan also didn’t acquire a forward to remedy the Capitals’ faceoff woes — Washington is last in the league at 45.9 percent — and to that he said: “I’d love to have a right-shot guy who plays a lot and can take faceoffs. I don’t know that we’re considering bringing in just a pure faceoff specialist. If we found a player that fit [salary] cap needs, lineup needs and was good at faceoffs, we’d be very interested.”
Over their past 25 games, the Capitals are 11-10-4, slipping into second place in the crowded Metropolitan Division. The Columbus Blue Jackets are just four points back of Washington with two games in hand. The Blue Jackets also loaded up this week by adding forwards Matt Duchene (28 goals and 32 assists) and Ryan Dzingel (22 goals and 22 assists), depth defenseman Adam McQuaid and backup goaltender Keith Kinkaid. The Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins are also just five points shy of the Capitals and making a postseason push.
Washington was in a similar position around the trade deadline last season, and it was MacLellan’s minor roster tinkering and a renewed emphasis on the team’s defensive structure that put the Capitals over the top. He’s hopeful history will repeat.
“I think we’ve been a little inconsistent on the back end, and I don’t know that it’s just the defensemen,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s the overall defensive play. I think forwards play a significant role in helping out defensemen through the neutral zone and back into our end. I think sometimes we get out of sync with the ‘D’ and the forwards. It’s going to be important for us, just like it was last year, to find that neutral-zone and to find our defensive-zone game. It’s been inconsistent, and we need to get better at it.”