Three years ago in Buffalo, the Capitals traded for center Lars Eller, a deal that came together on the draft floor just before the start of the first round. Then in 2017, Washington agreed to an eight-year extension for T.J. Oshie while in Chicago for the draft. Last year in Dallas, the Capitals traded goaltender Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Brooks Orpik to Colorado in a swap that cleared the necessary salary cap space to extend blue-liner John Carlson two days later.
Might there be more of the same in Vancouver this weekend?
“I think we try to have as many conversations as we can to know what’s going on with teams and what they’re trying to do and trying to find a match with what we’re trying to accomplish," MacLellan said.
Other general managers around the league have noted amplified trade chatter over the past week, though MacLellan downplayed it as “normal.” But with the Capitals entering potentially the last season with captain Alex Ovechkin, top center Nicklas Backstrom and star goaltender Braden Holtby all on the roster together — Backstrom and Holtby are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next summer — Washington is again expected to be active, under pressure to maximize the tail end of the organization’s Stanley Cup window.
“I don’t know that we’re ever not in an all-in situation," MacLellan said on a conference call Thursday. "We view ourselves as a contender for the Cup, and we want to put the best team forward and make the best decisions to do that.”
MacLellan already has been busy, trading defenseman Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas on Friday and then re-signing forward Carl Hagelin to a four-year, $11 million contract. One move that could come this weekend is dealing restricted free agent forward Andre Burakovsky, the Capitals’ 2013 first-round draft pick. To retain Burakovsky’s negotiating rights, Washington would have to tender him a $3.25 million qualifying offer by Tuesday’s deadline, and for a team already dealing with salary cap constraints, that might be too rich considering his production has dropped to 12 goals and 13 assists in each of the past two seasons. MacLellan characterized his season as “frustrating.”
“We like the player," MacLellan said. "There’s been some inconsistencies there, but when he’s on his game, he’s a good player. We’d like to keep him around, but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we’re not going to move him unless we get something we’re comfortable with back.”
That probably would be a draft pick or a comparable forward around Burakovsky’s age (24) and ability. Including Burakovsky, Washington has five pending restricted free agents — the other four are forwards Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin and defenseman Christian Djoos — and MacLellan didn’t commit to all five receiving qualifying offers.
Some of the hesitation is the uncertainty about the NHL’s salary cap for the upcoming season. After it was initially projected to rise to $83 million, it’s now estimated at $81.5 million, and the official decision won’t come until Saturday. That gives the Capitals time to plan before the free agent interview window opens Sunday, but it could halt some of the trade movement expected this weekend.
“I know it seems like it’s not a large amount of dollars, but it does impact teams that are right at the number as far as salary," MacLellan said. "So it is a bit frustrating. When you see it go down to maybe $81.5 [million], I think there’s a pause on our part. We want to see the number before we move forward because it’s going to affect our roster decisions — even on the bottom end, the fourth line — and what we have to do going forward because the margins are that slim for us.”
The Capitals’ biggest free agent priority is re-signing 23-year-old Vrana, who had a career season with 24 goals and 23 assists. MacLellan said the team has had discussions with his agent and is "going to play it out here — we’re going to see where the cap is and see what our roster decisions are and make a decision with Jakub and his agent.”
Hagelin’s extension, along with Vrana’s looming one, might not leave any room for pending unrestricted free agent forward Brett Connolly. The 27-year-old has enjoyed his best seasons in Washington, including this past one when he scored a career-high 22 goals with 24 assists. MacLellan said the team remains in contact with his agent, but a resolution may depend on offers Connolly receives from other teams.
As for the Capitals’ other business in Vancouver this weekend, they haven’t drafted a player with a higher pick since they took goaltender Ilya Samsonov with the 22nd selection in 2015. Washington has a strong prospect pipeline of defensemen and goaltenders but is lacking in young, skilled forwards, so expect the team’s first-round draft choice to address that.
“I think it’ll factor into our decisions unless we see a defenseman that’s clearly above a forward that we like,” MacLellan said. "If the decision is close, I think we’re going to go with the forward. ... Overall I think it’s a pretty deep draft. A lot of guys are going to play, and there’s quite a few defensemen in the middle to late first round that guys like. There’s also a group of forwards that our guys like a lot, and we’re going to balance that decision between the two.”