Washington Capitals center Brooks Laich was expected to be wearing a Maple Leafs uniform Monday night. (Nick Wass/AP)

Brian MacLellan’s last conversation with Brooks Laich was Saturday, when the Capitals’ general manager told the team’s longest-tenured player that he had been placed on waivers. Nothing ultimately came of that move, but Laich seemed to understand the significance, that teams don’t waive the players they’re not willing to lose.

“He expressed that he really wanted to be a part of it and win a Stanley Cup here,” MacLellan said Monday.

MacLellan’s expression was pained as he recounted that last conversation. He and Laich just exchanged phone messages Sunday night, when the Capitals traded Laich, defenseman Connor Carrick and a 2016 second-round draft selection to the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Daniel Winnik and a 2016 fifth-round pick.

In his second season as the Capitals’ general manager, MacLellan said sacrificing sentimentality to better position the team for the future was the hardest part of his job. The trade amounted to Washington dumping Laich’s $4.5 million salary cap hit through next season at the cost of a prospect (Carrick) and a pick. And in addition to the cap flexibility, the Capitals received a replacement for Laich in Winnik, who MacLellan said is an “upgrade.”

Laich, who has yet to comment publicly on the trade, was in the Maple Leafs’ lineup against Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline passed quietly for Washington, but the emotion of trading a player he personally scouted was still with MacLellan. He was part of the 2004 trade that brought Laich to Washington when he was director of player personnel, and 12 years later he orchestrated the trade that sent Laich from the league’s best team to its worst. Speaking to reporters Monday, MacLellan held back tears on several occasions.

“It’s hard to do,” MacLellan said. “You want him to be a part. He’s earned it, you know? He likes the team, and we’re a good team going forward. It’s frustrating, but we had to do what’s necessary to keep the organization and keep the team going forward here. It was weighing us down more next year than it does this year, so it was a difficult situation to balance.”

Laich’s substantial contract was too heavy a burden for the Capitals to carry for a fourth-line forward with just one goal and six assists. Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta are restricted free agents at the end of the season and due pay raises. MacLellan said that keeping Laich’s contract on the books for next season might have resulted in Washington losing one or two of those players.

MacLellan said Thursday that he considers this a two-year window, gunning for the Stanley Cup this season and next because just three Washington players — Jason Chimera, Mike Richards and Mike Weber — will be unrestricted free agents at season’s end. Winnik is two years younger than Laich, has half the cap hit with an average annual value of $2.25 million and has twice as many points this season.

MacLellan said the Capitals explored more forward depth Monday, but he is happy with the team as it stands now, even after watching other contenders make substantial moves.

“We had a strategy going into it, and it was more about what we wanted to accomplish on our team,” MacLellan said. “How do we set ourselves up best for success down the stretch here and in the playoffs? I don’t think what everybody else was doing had an impact on what we wanted to do.”

With defenseman John Carlson having a “procedure” for a lower-body injury Saturday and expected to miss at least three weeks, there was some speculation that the Capitals were interested in acquiring another defenseman. But Washington already had acquired blue-line depth late last week in trading a third-round pick to Buffalo for Weber.

MacLellan described the nature of Carlson’s unspecified procedure as “not a serious” one, the expectation being that he’ll be 100 percent with at least 10 games left before the playoffs. The Capitals felt comfortable with their existing options on defense while Carlson is recovering.

Confident this team is equipped to make a deep playoff run, MacLellan used the deadline to unload a burdensome contract. For a business decision, it was still emotional.

“I don’t know if you can’t have [emotion], but you’ve got to be able to do both, I think,” MacLellan said. “You can’t take the emotion out of it, and you still got to make the deal.”