In response to the suggestion by Capitals Coach Barry Trotz that Brian MacLellan might have “more under his sleeve,” the Washington General Manager chuckled. “That’s easy for him to say,” MacLellan retorted with a smirk. Then he pressed his sleeves firmly against his sides, not revealing a thing.
“I mean, we are looking,” MacLellan said.
Less than 24 hours after that statement, MacLellan acquired his second mobile Czech defenseman of the week, and with the trade deadline still five days away, the Capitals might not be done dealing. Washington added Chicago’s Michal Kempny on Monday, waived depth defenseman Taylor Chorney on Tuesday, clearing salary cap and roster space, and then the team traded a 2019 fifth-round pick to Montreal for Jakub Jerabek.
That leaves the team with roughly $617,000 in salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com, but Washington now has the maximum 23 players — eight of which are defensemen. Any other acquisitions would require a corresponding roster move to remove a player in some fashion. Three players on the team can be sent down to the American Hockey League without exposure to waivers: rookies Jakub Vrana, Madison Bowey and the newly acquired Jerabek.
In keeping with what’s been a tricky balance for the team throughout the season, the Capitals want to make another run at a Stanley Cup with their aging superstar core of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but they are no longer willing to compromise the future to do so. MacLellan parted with the better of the team’s two 2018 third-round picks in acquiring Kempny, but after he dealt a prospect (forward Zach Sanford) and a first-round pick to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk a year ago, he’s taking a more conservative approach before this trade deadline. MacLellan has said he intends to hold onto his high draft picks, but “if something makes sense with lower-end draft picks, we are more open to do that.”
Dealing a 2019 fifth-round pick for Jerabek, who’s played just 25 games in the NHL, matches that approach. Both he and Kempny are mobile, puck-moving blue liners, addressing a team concern as the Capitals have struggled to efficiently get the puck out of their own end. Over the past 20 games, Washington had allowed 3.35 goals per game, a jarring decline from the league’s best defensive team a year ago. But MacLellan also indicated earlier this month that he didn’t want to stunt the development of rookie defensemen Christian Djoos and Bowey by bringing in players that would take away their playing time.
“I think all along we have been trying to balance developing two young defensemen and trying to give them the experience they need to get — and considering adding a defenseman to give us more depth,” MacLellan said Tuesday at an event for Washington’s upcoming outdoor game in Annapolis.
To add another player, the Capitals’ realistic options are to trade someone off the roster, waive a depth forward or simply reassign one of their three players who don’t require waivers. Washington is unlikely to waive a player of value because it would risk losing him for nothing in an episode of poor asset management.
Even with the limited salary cap space, a trade partner could retain up to half of a player’s roster in a deal. After adding two defensemen, the Capitals’ only logical move left would be to add a veteran winger.
The most high-profile trade deadline sellers are the New York Rangers, the Ottawa Senators, the Detroit Red Wings and the Vancouver Canucks, but if Washington doesn’t want to part with high draft picks, they won’t be able to meet the high asking prices on marquee players like New York’s Michael Grabner and Ryan McDonagh, nor Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman. The team also lacks the cap space for that. Asked about a reunion with Detroit’s Mike Green, a blue line staple in Washington for 10 years, a Capitals source balked.
Even if the team reconciled concerns of compromising the future, the Capitals lack much to offer in terms of prospects. Their best young forwards are already on the NHL roster, and the organization that dealt Filip Forsberg for a sorry return five years ago is understandably hesitant to repeat the mistake.
Among its assets, Washington has some young defensemen in its system with Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler, Connor Hobbs and Colby Williams. The organization also has coveted goaltender Ilya Samsonov, though with him expected to make his North American debut next season and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer entering restricted free agency again this summer, it seems unlikely the Capitals will want to part with Samsonov, a 2015 first-rounder. Grubauer, 26, has trade value, but a team source indicated earlier in the season Washington wasn’t comfortable dealing him in-season with no reliable option behind him, in case starter Braden Holtby got injured.
But considering MacLellan’s bold track record over the past three-plus years, it’s usually been safe to assume he has something else “under his sleeve.”
“I think we’re trying to keep aware and communicate with other teams on who is being moved, and I think it shifts and changes a lot,” MacLellan said. “If something makes sense for us, we will try to improve our team.”