ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Brian MacLellan has the power to completely remake the Washington Capitals in the wake of another early playoff exit and he faces a salary-cap crunch that would justify it.
The general manager doesn’t expect anything so drastic. He said Tuesday that he expects to tweak and retool on the fly rather than overhauling the roster of a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back seasons but hasn’t made it past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era.
“I don’t think it makes sense in my mind just to blow it up or make a major change,” MacLellan said. “It’s a lot easier to make this team worse than it is better.”
Trade Ovechkin or All-Star center Nicklas Backstrom? Not in the cards right now. Fire Barry Trotz? Maybe check back next season for the coach with one year left on his contract.
Changes are coming to the Capitals by default because wingers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams and defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk are unrestricted free agents, and young players Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky and Nate Schmidt are the priority as restricted free agents with raises coming. All that, plus a salary cap that isn’t likely to rise much from $73 million, means it will be impossible to keep this band together after an inexplicably flat Game 7 loss in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think we’re going to be a good team still,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know that we’ll be at this level. We’ll be competitive. I’m not sure what happens.”
MacLellan acknowledged the Capitals “spent three years building up to that Game 7” and talked openly about a two-year Stanley Cup window that might’ve slammed shut in the aftermath of the season-ending shutout loss at home to Pittsburgh earlier this month. Washington still has a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender in Braden Holtby, even though his playoffs were disappointing, and the talent to make the playoffs.
Now the question is how to get over the hump in the playoffs. MacLellan didn’t exactly give Trotz a ringing endorsement for his postseason moves and wants to see organizational improvements moving forward.
“Some stuff has come up that I obviously I need to hold people accountable for and makes changes going forward both on the players side and on the coaching side,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s easy in hindsight for me to be critical, but the coaches make coaching decisions as they go and they have to be held accountable for their results also.”
MacLellan wouldn’t expand on what he means, though he didn’t seem inclined to strip Ovechkin of the team captaincy. After a “down year” in which he had the fewest goals of his career in an 82-game season with 33, the Russian superstar is “going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game” by training to get faster as he turns 32, MacLellan said.
Ovechkin might not be a top-line player anymore, and while MacLellan didn’t close the door on trading the face of the franchise, it’s not likely — especially given that there’s four years left on his contract at an almost-unmovable $9.5 million cap hit.
“He’s been a big part of where we’re at as an organization and just to casually say, ‘Let’s trade him for what for who,’ I don’t think it makes sense from an organizational point of view,” MacLellan said. “Maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal that came available, but I don’t know that that’s where we’re at right now.”
There’s lingering uncertainty about whether the Capitals can afford to re-sign Oshie, who tied for the team lead with 33 goals, depending on what the salary cap is. And MacLellan could be managing for his own job moving forward, too.
Because of the cap and the likely departures of Williams, Alzner, Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik and loss of a player to Vegas in the expansion draft — maybe backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer — MacLellan may have a younger team next season. He may end up counting on prospects to fill the holes. It’s now up to him to make sure the team remains a contender.
“It’s a good team, and there’s issues, too,” MacLellan said. “There’s some issues, and they need to be addressed internally.”