Is it possible that the Washington Capitals have rediscovered their mojo? They are 6-0-1 since March 2, when general manager (GM) Brian MacLellan informed the media about his plans to act aggressively at the trade deadline, and they have seemingly fixed several of their underlying problems.
Since the start of the month, Washington’s power-play success rate is 39.1% – a significant improvement on the 16.4% clip the team assembled between the season’s start and February 28.
Partly due to their increased effectiveness at five-on-four, the Capitals are also scoring more goals. Head coach Peter Laviolette’s team has notched 4.43 goals per game in the aftermath of MacLellan’s proclamations, an improvement on their 3.16 tally covering the rest of the season.
Most importantly, Vitek Vanecek has been a revelation since his return from injury. The 26-year-old ranks sixth in the NHL in save percentage (.930) and seventh in goals-against average (2.30) in March for netminders who have made at least five appearances.
Heading into their final pre-trade deadline fixture, the Caps are 35-18-10 on the season and four games into a winning run. Slowly but surely, Washington’s fortunes have changed, but where does that leave them heading into a crunch week for their general manager?
Has Vanecek’s Form Impacted MacLellan’s Plans in Net?
Probably not very much.
All the noise surrounding the Capitals is that they hope to add a top-tier goalie before the deadline – preferably by prying Marc-Andre Fleury away from the Chicago Blackhawks. However, there are well-documented issues with that plan. While Fleury does not have the protection of a full no-trade clause, the Blackhawks are sticking by their promise to hand him the final say on any deals that would see him shipped off to another franchise. For MacLellan, Fleury’s rubberstamp is a huge stumbling block.
Not only is the Canadian reluctant to move, but he’s also reportedly unsure on a move to D.C. due to his relationship with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even though the 37-year-old is unlikely to fetch a bank-breaking return for Chicago, the Capitals have found it difficult to broker a deal for the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
That’s the first problem with MacLellan’s plan to score a big upgrade in goal. Fleury’s $7 million cap hit is the second issue, and squeezing his contract onto their active roster would be difficult for the Capitals.
Thirdly, the market for netminders at this year’s deadline is thin. MacLellan is targeting “significant or legitimate” upgrade in goal. Do his other rental options, the likes of Joonas Korpisalo and Jarosalv Halak, meet the threshold? Possibly not.
Related: Capitals’ Goaltending Trade Deadline Targets: Fleury, Halak, Korpisalo
The fourth – and final – complicating factor in Washington’s hunt for a goaltender is that MacLellan isn’t keen to part with any of his top prospects. Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, and Aliaksei Protas – to name just three examples – are off the mark, so the Capitals’ GM says.
With those factors in mind, Vanecek’s form is somewhat inconsequential. The Capitals will move heaven and earth to acquire Fleury if he becomes available to them. If he doesn’t, their list of alternatives is short and potentially uninspiring.
That’s not to say it’s Fleury-or-nothing for MacLellan – he could go off the board with someone like Karel Vejmelka. It’s just worth remembering that the goalie market, not Vancecek’s form, will be the determining factor for the Capitals.
Scoring Depth Remains on the Capitals’ Agenda
In recent days, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has linked Washington with Calle Jarnkrok and Maxi Domi. MacLellan, in other words, is committed to adding scoring depth to his lineup.
On Jarnkrok, the Capitals missed out after MacLellan balked at the Seattle Kraken’s asking price for the versatile forward. He cost the Calgary Flames a second-rounder in 2022, a third in 2023, and a seventh-round selection in 2024 with Seattle retaining half of his $2 million cap hit.
Although Washington’s attraction to Jarnkrok didn’t result in a trade, it’s easy to see why they harbored an interest in the 30-year-old pending UFA. The 5-foot-11 forward registered 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 51 appearances for the Kraken – an impressive haul given the expansion team’s struggles. He’s also defensively responsible, willing to play anywhere in the lineup and played under Laviolette in Nashville.
In other words, Jarnkrok would’ve been a smart pick-up for the Caps. But what about Domi? The 27-year-old has enjoyed a solid enough season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, putting up 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) in 53 games and carries a $5.3 million cap hit. Also of note, his contract expires at the end of the season.
Domi, like Jarnkrok, has what the Capitals are looking for, albeit on a less attractive contract. He would fill MacLellan’s desire for a middle-six attacker by adding more spice to Washington’s rebounding forward group. Although it remains to be seen whether MacLellan aims to add a forward or goaltender (or both), but he’ll be active on deadline day.
Will the Capitals Spring a Surprise at the Deadline?
MacLellan has stunned the league before. Last year, he acquired Anthony Mantha in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a first-round pick in 2021, and a second-rounder in 2022.
With that in mind, it isn’t out of the question that the Capitals could spring a surprise or two before the trade window slams shut, perhaps by shifting their attention from the rental market to players with term.
All bets are off if that happens. In any case, D.C. hockey fans are in for an exciting trade deadline.