Capitals’ Trade Priorities Change as Offensive Dip Continues

At this point in the season, referencing the Washington Capitals’ difficulties between the pipes is like reaching for the lowest-hanging piece of fruit. While it’s legitimate to worry about the form of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, the team’s recent slump cannot be pinned on goaltending and goaltending alone.

The Capitals are 4-4-2 over their last 10 games, a run of form that has seen them slip to third in the Metropolitan Division behind the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. Approaching in the rear-view mirror, the Pittsburgh Penguins are on a tear, winning nine of their last 11 fixtures to come within striking distance of Washington.

In other words, the Capitals’ route to the postseason is far less comfortable now than it was on New Years’ Day. Peter Laviolette’s side has squandered some of the wiggle room they built up during the opening phase of the season, with the team’s goal-scoring touch fading as the campaign zooms by.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals
Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What, then, are the problems that general manager Brian MacLellan needs to address before the trade deadline on March 21? Goaltending is certainly top of mind – but the Caps’ have other things to consider, too.

Principal among those issues to contemplate is whether Washington should add another forward to the mix – and, if so, in which role and on what terms. Should the Capitals relinquish their first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, knowing what they do about age curves, the construction of their roster, and the quality of this year’s prospect class?

That said, MacLellan will probably address Washington’s goaltending dilemma first – so we’ll start there too.

Should the Capitals Trade for a Goalie?

Yes, they probably should. Vanecek and Samsonov are both headed for restricted free agency (RFA) this summer, with neither of them staking a convincing claim for the starter’s job in D.C. Thus, it isn’t unreasonable for the Caps to be kicking tires on the goaltending market – either for a rental or a long-term solution.

Marc-Andre Fleury is somebody who will attract a lot of attention before the deadline. Last year’s Vezina Trophy-winning netminder will almost certainly be dealt by the Chicago Blackhawks before March 21, with numerous teams around the NHL a fit for the 37-year-old.

Of course, Washington is a potential destination for Fleury. While his $7 million cap hit is a stumbling block, it could be overcome if MacLellan is willing to be aggressive and creative enough to get a deal over the line. That, though, could be said of almost every team thought to be in the race for the Canadian, with cap space at a premium around the NHL.

Notably, Fleury’s form has rebounded after a slow start to life in Chicago. His January save percentage has soared to .956, winning four of his last five appearances for the Blackhawks. He was particularly impressive versus the Seattle Kraken, even in defeat.

Other rental options available to the Capitals include Braden Holtby of the Dallas Stars and the Vancouver Canucks’ Jaroslav Halak. Frankly, finding a short-term goalie upgrade won’t be an easy task for MacLellan – with his options limited as the deadline approaches. He could pursue a left-field option – Karel Vejmelka has impressed under heavy fire for the Arizona Coyotes – but that seems unlikely given the Capitals’ desire to upcycle one of their unproven pending RFAs.

Should the Capitals Trade for an Experienced Winger?

If recent form is anything to go by, they absolutely should. In Saturday’s 2-0 win over the New York Islanders (yep, the team that needs a goalie kept a shutout), three rookie wingers featured in Washington’s top-nine. For the record, that’s Aliaksei Protas, Connor McMichael, and Brett Leason – none of whom were considered locks to play a significant role in the NHL this season.

Since the turn of the year, the Capitals’ scoring has slowed down – most notably versus the Islanders and Canucks. While complaints about Washington’s ineffectiveness on the power play are well-known at this point, the argument that they should add scoring depth at center has gained traction recently.

Related: Capitals Must Find 2021 Scoring Touch to Break Slump

The Caps are bottom of the NHL for faceoff win percentage, leading some to conclude that acquiring a prolific draw-winner is the answer to the team’s ills. After all, winning faceoffs is incredibly important in both zones, with Washington seeing the ice tilt against them on nights when their success rate slips.

However, there is a problem with that plan. If Washington trade for center before the deadline, who will their new arrival replace in the line-up? Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, or Nic Dowd? The Capitals probably won’t want to move the kind of assets it would take to dislodge Backstrom or Kuznetsov, while they have a strong bottom-six in Eller and Dowd. As a result, trading for an experienced winger – preferably somebody with a scoring touch – feels more likely.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If MacLellan wants to add a left-winger to his ranks, he could target plenty of pending unrestricted free agents (UFA). Claude Giroux is the standout name, he’s put up 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 34 games on an uninspiring Philadelphia Flyers roster. The 34-year-old is a player who the Flyers are expected to move, as noted by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, and retain salary on. The right-shooting Calle Järnkrok is another intriguing option, he has 12 points (five goals, seven assists) on the Seattle Kraken’s underwhelming expansion roster.

Phil Kessel could be the player MacLellan is looking for on the opposite wing. The 34-year-old has registered 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) in 36 games for the tanking Arizona Coyotes, who will be looking to add more draft picks to their arsenal as their rebuild continues.

If the San Jose Sharks decide to sell at the deadline, Alexander Barabanov would fit the bill for the Caps. The 28-year-old, in only his second season in the NHL, is averaging 0.69 points per game this term and would have the energy needed to make an impact in the postseason.

Is Washington’s First-Round Pick Untouchable?

The bottom line is that MacLellan has plenty of choices to make before winter turns into spring. If the Caps’ struggles between the pipes continue, dealing one of his RFA goalies to acquire somebody with an established track record will be his first move. However, adding an experienced winger to the team if Washington’s offensive slump lingers will also be a priority.

At this point, then, we should talk about the elephant in the room. If the Capitals make a splash at the deadline, which assets will they be willing to part with?

Washington’s first-round pick in the upcoming draft will attract interest. Although MacLellan is in win-now mode, there will come a point in the not-so-distant future that he will have to rebuild this roster. Moreover, this year’s draft class is widely regarded to be a strong one – making the Caps’ first-round selection more valuable than usual. He won’t want to trade it.

The Capitals are also unlikely to be sacrifice one of their top prospects for a rental. McMichael, Protas, and Fehervary are now such important players for Laviolette that moving any of them seems implausible. Selling on Hendrix Lapierre, one of the season’s early feel-good stories, wouldn’t be wise either.

Aliaksei Protas, Washington Capitals
Aliaksei Protas, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

MacLellan, then, is stuck between a rock and a hard place. While Washington’s issues are there for all to see, solutions to them are entirely obscured from view. If the Capitals want to improve their roster before the deadline, they will have to make some painful decisions.

Although 19-year-old defenseman Vincent Iorio is held in high esteem by the organization, he might be a player that MacLellan is forced to move this season. He’s having a breakout season with the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, registering 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in 29 appearances.

Bogdan Trineyev, a fourth-round selection in 2020, could also be on the block. The 19-year-old forward, though still pointless in the Kontinental Hockey League, has started to make his mark at the professional level and will draw interest from sellers at the deadline.

Pending restricted free agents Dennis Cholowski, Garret Pilon, and Beck Malenstyn could also be used as pre-deadline makeweights. At the same time, Washington’s mid-round picks for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft offer MacLellan another route to flesh-out deals.

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that the Capitals are still in a commanding position. They’re on course to make the playoffs, Alex Ovechkin is scoring at an almost unprecedented rate, and Washington’s rookies are performing well under the strain of expectation. In other words, there’s no need to panic about the Caps – yet.

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