Having steamrolled through December and most of January prior to last weekend's winless road trip, the Washington Capitals are firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Playoff race. It would seem likely, barring a monumental bout of inconsistency, that Washington will qualify for the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
The Capitals' dearth of postseason success has been widely recounted, the franchise without a conference final appearance since 1998. Coach Barry Trotz was asked Monday if he thought he oversaw a "playoff team that can win" and overcome that nearly two-decade hurdle. He said yes, adding that he felt the Capitals "still need a piece or two."
"We have some guys that are, at this level, pretty good contributing players, but the playoffs are another level, and I don't know if some of our guys are ready for that," Trotz continued. "We'll see. We've still got another 40 games to go, but some guys looked like they weren't going to be ready for the first part and they got it turned around. I think we have enough pieces to be a real good threat, but our depth hasn't been really tested to the point that we need to do that."
Trotz lauded the organization's defensive depth, strengthened by the pricey offseason additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. Forward-wise, he thought Washington "could use a little more."
"That’s just waiting for guys to develop," he said. "Guys like [Andre] Burakovsky are coming, guys like [Tom] Wilson and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov and people like that.”
In addressing reporters Tuesday, general manager Brian MacLellan reiterated Trotz's stance, with the play of the Capitals' crop of young forwards influencing how he will approach the March 2 trade deadline.
“We have four young forwards that we’re developing: Burakovsky, Wilson, Kuznetsov and [Michael] Latta," MacLellan said. "They’ve all been good at times and they’ve been inconsistent at times. I think we’re going to evaluate them over the next month. I think the play is going to get turned up a notch, it’s going to be a little tighter, a little more intense game.
"We’ll see how they respond to that. Most of our decisions will be made off the performance of those four guys.”
MacLellan met with Trotz Monday, with MacLellan presenting what and who could realistically be available in the trade market, which includes "higher-profile players" that teams may be willing to part with in-season. MacLellan, though, said that the team's priority remains developing the aforementioned youngsters.
"I don't think we're going to be too assertive or too aggressive with moving any of them out or changing the chemistry of our team," he said.
The Capitals, MacLellan acknowledged, are in need of solidity on their first line, where seven different skaters have started games alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Burakovsky has assumed that position for the past eight games after Trotz recently admitted that he may have been too ambitious in attempting to convert Burakovsky and Kuznetsov to center simultaneously.
Not many applicable players have been discussed in trade rumors. Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly and Arizona Coyotes forward Antoine Vermette have frequently been mentioned throughout the league, but neither necessarily meets that need. Kuznetsov has gradually adapted to the demands of second-line center, which has long been characterized by upheaval in Washington.
If the Capitals were to make a trade, a corresponding move to clear salary-cap space would likely be necessary. According to the now-defunct CapGeek, Washington has roughly $1.6 million available.
"We're going to field the best team we can here," MacLellan said. "We want to win. We want to do some damage in the playoffs. I think our decision is going to be how much we want to expose our young guys down the road and can they handle it. You don't want to put them in a position where they're not ready for it. I think that's our big decision."
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