Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan Discusses Free Agency

During a nearly 20-minute conversation with reporters Tuesday, Brian MacLellan marveled at how quickly his first season as Washington Capitals general manager has flown by.

Months -- how many obviously depends on how the Capitals perform upon reconvening after this week's All-Star break -- remain before this season ends, but soon MacLellan will be confronted with shaping future rosters. 

The Capitals have 11 pending free agents on their roster. Four are restricted: forwards Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Nate Schmidt and goaltender Braden Holtby. The rest are unrestricted: forwards Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti and defensemen Mike Green, John Erskine and Jack Hillen. In the minor leagues, the contracts of goaltender Philipp Grubauer (RFA), defenseman Steve Oleksy (UFA) and forward Chris Brown (RFA), all of whom have NHL experience with the Capitals, are set to expire. 

MacLellan would not and probably will not comment on specific contract negotiations, but said that he has begun to identify with whom those conversations would begin.

"I think we’ve got guys that have played well," MacLellan said. "The second 40 [games] here is going to determine a lot, too. We’re evaluating, we’re talking theoretically, but I think we need to be successful as a team moving forward too to cement what our thoughts would be going forward.”

“A lot of our guys, all of our guys have played better this year. I think the system, the structure, the coaching staff have all had a good influence on the performance of our players. To a man, I think they’ve improved.”

For those without the benefit of clairvoyance, it is impossible to predict exactly how MacLellan will proceed, though some of his upcoming decisions seem apparent. 

All four RFAs should return, with Holtby assuredly receiving a significant raise from his current two-year, $3.7 million contract after setting a franchise record with 27 straight appearances. Erskine (who underwent neck surgery in October), Volpatti (who has yet to play this season) and Hillen (who recently reentered the lineup after Schmidt fractured his shoulder blade) seem unlikely.

“Obviously, with an RFA, you’ve got a little more leverage in theory," MacLellan said. "And with a UFA, you don’t. I think it’s all situational. If we’re going to be successful and they’re a big part of our success, you don’t mind opening up negotiations early. Depending on the player and the agent, depending on their philosophy, if they like the situation, I think they're more open to negotiating before the end of the year."

Green presents the most intriguing case. He has thrived in his less strenuous role, resembling his former dynamic self. Yet it would be difficult to justify paying a third-pairing defenseman anywhere near Green's current $6.25 million salary, especially with $15.21 million of salary-cap space tied to Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and John Carlson.

Green has expressed his desire to stay and MacLellan was complimentary of his season to date. 

“I think he’s been good. I think he’s been really good," MacLellan said. "I think he’s had a good attitude. I think all our defensemen have had good attitudes. We have guys that are playing roughly 20 minutes a night, the five guys. Some teams have guys playing 30 minutes a night or close to 30 minutes a night. I think it’s benefitted our group as a whole to distribute the ice time more evenly. If we’re down a goal, Mike Green’s playing a little bit more. If we’re up a goal, he’s not playing as much.

"I think if you look at it as a group, it’s been a good experience for everybody. We don’t have anybody complaining about ice time."

While functioning as the Capitals' assistant general manager prior to his promotion in May, MacLellan had experience interacting with player agents, particularly in regards to free-agent contracts. Now, he has to field calls that may be a "little more confrontational" if an agent, for example, voices his client's displeasure about his particular role. 

Former general manager George McPhee's "adversarial relationship" with agents reportedly hindered Washington's ability to find long-term solutions. MacLellan, as he has since becoming general manager, stressed open lines of communication. 

"I'm easy to get along with," MacLellan said, chuckling. "I try to go about it as being as honest as I can. This is what your player is doing, here's where I see him, here's where he needs to improve and this is what the coaches see."

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