The NHL Trade Feadline is less than a month away and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has a dilemma on his hands. With two elite stars on an aging playoff team, Washington has to go all-in on one last Stanley Cup run before Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom really start to regress.
But as the team has fallen short of expectations this season, MacLellan also has to keep on eye on the team's future. As a result, MacLellan finds himself less inclined to mortgage the future for the present.
"I don’t know that we’re going to be as aggressive as we’ve been in the past," MacLellan said Wednesday.
From the start of 2022, the Caps have hardly looked like a Stanley Cup contender. Yes, the team is coming off two very strong wins against the Carolina Hurricanes and Seattle Kraken. Even with those two wins, however, Washington is not even a .500 hockey team in the calendar year with a record of 10-12-2.
The Caps are fourth in the Metropolitan Division trailing the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins by eight points. Washington is likely headed for a wild card spot in the postseason meaning a first-round matchup against a division winner.
“It’s frustrating, disappointing," MacLellan said of the team's struggles this season. "You know, I think the first part of the year I really liked what we were doing. Liked our defense, liked the goaltending, liked everything about our game. I don’t know how we got out of sync. The team game sort of got out of sync with guys going in and out of the lineup, lineups changing and then we kind of lost our rhythm, lost our way."
With all of this in mind, it will take more than just two wins to convince MacLellan the team is back on track.
Because of Washington's struggles over the past two months, MacLellan expects to take a different approach to this year's trade deadline than he has in recent years.
The Caps are going to be cautious.
"My mindset would be is we're not as aggressive as we normally are," MacLellan said. "I think [a trade] really has to make sense."
So what does this mean?
A team with Stanley Cup aspirations will typically trade away draft picks and prospects to acquire players at the trade deadline to gear up for a Cup run. They have a short-term outlook to compete so they bring in current players at the expense of assets that will pay dividends in the future.
When asked if the team's play this season has changed his long-term plays, MacLellan said, "I'd be less inclined to trade prospects because they're going to be playing here sooner rather than later."
It's easy to see this as waving the white flag on the season, but MacLellan was also quick to say that he did intend to look for deals that could improve the team. There were also parts of the roster in which he felt satisfied such as the team's defensive depth.
The difference is that this year, the cost of making those moves in terms of trade assets is going to factor into MacLellan's decision-making much more than in years past.
"Sometimes just to add depth pieces we might overpay a little bit because we felt we have a good team and we’re going to go a long way and we just need players," MacLellan said. "I don’t know that we’re in that mode, but we’d still like to improve the team.”