The 2019 NHL Draft is going to have a very different feel to it for the Capitals than in 2018. Just one year ago, Washington was still basking in the glow of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. The draft felt almost like an afterthought. This year, after a first-round exit and with the roster still influx given the team’s salary cap constraints, the draft weekend feels like a significant point in the offseason for general manager Brian MacLellan.
The draft can be a big weekend not just for setting the team up for the future, but also for the present. A lot of trades and business can happen when all the general managers get together. So just what is MacLellan thinking heading into the big weekend? While he would not reveal all his secrtes, MacLellan did reveal his basic strategy and mindset as he prepares for the draft to begin on Friday.
The Caps currently hold the 25th pick in what is expected to be a rather deep draft. Should they hold onto that pick, the need at forward is obvious. Washington has not selected a forward in the first round since taking Jakub Vrana in 2014. The lack of high-end offensive talent in the system seems to be catching up with them this year. With the team up against the salary cap, it will be hard to address the weakness of depth offense. This is where other teams would plug in their top offensive prospects into the bottom-six as cheap fix to fill out the roster.
Washington, however, does not seem to have any obvious prospect candidates who can step into those roles for the upcoming season.
When it comes to the NHL draft, however, it rarely makes sense to draft for need. The vast majority of players in the draft and even the majority of players in the first round will not play in the NHL in their first year after getting drafted. Many of those players will take several years to develop into being NHL players if at all so it makes no sense for MacLellan to draft for need when the needs of the team could be completely different once that player is ready to make the jump to the NHL.
While position would not be the only consideration, MacLellan certainly made clear that the team’s need at forward would certainly play a factor when considering who to take.
“I think it'll factor into our decisions unless we see a defenseman that's clearly above a forward that we like,” MacLellan said. “If the decision is close, I think we're going to go with the forward.”
The good news for Washington is that this draft is expected to be deep in terms of high-end offensive talent. The bad news is that those players could all be gone once the draft gets to Washington’s 25th pick. While the priority may be forward, MacLellan also said there were plenty of skilled defensemen who the scouts were really high on who could be available given how many forwards are expected to go early.
“There seems to be a section in that draft right after those forwards where there's quite a few good defensemen that the scouts really like,” MacLellan said. “You know, overall I think it's a pretty deep draft. A lot of guys are going to play and there's quite a few defensemen in the middle to late first-round that guys like. There's also a group of forwards that our guys like a lot and we're going to balance that decision between the two.”
Further complicating the team’s draft plan is whether or not MacLellan would be interested in moving the first-round pick in a bid to move up or down the draft.
With so many forwards expected to be taken early, that could signal MacLellan would want to trade up to ensure he can snag one, but there are also reports that Washington is focused strictly on winning now.
Elliotte Friedman reported in his 31 Thoughts column that other teams believe the Caps to be in “go for it” mode. In those situations, you typically see teams dangle draft picks as trade bait.
MacLellan tried to play down those rumors by saying the team is always trying to win.
“I don't know that we're ever not in an all-in situation,” he said. “We view ourselves as a contender for the Cup and we want to put the best team forward and make the best decisions to do that. I think we have some good players and some players that are getting a little bit older but are still high-end quality players and we want to surround them with the best team possible.”
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