The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 29 which means general managers all over the NHL are hard at work trying to either make their teams better for a playoff run or strip their rosters bare for a future rebuild. For the Caps, there's a $5.5 million gorilla in the room that will determine what if anything the Caps intend to do at the deadline.
Brooks Orpik has not played since November due to a lower-body injury. It is believed that he is finally nearing his return and could be back in the lineup as early as Tuesday and the sooner the better for the Caps as his health will essentially determine general manager Brian MacLellan's deadline plan.
The Caps are deep at the forward position with plenty of depth in both the top and bottom six thanks to the addition of Mike Richards and Jay Beagle's pending return. But what about the defense?
If Orpik isn't ready at all, or returns and immediately suffers a setback and has to return to IR, MacLellan can be aggressive at the deadline and try to find a top four defenseman. A top four defenseman means a bigger cap hit, but this doesn't mean Orpik has to sit out of the playoffs. If he does return to health after the deadline has passed, the Caps could simply wait to activate him in the postseason after the salary cap ceiling no longer applies.
If Orpik returns and doesn't feel 100 percent or needs some time to get back into game shape, then MacLellan would have to approach the trade deadline a bit more cautiously. The choices here would be a bit more limited given Orpik's contract would be back on the books and the Caps would have to do some number crunching to add someone new to the lineup which means it would have to be a depth player.
Or MacLellan could do nothing.
If Orpik is healthy he may not return immediately to the top pairing, but it seems safe to assume the Caps' top six would be some combination of Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov with Taylor Chorney as a healthy scratch. Given how well both Orlov and Schmidt have played this season and how well Chorney acquitted himself in Orpik's absence, the Caps could feel comfortable with those seven defensemen heading into the playoffs. MacLellan could inquire about adding depth, but there's no reason to reach or overpay for anyone.
With Orpik nearing his return, the Caps have the flexibility to let the trade deadline pass them by as they continue to be one of the top teams in the NHL even without him. Just how good have they been? Find out here in this week's NHL Power Rankings.