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What is Brian MacLellan's plan as the Vegas expansion draft approaches?

What is Brian MacLellan's plan as the Vegas expansion draft approaches?

This offseason will be one of the most fascinating in recent memory because of Vegas and the expansion draft. This will be the first expansion draft of the salary cap era meaning it will be a new process for every general manager. Every team, based on its roster and goals for next season, will approach the expansion draft with a different plan.

So what is Brian MacLellan’s plan?

First, he has to decide who to protect. Each NHL team has the option of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie. MacLellan told reporters in his final media availability of the season that he will be taking the first option.

Here is a projection of what the Caps’ protected list may look like.

Philipp Grubauer, Nate Schmidt, Jay Beagle and either Tom Wilson or Lars Eller will likely be exposed, all players the Caps would hate to lose.

The question MacLellan will have to answer is whether any of these players are valuable enough for him to attempt any backdoor deals to try to encourage Vegas to take somebody else. The problem is guessing who Vegas General Manager George McPhee will want to take so you are not offering him something in order to avoid a player he was not really considering anyway.

RELATED: 20 questions: Which D prospects will make an impact?

In his final media availability of the season, MacLellan told reporters he would talk to McPhee sometime close to the draft just to get an idea of what he was thinking, but he also tempered expectations saying, “I’m not sure George is going to be willing to tell me what player he wants.”

Some have speculated that because MacLellan and McPhee are friends, McPhee may be more willing to make a favorable deal for the Caps. I’m not buying it. McPhee has a job to do building a roster from scratch. I do not see him going out of his way to help the team that fired him, regardless of he is now in charge.

So MacLellan will be left to guess what McPhee is thinking. The two most likely players to be taken based on the list above will be Grubauer or Schmidt. There is a case to be made that Vegas could try to sign away top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, but if there is interest in him McPhee will almost certainly take his chances in free agency. I would be surprised if he takes any UFAs in the expansion draft at all.

Grubauer’s contributions last season should not be overlooked, but ultimately the team would be able to survive losing its backup goalie especially since the team already believes it has its future starter in prospect Ilya Samsonov. If Grubauer is going to be a starter somewhere, it will not be in Washington.

Schmidt would be the tougher pill to swallow considering he is someone MacLellan has already said will move into the top-four next season on defense. If MacLellan is worried he could be taken, he could try to make a deal with McPhee to protect him and no, that deal will not be for Brooks Orpik. I have heard this theory and it is ridiculous.

“Please don’t take your top choice from my team and in exchange I will give you an aging defenseman with a massive cap hit." That’s not going to happen, but more on this later.

The problem with trying to make a deal with Vegas is that MacLellan does not have much to offer in return. The Caps are going to need prospects to step into important roles next season so they have little to spare within the system. They also do not have a draft pick until the fourth round in this year’s draft. Even though it may not take much to convince McPhee to take Grubauer over Schmidt, is the team really willing to trade away yet another draft pick to make sure of it? That seems doubtful.

One thing that should also be considered is whether MacLellan tries to pull off a major trade before the expansion draft. If you want to make a major shakeup after another disappointing postseason result, MacLellan could trade another defenseman, one the team would be likely to protect. That way, the team could still protect Schmidt while also making a major change so many have called for in the wake of continued playoff struggles. The most likely candidate would be John Carlson, someone with major standing around the NHL in whom MacLellan could find major value.

This depends on just how high MacLellan feels Schmidt's ceiling is and whether or not he wants a major shakeup going into next season. If he just wants to retool, then this won't happen. It's a longshot to be sure, but the team's inability to protect Schmidt does raise the question of just how far MacLellan will be willing to go to make sure he remains a Cap.

One trade related to Vegas that seems doubtful is moving Orpik. Orpik’s play on the ice has reached a point in which he is not living up to the $5.5 million cap hit his contract carries. McPhee essentially declared Vegas open for business when it comes to teams looking to move these type of big contracts, but that is unlikely to happen with Orpik. Both MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz have been very consistent on how much they value Orpik’s leadership in the locker room and I have not gotten any sense that this option is even being considered. Even if they did want to try to trade Orpik, it will cost them and we have already established the Caps do not have much to offer Vegas.

So what will MacLellan ultimately do? Perhaps nothing.

MacLellan hinted to reporters that he may take a more reactive view of the draft saying, “We’re going to lose one [player]. We’re going to have to react after they pick their player. We’re going to have to fill a hole. Whatever player they pick, we’re going to have to try and fill that hole.”

It certainly sounds like MacLellan is not willing to create one hole just to fill another.

MORE CAPITALS: 20 questions: What should the Caps do about their No. 2 goalie?

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Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Since taking over as the head coach of the Washington Capitals, Todd Reirden has had to deal with Tom Wilson getting suspended, a number of injuries and a team-wide Stanley Cup hangover.

So how would he describe the start to his first season as an NHL coach?

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview.

Reirden’s playing career came to an end in Europe in 2007, but his coaching career really began in 2004 while he was a player with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. Out with an injury, head coach Todd McLellan encouraged Reirden to take more of a coaching role with the team. It didn’t take long for Reirden to realize his real future in the game was as a coach and not as a player.

Reirden climbed the ranks as a coach from college, to the AHL and finally to the NHL. He spent the last eight seasons in the NHL behind the bench as an assistant and associate coach before finally getting the opportunity to become a head coach.

“Something when you start coaching just as I used to think about as a player, was the ultimate was to be able to play at the highest level,” Reirden said. “I was able to do that as a player and now able to see that dream come true as a coach. First things first is it's been amazing from that standpoint.”

The history of the NHL – and all professional sports for that matter – is full of assistant coaches who just could not make the transition from assistant to head coach. There is no doubt Reirden knows what he’s doing when it comes to the development of players and on-ice strategy. The last few years working with the Caps as an assistant and then associate coach have shown us that.

But being a head coach is about more than just what happens on the ice. That’s the part that first-year head coaches seem to struggle with initially.

“How everything works behind the scenes in terms of organizationally, dealing with the salary cap and sending down players, keeping them on board and the constant contact with Hershey,” Reirden said. “You spend a lot of time on those type of things. It's been a little bit of a transition too I would say with two new staff members in terms of how I'm delegating responsibility and empowering them in their particular areas. That's probably been the things that have been the most different for me.

“The hockey part, the coaching part, talking to the players in between periods, the media, that stuff has all gone really smoothly,” Reirden said. “No real transition there. But I'd say more the stuff behind the scenes is the stuff that's been a little bit different than expected.”

Reirden is certainly getting a crash course on roster construction given the recent spate of injuries and recalls. That has unquestionably affected the play of the team and is a major reason why the Caps have looked so inconsistent to start the season. It is not how Reirden would have scripted his first season to start.

But even with everything his first season has thrown at him and a 9-7-3 record, Reirden still feels like he is exactly where he wants to be.

“Every day is a chance for me to grow and get better and get used to responsibilities as a head coach,” Reirden said. “So it's been a lot of fun and definitely a challenge, but something I love and wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world for.”

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

On November 16, 2017, the Washington Capitals were handed a brutal 6-2 loss in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. It was the second blowout loss the team had suffered in as many games and dropped the Caps’ record to 10-9-1. That moment would be the low point of the season.

A year to the day, the Caps returned to Denver. They were given every reason to quit Friday and repeat last year’s disastrous result and yet, the Caps rallied for a 3-2 overtime win to improve their record to 9-7-3.

Coming off a loss Wednesday in Winnipeg, Washington found out earlier on Friday that the team would be without both T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who had both suffered injuries against the Jets. In net, Braden Holtby was out as well meaning the Caps would have to turn to backup goalie Pheonix Copley for his third start in as many games. Backing him up would be Ilya Samsonov, a highly touted prospect but a player without a single minute of NHL experience.

And, just in case that all did not seem daunting enough, the Caps also spotted the Avalanche a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game.

One year ago, the Caps gave up the first goal of that game just 17 seconds in. When Colorado scored early again, it felt like Friday’s game was going to end up being just like that blowout loss from a year ago.

But it didn’t.

“We were shorthanded, everyone stepped up,” Tom Wilson said. “We talked about guys stepping up before the game and we got it done.”

The Capitals battled back and took control of the game in the first and second periods, tallying two goals to take a 2-1 lead. A late goal by Colorado would tie the game, but Todd Reirden reminded his players of what happened in Montreal – a game in which the Caps gave up three goals in the final four minutes of the game to lose 6-4 – and challenged them not to let that happen again. The team responded.

With all the momentum on the side of the Avalanche, Devante Smith-Pelly drew a holding penalty with less than two minutes remaining and Nicklas Backstrom would score on the resulting power play in overtime.

“When you have a lot of guys hurt, it was nice to see that we really got together, played a good defensive game, everyone was on the same page and blocking shots and doing all the little things right,” Backstrom said.

The game was reminiscent of the Game 6 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season. With one win separating them from advancing to the conference final, Washington had to somehow find a way to beat their biggest rival in Pittsburgh and they had to do it with no Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson. When their backs were against the wall, the Caps responded and managed to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-1 in overtime.

“It was important for guys to step up in different situations with obviously very key guys out, but we did it in the playoffs,” Smith-Pelly said. “We had key guys out at times. I guess this group is used to guys coming in and out and stepping up.”

The Caps returned most of their Stanley Cup winning roster for the 2018-19 season and fans have been waiting for this year’s team to start playing like last year’s again. A record of 8-7-3 heading into Friday’s game was hardly what people expected from this team early on.

But the win in Colorado was one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, and perhaps the closest Washington has come since the 7-0 win in the opener to looking like that championship squad. Not because they looked dominant – they didn’t – but because when their backs were against the wall, you saw what this team was really made of mentally. Every time they were challenged in the playoffs – whether it was going down 2-0 to Columbus, playing the unbeatable Penguins, facing elimination against Tampa Bay or facing the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights – the Caps responded.

On Friday, Washington was challenged and again, and the Caps responded.

Last year’s game in Colorado proved to be a turning point. The team was at a cross-roads. They could check out and watch the inevitable coaching and roster shakeup happen, or they could rally to save the season. The Caps made a choice and the rest is history.

Maybe Friday’s game will mean nothing in the greater context of the 82-game season, or maybe this game will again prove to be a turning point. Maybe in the spring we will again circle Nov. 16 and remember it as the game in which the defending champs put the rest of the league on notice that they’re still here, they’re still the champs and they’re not going down without a fight.

“Every time we have injuries, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get other guys to get that opportunity,” Backstrom said. "I thought we played pretty good today, we didn’t give them a whole lot. That was a nice win, we needed that.”