ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals’ season has a familiar feeling to it.
Through 43 games, the Capitals (27-12-4) are again in first place in the Metropolitan Division and have won three in a row heading into their home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, NBCSWA, FS-O, NHL.TV).
Though with 58 points they are 12 behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (34-8-2), who are running away with the best record in the NHL, that’s something they’ll worry about should they face them in the Eastern Conference Final again (they defeated the Lightning in seven games last season). At midseason, they believe they are in good position to make a run at repeating as Stanley Cup champions and matching the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Cup in 2016 and 2017.
“It feels similar to last year. Everything,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. “Probably a little less dips, for me, performance-wise from players, but I think we’re kind of in the same spot. We’re competing with eight, nine really good teams to see where we finish at the end of the year.”
But that doesn’t mean Washington isn’t searching for ways to upgrade its roster before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25.
“I don’t think we have any glaring weaknesses we’re going to try to address,” MacLellan said. “Normally, we’re looking for defensive help and defensive depth, you know, your five, six, seven guys. I feel comfortable where we’re at there, barring injury. I think our forward group is pretty solid. We have a lot of options that the coaches can use there.
“I think the only thing we’re going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group?”
MacLellan was asked multiple questions Friday about forward Andre Burakovsky, the Capitals’ first-round pick (No. 23) in the 2013 NHL Draft who has been mentioned as a potential trade target in recent reports. The 23-year-old has struggled again this season with nine points (five goals, four assists) in 38 games and was a healthy scratch for the fifth time this season for Washington’s 4-2 win at the Boston Bruins on Thursday.
“He’s taken a step back,” MacLellan said. “But we anticipate that he will find his game and become a better player after he goes through all of this.”
Whether that happens with the Capitals remains to be seen, but it’s clear they are looking to upgrade their bottom six forwards. Another area of concern is face-offs.
After losing Jay Beagle, their best center on draws (58.5 percent last season), as an unrestricted free agent to the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, the Capitals have won 46.2 percent of their face-offs, ranking last in the NHL entering Friday. Still, MacLellan said, “We’re not going to add a guy just to be a face-off specialist if he’s not a good enough player to play on our team.”
There was a time when Washington was willing to go all-in at the trade deadline and mortgage pieces of their future to try to win the Stanley Cup. An example of that was Feb. 27, 2017, two days before the deadline, when they acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, a potential unrestricted free agent, and goalie Pheonix Copley from the St. Louis Blues in a trade for 22-year-old forward Zach Sanford, minor league forward Brad Malone, a first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and conditional draft picks.
Washington lost to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round that season, and Shattenkirk signed with the New York Rangers on July 1, 2017.
The Capitals were less aggressive before the trade deadline last season and made what appeared at the time to be two minor deals, acquiring defenseman Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 19 for a conditional third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, and defenseman Jakub Jerabek from the Montreal Canadiens two days later for a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Kempny turned out to be a perfect fit alongside John Carlson on the second defense pair and helped the Capitals win the Cup.
“I think we’d be a little more conservative on giving assets away,” MacLellan said. “(In 2015-16 and 2016-17) we’d spend anything to get whatever [we needed].”
A big difference is that the Capitals know they don’t need a lot. Other than Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer (traded to the Colorado Avalanche on June 22), they have everyone back that dressed for their clinching win against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
That set them up to have a good chance at repeating, and MacLellan said he is apprehensive about doing anything that might alter their winning chemistry.
The hope is that with a roster tweak or two they’ll have enough to get past the Penguins and the Lightning or whichever team would be waiting for them in the conference final.
“I think people are trying to figure out who is available and what the costs are going to be,” he said. “It’s more just general discussions right now. I think as we get closer to the deadline and teams kind of figure out values and who [they’re] legitimately interested in, it will sort itself out.”