Photo: Blueshirt Banter
With the NHL Trade Deadline less than seven weeks away, the Washington Capitals have to determine which direction they will take and the degree in which they commit to it. Owner Ted Leonsis said that Washington will not rebuild with captain Alex Ovechkin on the roster but that does not mean staying pat is off of the table.
With a four-point cushion for a postseason spot, they will have games that will determine how active they will be on March 3. NoVa Caps looks at those games that will decide that.
Note: Washington’s game on February 25 against the New York Rangers, the final game before a four-game road trip which the trade deadline occurs during, marks the decision time because GM Brian MacLellan will need a bit of time to come up with a plan and talk to other teams about deals ahead of March 3. That will give him the entire week prior to do those things.
- Carolina Hurricanes (Tues 2/14 at WSH, Sat 2/18 at CAR) — Carolina is 17-3-3 (.804 points percentage) since Thanksgiving to vault themselves to a two-point lead for the Metropolitan Division. Though they lost four straight (0-3-1) this week, they bounced back with back-to-back wins.
- Boston Bruins (Sat 2/11 at BOS) — Though Boston leads the NHL with a 33-5-4 record (.833 points percentage) and a 20-1-3 record, they have an nine-point lead for the Eastern Conference lead and 11-point advantage for the Atlantic Division lead, meaning that they will not have much to play for. Both teams will also be coming off of their bye weeks with Washington set to play their first game in 11 days and Boston their first in 10, which could make for some sloppy hockey. Boston is 12-1-3 in their last 16 while goaltender Linus Ullmark leads the NHL in wins (23), save percentage (.936), and goals-against average (1.92).
- Toronto Maple Leafs (Sun 1/29 at TOR) — Toronto has been among the top teams in the NHL again this season as their 22-7-5 record (.721) since the start of November just trails Boston (.818). While Toronto is known for their potent offense, they have been tighter defensively this season as their 2.64 goals-against per game ranks fourth in the league. Toronto has a star-studded lineup with center Auston Matthews, center John Tavares, right-wing Mitch Marner, and right-wing William Nylander
Key Postseason Positioning
- Pittsburgh Penguins (Thurs 1/26 at WSH) — Pittsburgh has slowed down lately, losing their last two and eight of their last 10 (2-6-2), to fall outside of the top-eight in the Eastern Conference but they are still just four points behind Washington for the first wild-card spot with three games in hand. As long as centers Sidney Crosby (who has had a terrific season with 27 assists and 48 points in 42 games) and Evgeni Malkin (25 assists, 39 points) are in Pittsburgh, that team will always pose as a threat. These two teams have been neck-and-neck when it comes to postseason positioning over the past four seasons and expect that trend to continue.
- New York Rangers (Sat 2/25 at WSH) — New York leads Washington by three points for third place in the Metropolitan Division with two games in hand. They have points in six straight (5-0-1) and are 13-2-2 (.824) since December 4 but one of those regulation losses came to Washington by a score of 4-0 on December 27. Head coach Gerard Gallant showed frustration with his team after his game so this has to be a game circled on both teams’ calendar, especially New York’s.
- New York Islanders (Mon 1/16 at NYI) — New York was falling, going 1-4-1 in their previous six before a 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, but are just three points back of Washington with a game in hand. Like Boston, New York has one of the best goalies in the NHL this season in Ilya Sorokin (15-14-2, .927 save percentage, 2.25 goals-against average) and is very stingy defensively (2.66 goals-against per game is tied for fifth). This will mark the first of four games between the two teams this season with the last three coming after the trade deadline.
- Minnesota Wild (Tues 1/17 at WSH) — Minnesota has been one of the best teams in the NHL lately, going 17-6-2 (.720, the best in the Western Conference) since November 18 and winning their last two. Left-wing Kirill Kaprizov continues to be among the NHL’s elite as he ranks 11th with 25 goals and is in a tie for 13th with 52 points in 42 games. However, the Capitals will play in New York the previous night while Minnesota will have had the past two days off and will be in their hotel rooms in the nation’s capital while the Capitals fight in a pivotal division tilt, which could be a disadvantage for Washington but this is a very strong opponent nonetheless.
- Vegas Golden Knights (Sat 1/20 at VGK) — Vegas has come down to earth since a 13-2-0 start as they are 15-12-2 (.552 – tied for 19th) since November 12 but 6-3-1 in their last 10. Their mediocre record since mid-November dropped them behind the Seattle Kraken in points percentage (.667-.659) in the Pacific Division and Western Conference.
- Colorado Avalanche (Tues 1/24 at COL) — Colorado lost seven of their previous eight (1-6-1) before taking out their frustration in a 7-0 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. While right-wing Gabriel Landeskog, right-wing Valeri Nichushkin, defenseman Josh Manson, and defenseman Bowem Byram have all been out of the lineup, this team has fallen out of the top eight in the West but they are still the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Defenseman Cale Makar remains his play at a high level with 11 goals and 40 points while averaging a league-high 27:20 time-on-ice per game in 41 contents.
Contracts: Washington has a bit of breathing room (just over $7 million) with defenseman John Carlson, left-wing Carl Hagelin, and right-wing Connor Brown all on long-term injured reserve but would be over the salary cap if Carlson plays another regular-season game. That would likely lead to a salary cap casualty/ies (center Lars Eller? Left-wing Anthony Mantha?) to make room to activate Carlson, let alone add more player/s to the NHL roster.
Free Agency: Washington has only 10 skaters signed for 2023-24, including just one defenseman (Carlson), with many important pieces such as left-wing Conor Sheary, center Dylan Strome (restricted), left-wing Sonny Milano, and defensemen Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, and Martin Fehervary (restricted) in need of new deals. This could make the team reluctant to take on any players with term left at the deadline unless he is a significant upgrade over the player he would replace for next season.
While Washington is currently holding down a postseason ticket, they are currently getting help with New York (Islanders) and Pittsburgh currently on losing streaks as they have hit a bit of a rut since having to re-assign center Aliaksei Protas and left-wing Joe Snively to the AHL’s Hershey Bears. It is understandable considering the mix of players they had were playing well and the (welcome) additions of right-wing Tom Wilson and center Nicklas Backstrom forced line changes to a group that was going very well. However, they must ensure that a small slump does not turn into anything more and these are their opportunities to prove it.
By Harrison Brown