“Retool” or “Rebuild”?: Reviewing The Last Six Months Of The Capitals Roster Mangement

After the Washington Capitals decided to be “sellers” at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline for the first time in more than a decade, the team and General Manager Brian MacLellan decided to embark on a journey of significant restructuring of the Capitals roster. Some may call the idea of selling off assets at the trade deadline the start of a rebuild, but I’m not sure that’s where the Capitals are quite yet, especially with some assurances made to Alex Ovechkin that the Capitals would construct a competitive team around him throughout the duration of his current contract.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the tell-tale signs of a rebuild, what a retool may entail, and then where the Capitals lie in all this. On top of that, we’ll take a look at what the Caps have accomplished in terms of icing a more competitive team next season, or instead, what they’ve missed on so far this off-season.

Rebuild or Retool?

In my opinion, there’s a few key identifying factors that define a team that’s entering a rebuild. These are:

  1. Mass selling of trade-able current assets for future draft picks or prospects.
  2. Target veteran role players on short term deals in free agency or the trade market to hit the salary cap floor and give younger players a model for leadership.
  3. Promote and give big minutes to promising prospects.

I think the only real area where the Capitals have really hit on for a “rebuilding” status is point number 2. They went out and signed veteran winger Max Pacioretty to a one-year, bonus-laden contract in free agency, and acquired veteran defenseman Joel Edmundson in a trade with Montreal. Once Pacioretty recovers from his Achilles injury, we can pretty safely assume that both the new faces in DC will play significant minutes.

The jury is still out on number 3, and really depends on how some of the more promising young players in the Capitals’ system show out in training camp. The players to keep an eye out for here are Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas (even though he got significant run last season), and Beck Malenstyn.

Overall, I don’t really see the Capitals as pure sellers or as a rebuilding team entering the season. It seems like a team that’s hinging on some key veterans having better luck with the injury bug and having some bounce back seasons. If the Capitals were truly selling or looking to enter a rebuild, we likely would have seen players like Evgeny Kuznetsov or Anthony Mantha moved out for futures instead of being potential bounce-back candidates.

For teams in a retool, I think of the following identifying factors:

  1. Playing young players when and where it makes sense.
  2. Staying the course in terms of keeping core players on the roster.
  3. Making more conservative trades and free agent signings that don’t lock in players for long term contracts.
  4. Holding onto your own first and second round picks as insurance if the team doesn’t make the playoffs.

In terms of a retool, the team is looking for NHL-ready young talent (and vets on short term deals like Pacioretty and Edmundson) to contribute immediately. For rebuilding teams, immediate NHL contribution isn’t necessarily on the top of their priority list (with an exception for Connor Bedard). The trade to acquire Rasmus Sandin from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2023 trade deadline is more akin to a move that a retooling team looks to complete. In Sandin, the Capitals got a 23 year old offensive defenseman that has several years of team control remaining and was in need of a bigger role.

RELATED: “I Think Our Mindset Going Into It Was We Were Going to Try and Trade For Young Players If the Opportunity Presented Itself”: Brian MacLellan on the Capitals’ Trade Deadline Approach

There’s some key spots in the lineup where we might see some younger players get some significant ice time, especially on the second line left wing while Pacioretty is out. Depending on how Carbery constructs his line combinations, there could even be a spot on the second line right wing position, or either wing on the third line.

The Capitals didn’t go out and make a significant trade this off-season, like the Pittsburgh Penguins did in acquiring reigning Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson. Obviously the Penguins missed the playoffs last season, but they also had a better cap situation with their aging veteran core taking much more team friendly deals than the Capitals’ core received.

Evaluating the Capitals Roster Management

On one hand, I would have welcomed a trade that brought in a young, top-six goal scorer to infuse both youth and finishing to the Caps’ top two lines. On the other, there’s not a ton of teams that are looking to sell those types of players because of their untapped potential and typically more team friendly cap hits. Those types of trades would require pretty substantial assets, and the Capitals don’t necessarily have the assets in terms of current NHL players to make a trade like that work.

The piece that’s interesting to me is that MacLellan is typically pretty aggressive in achieving his perceived top objectives. My top examples for that point are when he was first hired as GM, and went out and signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik after identifying the defensive group’s weakness, and going after Darcy Kuemper last off-season when the team clearly needed a veteran, starting caliber goaltender. It feels like MacLellan was fairly conservative this time around, which means that he’s either banking on players like Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Mantha to have bounce back seasons under a new coach in Carbery, or he’s waiting to see how the team performs up to the trade deadline to make more aggressive moves.

With the Capitals’ salary cap complications, it’s pretty difficult to add top-six quality players, especially those true game-breaking talents. Pacioretty and Edmundson are low-risk acquisitions that could either help the Capitals back into the playoffs, or be trade fodder when the trade deadline rolls around.

Overall, it feels like the Capitals are very much in a “wait and see” mode right now. I don’t necessarily disagree with that approach because being very aggressive in trying to acquire players in the trade market could extend the rebuild we all know is coming in the next couple seasons. Three to four years of painful rebuilding to get back into the playoff mix is a lot more palatable than five to seven years.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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10 Responses to “Retool” or “Rebuild”?: Reviewing The Last Six Months Of The Capitals Roster Mangement

  1. Anonymous says:

    Pittsburgh = retool. Washington = rebuild.

    Rebuilding now is the right move.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The salary cap constraints have helped MacLellan determine rebuild timeline. March was the right time to start.

  3. franky619 says:

    Miss, a total miss, they’re gonna run it back again really. Defense needed an upgrade, He could have made a pitch for Dumba or Graves or Klingberg, instead he gave 7 mil to TVR and Jensen. Mantha or Backstrom needed to be bought out to get cap room. Holding on to prospect which are most likely are never gonna be regular NHLer let alone impactful ones is only hurting the team. The only way to get good players, difference maker like Lindholm is to trade 1st round pick and prospect. Mcmicheal’s value has never been so low, not even a 1st rounder in most redraft and ranked 161st player under 23 by Pronman. Bad offseason.

    • Anonymous says:

      Caps aren’t going to buy out backie, maybe mantha but he has only one year left. Why prolong it. They had their shot in 2016-17 with team friendly deals for backie etc and didn’t get it done. Thx God for 2018.

  4. GR in 430 says:

    There are many questions about this Caps team, and training camp will start to reveal some of the answers. Are Wilson and Backstrom fully recovered, and is the latter still a top-level NHL player even when healthy? Do Kuznetsov and Mantha really want to play this year?

    If the answer is “no” to most of these questions, are the Caps kids ready to step up? Will the Caps senior management give them the chance to step up, even if it means eating large guaranteed salaries?

    I don’t think anybody knows the answers to these questions — even the players themselves. Let’s see what happens over the next 5-6 weeks. It is possible, though probably not likely, that there could be much more roster turnover by the end of camp than we currently envision.

    No matter what, the rebuild will have to start in no more than two years, as there’s no way Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Mantha or Dowd get new contracts, at least not for the Caps and definitely not at anything near what they currently are paid. After three years, Ovechkin, Carlson, TVR and Jensen will all be gone. That’s half the current roster at least, and all the big salaries gone except Kuemper, Wilson and Strome. The Caps at that point will be a completely different team — and probably not a very good one.

    But as argued by several of you above, they probably aren’t a very good one this year, and we’ll see if Ted is willing to start the tear-down now (make no mistake… this is Ted’s call, not GMBM’s).

  5. Anonymous says:

    12 days and a butt until Caps Rookie Camp

  6. Anonymous says:

    The key player for the Caps is Kuzy. If he decides to show up and play, good things have resulted for this team..see Kuzy ’18. We know Lav and Kuzy just didn’t mix, but very excited about the impact Carbury may have with Kuzy. Kuzy is worth every penny when motivated. All the pessimistic fans wanting Kuzy traded just haven’t been realistic…even Trotz wasn’t willing to give enough. The offers just weren’t there compared to the potential in keeping him and hoping for gelling with Carbury. Same goes for Mantha. Nobody even wanted him. I would much rather have Kuzy over Ryan Johannson or Matt Duchene, and seems like we would have had to give up draft picks or retain salary to trade Mantha. And Backy deserves the opportunity to show us what he has.

    With all that, it is a very challenging scenario to improve upon the top 6 with those obstacles. Getting Max was a slick move, in my opinion. A healthy team along with improved performance from those 3 mentioned above will tell the story this season. Adding a healthy Max could really get things rolling, if everything goes right. There are plenty of ifs, but it is not far fetched as many make it sound. On paper, we should have an improved PP, improved goal scoring all around with full season of Wilson, healthy Backy, old form Max, healthy Oshie, and motivated Kuzy. McMichael should be better statistically than Eller last year, improved performance from Protas, and even new 4th line looks promising. We have a full season from Rasmus, and new addition in Edmundson, and a healthy Carlson, compared to last year, versus losing Orlov. We will definitely miss Orlov, but not too bad with the D changes.

    Kuemper should have some better D protection, and overall Forward play(on paper) should also improve both offensively and defensively. It also seems Kemp’s will be motivated for an improved season, too.

    I know we’re not as talented as New Jersey or Carolina, but not so concerned about Rangers or Islanders. Columbus will be improved, but Flyers will not. Penguins getting EK is interesting, but they have some age and injuries to battle thru.

    Caps are in a nice scenario…if all goes as well as Im hoping for, we could be buyers again for back to playoffs(and could be extra sweet blocking the Pens), and if not, the Caps would be sellers getting possibly nice returns for Mantha, Kuzy, Max, or others.

    I really believe Ovi and this team wants to win and get to playoffs over as many of these fans state, get Ovi the scoring title. They know Ovis goals will come regardless, but the motivation is to win. When the Caps were eliminated, even Ovi lost his motivation. (Last year). We still have Ovi, Oshie, Wilson, Carlson, hopefully motivated Kuzy, a nice add on in Strome, hopefully typical healthy Max, and the rest.

    So, as many pessimistic fans want the rebuild as in years ago, it is just an unrealistic suggestion. Try telling that to Sid Crosby, as he walks out the door to another team…same would go for Ovi, and good luck getting players to want to come, without higher demands in any future negotiations. Caps are still an organization players don’t include on their NTC lists, unlike some other organizations. A true rebuild would be obvious in a complete selloff, when and if the situation presents. But, I think the Caps management has done quite well. The increased salary Cap and the freed up money coming over the next year, 2 years, and 3 years could pay nice dividends with some bold opportunities. Just think if the Caps landed Debrincat if they didn’t have Mantha and his contract to deal with. (See next year)

    Good luck this year Caps, I’m pulling for you, as my eyes will mostly be on Kuzy, Backy, and Mantha to see this all happen.

    • Prevent Defense says:

      The above is an excellent and accurate analysis of the Caps 23-24 season! Between this commenter and 1 or 2 others, this forms the Vocal Minority who evaluate the Caps as having a chance to be really good this season. The negative commenters, 10-15 of them, think we’re all smoking dope. So be it!

      Vocal Minority sees the Caps as having an excellent roster, healthy players, an effervescent and positive new coach, and mucho motivation. Each side’s argument has its merits. I offer this examination of Caps’ competition: The pundit class insists that CAR, BOS, NJD, PIT, NYR and TBL are all manifestly superior to the Washington Capitals. I say that all six of these “powerhouse” teams will struggle to meet their fans and the pundits’ expectations!

      The NHL Eastern Conference is completely up-for-grabs this season, and with effective effort, the Caps can barge their way into the playoff conversation. 38 days until Opening Night vs PIT!

      • horn73 says:

        Here here anonymous and prevent defense. I’ve never wanted to know who was behind an anonymous post as I do now!!

        And above in GR’s post, the only certain no is first question of 2nd paragraph….no young guys coming up to impact the top 2 lines so…

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