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:
- Mass selling of trade-able current assets for future draft picks or prospects.
- 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.
- 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:
- Playing young players when and where it makes sense.
- Staying the course in terms of keeping core players on the roster.
- Making more conservative trades and free agent signings that don’t lock in players for long term contracts.
- 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.
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