The Washington Post
Never sellers at trade deadline, the Capitals must be this year
The Alex Ovechkin era — which, by the time it ends, may be more like the Alex Ovechkin eon — can’t conclude with a run toward Wayne Gretzky’s record if there’s a shambles of a roster around him. To score the 81 more goals it’ ll take to match Gretzky and the 82 it’ ll take to pass him, Ovechkin will need help. If he’s going to rocket home that many more from the left faceoff circle on the power play, someone’s going to have to feed it to him there. It’s an individual mark. It’s a team sport.
The constant during Ovechkin’s time with the Washington Capitals is, of course, his goal scoring. But since Ovechkin made his playoff debut a full 15 seasons ago, the other constant has been the Capitals going for it. This is the week of the NHL trade deadline. The Ovechkin Capitals always add.
So what’s up with this subtraction? It feels lousy. It’s smart.
Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway are gone. Conor Sheary might be by the time you’re done reading this column. Nick Jensen? Lars Eller? More? It’s all on the table. The deadline is 3 p.m. Friday. Currently, the Capitals are out of playoff position. General Manager Brian Maclellan isn’t working to return them there this spring — but rather in the springs to follow.
This is, in some sense, castor oil to swallow. The Capitals have missed the playoffs once in those past 15 seasons. And even that season (2013-14), then-general manager George Mcphee searched for a piece that might help with a run, trading for goaltender Jaroslav Halak at the deadline. It didn’t work out, and Mcphee and Coach Adam Oates
were fired at season’s end. Pushing the right buttons and pulling the right levers are imperative in these moments. Futures hang in the balance.
That shouldn’t be the case here, not with this team at this time, not with this GM and his handpicked coach, Peter Laviolette. That’s not to give Maclellan a pass. It’s acknowledging that — after a decade-and-a-half of going for it every single season — there’s a time to look in the mirror, honestly assess what you have and the circumstances you face and regroup, if not fully rebuild.
Ovechkin went through that build back when he was the centerpiece of it. Indeed, the last time the Capitals sold at the deadline — and this is astounding — was 2006-07: Dainius Zubrus to Buffalo for a first-round pick. That’s a long time to buy, buy and buy some more. Some of the moves — Cristobal Huet, Sergei Fedorov, Jason Arnott, Michal Kempny — worked out to various degrees. Some — hello, Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat — decidedly did not.
So what the Capitals are trying to do by selling — they already have three of Boston’s future draft picks, including this year’s first-rounder, for Orlov and Hathaway — is mortgage a tiny bit of the present (the next two months) for a slightly brighter future that can both sustain Ovechkin’s run at Gretzky but also win playoff series as Ovi grays. It’s tricky, and thinning the roster is the hard part, particularly if you’re the guy in the next stall who wants to win that night.
But Maclellan, according to someone who is familiar with the situation, has already sat down with Ovechkin and discussed the strategy. It’s painful and unfamiliar to punt on a season when Ovechkin is only under contract for three more, through 2025-26. But getting nothing for the expiring contracts of Orlov and Hathaway — not to mention Sheary, Jensen, Eller and more — would be worse.
Maclellan sees the glass neither as half-full nor as halfempty, because that requires an opinion based on emotion. He sees what is, because he is both wired and trained to think analytically and base his moves on the facts before him. When his own Stanley Cup-winning playing career was winding down, executives urged him to hang on in the minors with Detroit. All it took was one injury to get called up again, they said. The league was expanding, and he could find a job as a veteran presence on a baby club, they said.
“I was like, ‘Ah, it’s time to move on,’ ” Maclellan told me years ago. He was aging. He was hurting. He was slowing. “You have to be realistic, self-aware.”
That same thinking applies here. Maclellan constructed this Capitals roster and understood its limitations. When the season began, these Caps, Maclellan believed, weren’t among the league’s elite teams, but they were solidly in the next tier. The goaltending — with newcomers Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren — figured to be steadier. The forward lineup, with additions Connor Brown and Dylan Strome, looked deep. The blue line, led by John Carlson and Orlov, fit together nicely. The power play couldn’t be worse.
The main criticism of the roster was easy to identify — its age. Ovechkin is 37. Foundational center Nicklas Backstrom is 35 and was coming off major hip surgery. Locker room leader T. J. Oshie is 36. Carlson is 33. The team didn’t need hockey sticks as much as it did canes.
And if the Caps’ current record and position in the standings — three points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference before play began Monday — was a direct result of the team’s age, then fine: assign blame to the people who thought a creaky old crew could make a deep run in the playoffs, and move on.
But that’s not what happened here. Yes, Oshie has been in and out of the lineup, and Backstrom still needs time to become his old self — if he can ever get there.
But Carlson got hit in the head with a puck just before Christmas and won’t return till the last weeks of the season, if at all. Brown blew out his ACL in the fourth game of the year. Essential forward Tom Wilson missed three months with his own ACL tear suffered in last season’s playoffs — then took a shot off his ankle in his eighth game back, costing him three more weeks. There have been illnesses. There have been paternity leaves. There has been a lot.
Throw in Ovechkin’s absence to travel home to Russia to be with his family around the death of his father — an absence that coincided with a massive stretch against Carolina, Florida and Carolina again — and it started to feel as though the head winds were just blowing against this team at this time.
The objective, then, isn’t to sacrifice more of the future to make a feeble attempt at reaching the playoffs again if there’s no realistic chance of succeeding once there. The objective must be to try to build a future that can sustain both Ovechkin’s pursuit of history and the team’s annual forays into the postseason. In a Caps rarity, this isn’t a season to go for it. Make sure 2023-24 will be.