It looked like the Washington Capitals were going to run away with the Metropolitan Division again this year, but that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. As of right now, they’re no longer in the top spot. What can they do to get the division crown back?
The team that’s now slightly ahead of them, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have been aggressive over the last few weeks. Pens GM Jim Rutherford swung a deal for winger Jason Zucker and that seems to have helped improve their roster. And it sounds like they’d be open to making another move or two before Monday’s trade deadline.
The Capitals sacrificed a second-round pick in 2020 and a conditional third-rounder in 2021 to land Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks this week. That’s a smart move by general manager Brian MacLellan, but is it enough to get the Caps out of the rut they’re currently in?
Washington has dropped three games in a row and they have just one win in their last six games. Since the start of February, they have a 2-5-1 record.
In fairness, they were without center Evgeny Kuznetsov for three games against Colorado, Arizona and Vegas. He managed to return to the lineup against Montreal on Thursday, but the Caps still dropped an OT decision on home ice to the struggling Canadiens.
“We’re going to pursue anything that we think can make us better,” MacLellan said. “We’ll continue to talk to teams. We’ve had conversations. We’ll keep doing it and see if we can make our team better.”
When asked about his team’s defense’s struggles, MacLellan added that he felt it wasn’t just his blue liners that were were having a hard time in that area. He pointed out that the forwards make life difficult for themselves when they don’t have the puck. In short, his point was that the team’s overall play has slipped of late.
The Caps know they can keep up offensively with every team in the league. The question is whether or not they can keep the puck out of their own net. They’ve already added a defender, so it’s entirely possible that they’d be looking to add a two-way depth forward between now and Monday.
Options may or may not include:
• Nate Thompson – C – Montreal Canadiens: Thompson is responsible defensively, capable of killing penalties and he’s also great in the face-off circle. He could probably be had for a mid-round pick this year or in 2021.
• Jesper Fast – W – New York Rangers: Fast could be a perfect fit on Washington’s bottom two lines and he could move up in the lineup if ever they suffer a short-term injury.
• Derek Grant – C – Anaheim Ducks: Grant is having a heck of a year, as he’s scored 14 goals in 48 games (he’s on pace to score 20). He’s also chipped in three shorthanded markers in 2019-20. He’s also not making much money this year, so the Caps could fit him under the cap.
Again, those are just some of the options that could be available to MacLellan before Monday. Will any one of the players mentioned above help the Capitals keep the puck out of their own net? Sure, they may help a little bit. But the entire roster needs to figure out how to play defensively as a team.
If they can find a team that’s willing to take salary back or retain salary in a trade, they may be able to get a better player. Washington’s window to win is open right now. If that means they have to trade draft collateral and a top prospect or two to land a big fish on the market, they should do that. But with the clock ticking, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to make a splash of that magnitude. Would they love to get a Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa? Probably. That won’t be an easy trade for them to make right now.
Here’s the most important thing the Caps need to realize: Once you get into the playoffs, scoring tends to dry up a little bit. Once you have a lead, you need to know how to protect it. That’s what they need to figure out if they’re going to make a long run into June, again.
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.