Tom Gilbert

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Trade deadline: Caps only need to ‘upgrade on the fringes’

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The way the Washington Capitals have been steamrolling their opponents in 2017, it was no surprise to hear GM Brian MacLellan say he doesn’t expect to make major changes ahead of Wednesday’s trade deadline.

“This year, I don’t feel that pressure or that need to do anything,” MacLellan said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Tarik El-Bashir. “We’re not going to mess with lines or defensive pairs. If we can upgrade on the fringes, we might do it.”

The Caps have already added some defensive depth, acquiring Tom Gilbert last week in a trade with the Kings.

Gilbert is currently with AHL Hershey but could be called upon soon after Matt Niskanen was forced to leave last night’s win over the Flyers.

(Update: Gilbert is unlikely to be called up. The Caps want him to get going in the AHL first.)

MacLellan said today that Niskanen is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, adding that it wasn’t anything “serious.”

“We’ll make sure he’s 100 percent before he comes back,” the GM said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic.

The Caps’ next game is Friday at home to the Oilers. On Saturday, they’re in Nashville to take on the Predators.

Injury to Burakovsky allows Capitals to evaluate depth

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) If there was ever a good time for the Washington Capitals to go through an injury, it’s now.

That’s not a knock on Andre Burakovsky, who was a point-a-game player the last 14 games before a hand injury sidelined him until mid-to-late March. But without the 22-year-old forward, the Capitals get a chance to see what they have in youngsters like Zach Sanford, Jakub Vrana and others in case they’re needed in the playoffs.

Burakovsky was having a productive stretch when he took a slap shot to his right hand on Feb. 9, but his absence gives general manager Brian MacLellan several games to evaluate Washington’s depth ahead of the March 1 trade deadline

“Mac needs to know what we have and how comfortable we are with everybody there,” coach Barry Trotz said last week. “This last (24) games, it’s going to crank up another level. Some guys will thrive in that environment, and some guys will fall off. We’ve got to really try to find that out before the trade deadline. We feel fairly comfortable, but we’d still like to have more info.”

The Capitals lead the Eastern Conference by five points over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the example for finding silver linings in significant injuries. Last season, injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Beau Bennett and Marc-Andre Fleury opened the door for players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray to get quality NHL ice time and show what they could do under pressure.

Washington has been the healthiest team in the league this season, so opportunities for call-ups have been limited to nine games missed by top-line right winger T.J. Oshie, a handful of precautionary blips and now Burakovsky’s absence. Only 26 players have appeared in a game for the Capitals this season, tied for the fewest in the league, but if that luck runs out, they need to be prepared.

“It’s really important that you have guys who can step in, too, in case something happens to anyone,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who quietly is fourth in the league in scoring with 61 points.

The Capitals added to their depth on defense by acquiring Tom Gilbert from the Los Angeles Kings last week and stashing him with Hershey of the American Hockey League. Whether MacLellan seeks to make another depth move, especially up front, could depend on how Sanford does in Burakovsky’s place Wednesday at the Philadelphia Flyers and beyond.

The 22-year-old rookie had one point in his first 21 games before scoring in consecutive games upon his return.

“It’s good for a guy like (Sanford) to come in, he scores in back-to-back games, and get his confidence up a little bit because down the line we might need him to come in and be good and help us win,” forward Brett Connolly said. “There’s so many things that can happen. Guys can play poorly in the playoffs and they want to switch it up.”

The best candidates to be the 2017 versions of Sheary, Rust and Kuhnhackl are Sanford, Vrana, Tuesday call-up Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson and Liam O’Brien. Alex Ovechkin sees those players as more than capable of filling in if injuries happen.

“We have very good prospects and young talented players in Hershey, so they can jump in right away and play as good as they are,” Ovechkin said. “I hope nobody gonna get hurt, but it’s hockey. It’s a tough sport.”

Trotz said it’s a “next man up mentality” when injuries happen. But that next man has to be ready for the challenge, and Sanford can show that down the stretch and put his early-season confidence issues behind him.

“I think that’ll be huge for me,” Sanford said. “The playoffs are a whole different beast and hopefully when you get there if I get in (the lineup), hopefully the beginning of the season here and what we’re going through now helps me feel comfortable.”

Related: A rebuilt third line has been key for the Caps

 

Kings’ youth movement continues as prospect Kempe gets recalled

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L.A. is going green.

In the experience department, anyway.

Having jettisoned veteran d-man Tom Gilbert (traded to Washington) and forwards Teddy Purcell and Devin Setoguchi (waivers), the Kings have now recalled Adrian Kempe, their first-round pick from 2014.

Rookie defenseman Paul LaDue, who we wrote about extensively last week, is also back up with the club.

The big story here, though, is Kempe, the Swedish winger taken 29th overall in his draft year. He’s spent each of the last two seasons in AHL Ontario and while his numbers hardly jump off the page — just 11 goals and 19 points in 43 games this season — he’s only 20 years old, and caught the eye of head coach Darryl Sutter.

“With the hockey IQ he has and the speed that he has, the only adjustment is experience,” Sutter said earlier this season, per the L.A. Times. “He’s adjusted to the ice and you can see that. He’s a fun player to watch.”

The Kings are back in action Thursday, when they host Arizona. It’s possible Kempe could make his big league debut, something the 24-year-old LaDue did in a pre-bye week loss to Tampa Bay.

Kempe and LaDue aren’t the only youngsters working their way into the mix.

Another rookie d-man, Kevin Gravel, has appeared in 38 games this year, while Nick Shore (the club’s third-round pick in 2011) and Derek Forbort (first round, ’10) have become lineup regulars.

These changes are in lockstep with what Sutter alluded to upon signing an extension last summer. He said changes were inevitable, and that the organization had to work in a number of its farmhands.

“We have the good fortune now of the players playing in the American League playoffs that we’ve had up and down during the season,” Sutter explained. “They’re good players. That’s how you grow.

“You need those guys to make the same sort of impact that those boys [L.A.’s core players] made on our team. We need two or three of the next group to do it now. That is key for us.”

Shattenkirk heads list of UFA d-men who could be traded

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The Washington Capitals made a minor trade today, adding defenseman Tom Gilbert from the Los Angeles Kings in return for future considerations.

It’s a common transaction at this time of the year, with the trade deadline just two weeks away. Contenders like the Caps know injuries can hit in the playoffs, and an extra veteran d-man is a nice insurance policy. Last year, Roman Polak, John-Michael Liles, Kris Russell, Justin Schultz, and Jakub Kindl all found new teams in the run-up to the postseason.

This year, the list could include New Jersey’s Kyle Quincey, Carolina’s Ron Hainsey, Colorado’s Fedor Tyutin, Philadelphia’s Mark Streit, Buffalo’s Cody Franson, Buffalo’s Dmitry Kulikov, and Arizona’s Michael Stone. All are pending UFAs on teams currently outside the playoff picture.

Kulikov and Stone are the youngsters in that group, each just 26 years old. The former, however, may make suitors hesitant, as noted below by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of interest comes GM Tim Murray’s way forDmitry Kulikov. The defenceman has had a nightmare year since suffering a back injury when pushed into an open bench door during the pre-season.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” Kulikov said last weekend. “But I really don’t want to talk much about it.” Are you healthy now? “Yes,” he answered, although coach Dan Bylsma says Kulikov won’t practice every day. He’s also a free agent, but teams don’t really have a handle on where his game is.

Of course, the big UFA d-man is Kevin Shattenkirk. Back in January, St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong said he’d consider trading the puck-mover if the Blues were still stumbling through their season at the deadline.

“We don’t want to keep players here, hope to sneak into eighth place and get hammered in the first round,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong has since fired head coach Ken Hitchcock and replaced him with Mike Yeo, who seems to have the Blues headed in the right direction. Shattenkirk has four assists in his last four games, all St. Louis victories. The 28-year-old remains a big part of the Blues’ offense.

It begs the question: what kind of message would Armstrong be sending his players if he sold Shattenkirk for picks and/or prospects? After all, the Western Conference is pretty wide open this year, and Jake Allen is stopping the puck again. In the entire league, only four defensemen have more points than Shattenkirk’s 39.

“If something happens, then it happens,” said Yeo, “but until then, he’s on this team and he’s a real important player for us and he’s proven that.”

NHL scoring leaders: defensemen

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Trade: Caps acquire veteran d-man Gilbert from Kings

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Washington has added some depth ahead of the trade deadline, acquiring Tom Gilbert from Los Angeles for future considerations.

Gilbert, 34, cleared waivers at the beginning of the month after scoring just five points in 18 games this year. He’d signed on with the Kings last summer after two seasons in Montreal, but spent most of his time in L.A. in the press box as a healthy scratch.

He also missed three games to suspension for boarding Anaheim forward Nick Ritchie.

Earlier in his career, Gilbert was a decent offensive defenseman that racked up 45 points for the Oilers in ’08-09. But now, having suffered a season-ending knee ailment with the Habs last year, he looks to be a step slow. Hard to imagine he’s much more than a stopgap replacement should Washington suffer an injury on defense.

The Kings will retain 20 percent of Gilbert’s $1.4 million cap hit, according to Caps writer Mike Vogel.

As for the future considerations?