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Here’s What The Capitals Are Looking For With Trade Deadline Looming

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Capitals GM Brian MacLellan

ARLINGTON, V.A. — Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan knows what the team’s objectives are with the trade deadline just weeks away.

MacLellan acknowledged that the Capitals need to get better, and said that the new year has seen the team get “out of sync.”

“At the beginning of the year, I would say we’re [a] legit contender. There’s probably three, four teams that are at the next level but we’re not next level, we’re at the high end of that next level of teams. Now I’d say that we’re at the low level of that next level of teams. And we need to improve. We need to get back to where we were,” MacLellan explained.

Since the start of 2022, Washington has seen a nosedive. The team has gone 8-12-2 over 22 games over the last two months and has fallen from atop the Metropolitan Division to the second Wild Card spot in the East. Meanwhile, a red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets team is closing in and has games in hand, and could be a threat to the Capitals’ playoff security.

Washington’s .409 winning percentage since the start of January is also the seventh-worst in the league.

Given the team’s struggles, MacLellan said that the Capitals are going to focus on making deals that “make sense” for the team rather than being big buyers at the deadline just for the sake of buying.

“I don’t know that we’re going to be as aggressive as we’ve been in the past,” MacLellan explained. “Sometimes just to add depth pieces, we might overpay a little bit because we felt like we have a good team and we’re going a long way and we just need players. I don’t know that we’re in that mode, but we’d still like to improve the team.”

READ MORE ON WHN: Hagelin Undergoes Surgery For ‘Serious’ Eye Injury Suffered At Capitals Practice

When it comes to where to improve, MacLellan was transparent. There are two areas of the lineup that Washington needs an upgrade with: the second and third lines, and the goaltending.

Looking at the middle-6, there hasn’t exactly been a constant combination on either the second or third line. On the second line, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are still trying to get back up to game speed after returning from long-term injuries. Anthony Mantha will also be drawing back in soon.

Meanwhile, the third line raises even more questions. The Capitals have seen multiple wingers switch in and out with Lars Eller at center on that trio, including Connor McMichael, Daniel Sprong and other call-ups. Joe Snively was most recently there but is now week-to-week with a lingering upper-body injury.

“It’s in constant fluctuation,” MacLellan said of the second and third forward lines. “I don’t know that we have a good enough identity in that middle-6.”

MacLellan also discussed Sprong and McMichael’s play as the team seeks more secondary scoring and responsibility from the middle-6.

“I think in pockets [Sprong’s] played really well. Obviously the goal-scoring, his natural talent, he’s got one of the best releases or shots in the league. He can score goals from pretty much anywhere,” MacLellan said. “I think the coaches would like to see details in his game. They would be more concerned with the details in his game than the goal-scoring. At times, he provides that. And at times, he doesn’t.

“McMichael, he’s a young player, he’s still finding his way. I would’ve had him penciled in in the American League at the beginning of the year… He had a real good start, probably stalled a little bit, but has done a great job for a young player,” MacLellan added. “His skating has improved, his pace of play has improved. It’s just a matter, for me, his physical maturity. He’ll be more effective as he gets older.”

MacLellan did add, though, that having Oshie and Backstrom back, and seeing Mantha hopefully return soon, should provide more clarity. However, there is now uncertainty with regard to the fourth line and penalty kill.

Carl Hagelin is out for an extended period of time after undergoing surgery for a “serious” eye injury. Hagelin suffered the injury at the end of Tuesday’s skate.

WHN FEATURES: From Amsterdam To D.C., Sprong Continues ‘Awesome Ride’ With Capitals

Then, of course, comes the goaltending situation. MacLellan acknowledged that it hasn’t been the best for Washington this season, with Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek unable to steal control of the Capitals crease. Samsonov has been unable to find consistency and has flashes of greatness followed by poor showings. Vanecek, meanwhile, has had strong performances and even started to get into a rhythm. However, bouts with COVID-19 and injury have made it hard for him to find consistency.

“We have two inexperienced goalies. Both have shown glimpses of what they can do… big picture, save percentage has probably been average 5-on-5. 4-on-5, it’s been a little bit below average. I mean the concerning thing for me is sometimes the goals, the timing of the goals, game-situation goals that some veteran guys would tighten it up and make that save. It’s not the overall save percentage, it’s when and how the goals happen. That’s another thing that can zap momentum from your team and you’re digging a hole and you got to dig out of it.”

MacLellan said the team has made calls about netminders and plans to see who else is available, but Washington will only make a deal if it’s for the right guy and at the right price.

“I think is it’s got to be an obvious upgrade for us for it to make sense or otherwise we go with our guys. Is this going to get us over a hump on the goaltending side? I don’t know if there’s that many guys that are out that are quality, you know, there might be one or two,” MacLellan noted.

On the blue line, there isn’t much concern for MacLellan or the Capitals. He is happy with the defense and thinks Washington’s blue line will fare just fine as it is now. He praised the same top-6, as well as the team’s depth blueliners in Matt Irwin and Michal Kempny. MacLellan also said he is satisfied with the team’s defensive depth down in Hershey, especially Alex Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen.

“I think we’ve got good depth this year. Normally, we need eight. Maybe more than eight, so maybe you stretch it for adding depth pieces, but I think we’re good this year,” MacLellan said, adding, “I think we’ve got 10 guys that can play. So I’m not looking in that area.”

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