Capitals make small tweaks at deadline with playoffs in mind
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) On top of the NHL by a mile, the Washington Capitals didn't feel threatened by deals the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers or Chicago Blackhawks made ahead of the trade deadline. They just considered what it would be like to play those teams this spring.
The Capitals were quiet on deadline day after earlier acquiring forward Daniel Winnik and defenseman Mike Weber to prepare for the playoffs. Even though his team is leading the league and should have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, general manager Brian MacLellan spent Monday working the phones searching for even more upgrades.
''We were trying to add some depth players,'' MacLellan said. ''(But) I'm comfortable with where we're at as a team. I like where we are. We're well balanced. I like our four lines. I like our eight D, so I'm comfortable going forward.''
The Capitals sent their longest-tenured player, forward Brooks Laich, to the Toronto Maple Leafs along with a 2016 second-round pick and defenseman Connor Carrick for Winnik and a fifth-rounder. They traded a 2017 third-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres last week for Mike Weber, who has yet to make his Washington debut.
Those were moves designed to make the Capitals more adaptable to various playoff matchups, from the big, bruising Boston Bruins to the faster, more skilled Pittsburgh Penguins.
''Acquiring Weber gives us the flexibility to play against heavy teams,'' MacLellan said. ''We need bigger, stronger defensemen - guys that have the ability to stop the cycle, guys that play hard in front of the net.''
Winnik certainly provides that with more skill and edge than Laich, whose injuries have eroded his game in recent years. The 30-year-old Winnik kills penalties like Laich and saves Washington some money against the salary cap this season and next.
Shedding all of Laich's $4.5 million salary was the key to the deal and the reason the Capitals were willing to give up so much.
''It's a big deal,'' said MacLellan, who cited summer contract negotiations as one of the reasons he made the trade. ''I don't think it's an easy thing to accomplish. It's probably one team in the league that would accommodate us on that part.''
MacLellan choked up talking about the emotional struggle of trading Laich, who he scouted over a decade ago and who has been with the organization since 2004. Laich returns to Washington on Wednesday with the Maple Leafs.
The Capitals have Winnik and Weber for the rest of this season as they try to get over the hump in the playoffs. MacLellan said those trades were part of the strategy and not a reaction to the Rangers getting center Eric Staal, the Panthers getting forwards Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell or the Blackhawks getting forwards Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise.
''It was more about what we wanted to accomplish on our team,'' MacLellan said. ''How do we set ourselves up best for success down the stretch here and in the playoffs? I don't think what everybody else was doing had an impact on what we wanted to do.''
That's a sound strategy given that the Capitals sat 11 points up on Chicago for home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs at the deadline. Of course, the Capitals have won the Presidents' Trophy in the Alex Ovechkin era and have yet to make it past the second round.
Winnik considers this the deepest roster Washington has had and cited goaltender Braden Holtby as the biggest reason the Capitals are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
''I think it's hard to predict who's going to be Cup contenders based off of where you were seeded and playing,'' Winnik said. ''The playoffs are tough. You don't know what to expect.''
The playoffs are unpredictable, but the Capitals hope they're in better position after adding Winnik and Weber.
''I think we have a good team. I don't know that we had a whole lot of holes to fill,'' MacLellan said. ''I expect us to continue to evolve, to play well down the stretch and then peak at the playoffs and have a long run.''