Brian MacLellan three times tried to stifle his emotions. On all three occasions, he couldn’t help his voice from quivering.
The Washington Capitals’ general manager spoke with sorrow when addressing the deal he made late Sunday night, trading franchise stalwart Brooks Laich to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Daniel Winnik in advance of the league deadline on Monday afternoon.
Although Laich had filled a niche role for the Capitals over parts of the last two seasons, trading him away was still significant. Laich, the team’s longest-tenured player, joined the Capitals via trade on Feb. 18, 2004 and experienced a range of success during his time, from the doldrums of 28-win seasons to a string of seven playoff appearances over the last eight seasons.
The Capitals, who have had the best record in the NHL for the last several months, seem poised to win the Presidents’ Trophy for the second time in the past six years. Laich, a three-time 20-goal scorer who had been little more than a fourth-liner and penalty killer in recent seasons, won’t be a part of that run.
“We wanted to try to address that the best way we could and be, hopefully, somewhat sensitive in doing it for a guy that’s played here for a long time,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve done that. It’s a hard thing to do to trade a player like that, but in the end, we had to do what’s best for our organization.”
MacLellan, in his second season as the Capitals’ general manager but in his 15th year with the organization, had scouted Laich when he represented Canada in the world junior championships and during his stint in the minor leagues. That familiarity bred an emotional investment in Laich that MacLellan acknowledged can’t be taken out of such decisions.
Ultimately, MacLellan and the team believed the size of Laich’s contract, with an annual salary cap hit of $4.5 million this year and next, was prohibitive to the Capitals’ future plans, with several players set to become restricted free agents after the season.
Washington put Laich on waivers on Saturday morning with the goal of clearing salary by sending him to the minor leagues for a stretch, but an injury to defenseman John Carlson and the associated salary cap relief, as well as the potential of a trade, scuttled that plan.
Winnik, 30, figures to step in for Laich, joining Mike Richards and Jay Beagle on the fourth line. He learned about the trade at around 10:45 p.m. on Sunday when he received a call from Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello.
“I was pretty shocked,” Winnik said. “I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to get traded or where, and definitely wasn’t expecting to come to the Capitals.”
As of Monday afternoon, Winnik didn’t expect to be available to play for the Capitals on Tuesday, when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins, because of issues related to his work visa. After being dealt to the Penguins at the deadline a year ago because of his expiring contract, he returned to the Maple Leafs on a two-year deal and didn’t expect to be traded again.
“It kind of revitalizes your play,” Winnik said, referring to going from the worst team in the standings to the best one. “It brings more meaning to the games, that’s for sure. It’s nothing against what we’ve been in Toronto, but you know, you kind of try to play spoiler when you’re out of the playoffs, like we have been in Toronto. Coming to a team that’s in a pretty cushy playoff position, you always just want to keep playing better and winning more games so we finish first in the East and hopefully win the Presidents’ Trophy as well.”
The Capitals added defenseman Mike Weber in a deal with the Buffalo Sabres last week and, before adding Winnik, sent minor-leaguer Chris Brown to the New York Rangers for Ryan Bourque in what MacLellan termed a swap of players who wanted “a change of scenery.” MacLellan said he also tried to add another depth forward, but the deadline market, one of the quietest over the past decade, was not as receptive as he would have liked.
“I think we have a good team,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know that we had a whole lot of holes to fill. We had to work on the one situation with the contract and that was it, in my mind.”
Laich and defenseman Connor Carrick, who was included as part of Washington’s package for Winnik, were expected to play for the Maple Leafs on Monday night when they hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning. Coincidentally, their next game, on Wednesday, is on the road against the Capitals.
“It’ll be weird,” MacLellan said. “It’ll be really weird. … It’s going to be awkward, but I guess it’s going to be a chance for him to say goodbye and the fans to acknowledge him — and the organization [as well].”