- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2018

Capitals center Lars Eller signing a five-year, $17.5 million extension Saturday helped general manager Brian MacLellan cross off a potential need in the future. With Eller previously set to be a free agent this offseason, the Capitals now know they have a third-line center moving forward.

Now, MacLellan and the Capitals will need to determine what to do in other areas.

The NHL trade deadline is two weeks away, and MacLellan will weigh his options to figure out how active his team should be in seeking additional help. In the past, MacLellan has shown the tendency to swing big at the deadline — trading draft picks and a prospect to the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk last season in order to shore up their defense.

The Shattenkirk deal, which the Capitals knew was going to be a rental, turned out to backfire: with the Capitals again being sent home in the second round. At the end of last season, MacLellan said the playoff exit was that much harder because of how the Capitals went “all-in” to try and win a championship.

Entering this season, the Capitals preached youth — with two rookie defensemen getting significant playing time, while counting on younger players like Evgeny Kuznetsov to take on bigger roles.

So far, the Capitals’ approach has been a recipe for success, while also getting solid contributions from their veterans. They lead the Metropolitan Division and overcame a bumpy start at the beginning of the season.

But as has always been the standard in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals expect more than regular season success, hence this year’s trade deadline condonrum. The NHL’s trade deadline is Feb. 26.

“I’m fairly happy with the way we’re evolving,” MacLellan said. “The team changes, you know? The young guys are improving. There’s maybe a little inconsistency there, but I think it’s for us to balance between continuing to develop our young guys and winning. That’s the trick for us.”

If the Capitals make a move, the most logical upgrade would be to seek a veteran defenseman to help offset some of the growing pains from rookies Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos. Bowey and Djoos, though, have made considerable progress from the start of the season, and acquiring someone else would take away playing time.

Detroit’s Mike Green has been consistently linked to the Capitals — given he played for the franchise from 2006-2015 and the Red Wings are rebuilding. But Green would carry the same risk of being a rental that Shattenkirk did, as his contract expires at the end of the season.

Besides, would Green even be worth bringing back in the offseason? Green is 32, and most players start to decline in their mid 30s. And while Green won’t carry the same price tag as Shattenkirk, Washington will be limited with its salary cap space.

The Capitals have also made it clear their priority is re-signing defenseman John Carlson in the offseason. On Saturday, MacLellan again affirmed Washington would “everything we can” to keep the 28-year-old for the future.

MacLellan said he’s even had discussions with Carlson’s agent to try and extend him in the middle of the season, but added there’s no guarantee the two parties will reach a deal.

“If you would’ve asked me three weeks ago on (extending) Lars, I would’ve said maybe,” MacLellan said. “Sometimes it comes together, sometimes it doesn’t.”

The Capitals have $1.4 million in cap space and seven draft picks for the 2018 draft, so they do have a little bit of flexibility if they want to sacrifice the future for the present. The NHL salary cap could rise, too, which would give the Capitals more room to work with. The salary cap for this season is $75 million, and MacLellan said “they’re projecting $79 million (for next year), but you never know.”

This offseason, the Capitals will have three unrestricted free agents besides Carlson and four restricted free agents. Of the restricted group, winger Tom Wilson is due for a sizable raise. Washington’s free agents could limit the scope of how much money and term the Capitals would acquire at the deadline.

One move the Capitals are unlikely to make, however, is trading forward Andre  Burakovsky. The 22-year-old, who has only scored four goals after signing a two-year, $6 million contract in the offseason, has been a healthy scratch at various points this season. He also missed 20 games with a broken thumb, and failed to get into a rhythm when returning.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he sometimes has to take the “tough love” approach with Burakovsky, so he understands the message. Trotz said he wants Burakovsky to read the flow of the game better and make smarter decisions with the puck.

Trotz and MacLellan have still expressed confidence in Burakovsky.

“He’s going to be a good player in the league,” MacLellan said. “You know, he got off track with his injury and missed some time and got out of sync. I’m really confident that he’s going to be a good player here, and he’ll find it down the stretch for us.”

Said Trotz: “I’m pretty confident Andre is on the right path, for sure.”

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