- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2023

Brian MacLellan went into this season’s NHL trade deadline straddling a line. Though his team would eventually become sellers — trading a total of five players on expiring contracts — the Washington Capitals general manager’s objective was to restore the team’s talent pipeline, while also making sure whatever assets the team got back would help maximize Alex Ovechkin’s remaining championship window. 

So through that perspective, MacLellan’s moves over the last few weeks were understandable: He shipped off defenseman Dmitry Orlov and winger Garnet Hathaway to Boston, sent Marcus Johansson to Minnesota, moved Erik Gustafsson to Toronto and traded Lars Eller to Colorado. 

The trades netted a package of picks and players that MacLellan can now possibly further spin to try and retool around what he called an “older core.” 

“We have a lot more flexibility to trade for players,” MacLellan said Friday. 

The Capitals didn’t participate in a complete teardown, but MacLellan acknowledged this season’s sell-off was still unusual for a team that typically tries to be aggressive around the trade deadline. But Washington had to deal with the realities of its situation: The Capitals had tumbled down the standings in recent weeks, making their pursuit of the playoffs an uphill climb. And Washington hasn’t won a playoff series since 2018 — which only heightened the need for a small reset. 

All moves are likely done with Ovechkin in mind. Despite the Russian’s chase to pass Wayne Gretzky as the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer, winning another Stanley Cup matters just as much to Ovechkin and the Capitals. MacLellan knows that the 37-year-old realistically only has a few more years left in which he can be the best player on a championship team. 

“I don’t look at it as we’re taking a huge step back,” said MacLellan, who noted he still thinks the Capitals can be competitive. “I think it might even be taking a step forward.”

MacLellan said one of his primary goals was to inject youth into Washington’s lineup. And that happened, even outside of the future draft picks that the team acquired. 

Enter Rasmus Sandin, a 22-year-old defenseman picked up in the Toronto trade last week. In Toronto, Sandin often played on the Maple Leafs’ third line, but showed enough promise that enticed Washington to send Boston’s 2023 first-round pick that it had just acquired in the Orlov deal. MacLellan praised Sandin’s ability to move the puck and his potential as a top-four defenseman. 

With the Capitals, Sandin will also get an opportunity to play at length. He logged more than 21 minutes of ice time in an impressive debut that saw Sandin record three assists in Saturday’s 8-3 blowout over the San Jose Sharks. The Capitals, too, have been decimated by injuries on the blue line with John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Martin Fehervary all out. 

“It’s a lot of fun to be here now,” Sandin said. 

Elsewhere, there were players that MacLellan opted to hold onto. The team reached extensions with veterans like Jensen (three years, $12.2 million) and winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel (one year, $1.2 million) to keep them in the fold. MacLellan also expressed a desire to retain defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and winger Conor Sheary — two veterans on expiring deals.

If Washington wants to be aggressive in the offseason, it now has additional draft assets to work with. Despite parting with the first-rounder sent by Boston, the Capitals also picked up two 2024 third-rounders from Minnesota and Boston and two 2025 second-rounders from Colorado and Boston

As for this season, the Capitals still hope to make the playoffs. And though that figures to be a challenge, Washington’s chances technically remain alive as the team trails the East’s final wild-card spot by just three points entering Monday’s action. The Capitals want to remain competitive, which is likely why the team also acquired veteran winger Craig Smith as part of the Orlov deal. Smith, a five-time 20-goal scorer, could help boost Washington‘s offense for the stretch run and has already scored twice since the trade.

MacLellan, though, said the Capitals weren’t showing the consistency of a team that can become a contender this season. That forced him into “tough decisions,” he said. 

“We had to straddle a line of what’s best for the future, what’s best for our team in the future and try and still add players and stay competitive,” MacLellan said. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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