Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan spoke to reporters for the first time since the preseason on Dec. 3, answering questions about recent results, expectations for the rest of the year, and injuries.
In the aftermath of a heavy loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday, the Capitals find themselves with a “pretty slim margin for error” in their chase for a playoff position. They are five points behind the Detroit Red Wings, who occupy the second wild-card spot and have dipped below the .500-mark.
“We have to be concerned,” MacLellan said. “We dug ourselves a hole at the beginning of the year, and we’re trying to work our way out. We have to put a string of good games together to stay in it and buy some time until we get some guys back – and hopefully, we’re more competitive then.”
Injuries were always likely to be a concern this season. Per Elite Prospects, Laviolette’s roster is the second-oldest in the league – behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins – and features several players with pre-existing fitness concerns.
But it is not the first time the Capitals have stared down injury troubles. They lost a handful of skaters to the treatment room at the start of last season but were able to fly through the turbulence thanks to standout production from Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. Unfortunately, the script has played out differently this time around.
MacLellan answered questions on a variety of issues in his 10-minute media conference. Here are five key takeaways from his interaction with the press:
MacLellan Provides Injury Updates on Wilson, Backstrom & Orlov
Nicklas Backstrom has been on the injured reserve list since July when he underwent surgery on his left hip. It remains unclear when – or if – the 35-year-old will feature for the Capitals this season.
“He’s progressing well,” MacLellan said when asked about Backstrom’s return. “There haven’t been any setbacks, so it’s positive. I don’t know where it ends up, but everything has been positive so far.” When pressed to provide a timeline for the Swede’s return, he added: “I’m saying he’s doing really well. I don’t know that it has been tested [but] we would like to see him in a practice and [take] contract. That will come in the next little bit, I hope.”
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MacLellan provided a similarly vague answer on Wilson, who is on the mend after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee in the playoffs versus the Florida Panthers.
“I don’t have an exact date,” he said. “We’ll get a better picture in the next few weeks… We’ll have a pretty good idea by mid-December. We can be more certain on it then.”
Dmitry Orlov is another injury concern for the Capitals. The Russian has been unavailable with an undisclosed injury since Nov. 6 but is expected to draw back into the lineup soon.
“It’s been a struggle identifying and helping him get through this injury,” MacLellan explained. “It’s lingered on a lot longer than anyone anticipated [but] seems to be headed in a positive direction, which is why he’s come out for the trip. We’ll see how it goes over the next couple of days, hopefully, we’ll get him into a game.”
Capitals’ Injury Record Dampens Trade Potential
MacLellan was also open about the impact of injuries on his ability to execute a trade to improve the squad.
“It’s tough for an [long-term injury] team,” he said, pointing to the salary cap issues caused by inactive players. “You know, these two [Backstrom and Wilson] are making progress, [and] we have to make room to have them in the lineup [but] to help our team you would have to add a high-end guy. You can’t [afford to] add that player while you are bringing two guys back from LTI.”
Until the Capitals have a definite timeline for Backstrom, MacLellan will not authorise a trade that leaves his squad in the same situation the Vegas Golden Knights encountered last season. For now, he intends to rely on his core to play their way out of trouble.
Capitals’ Prospects McMichael, Lapierre Set with Hersey Bears
Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre are unlikely to feature for the Capitals in the near future. They are both in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Hershey Bears, which is exactly where they should be, according to their general manager.
“I think they both need time. It’s perfect,” MacLellan said. “It has taken us a while to get McMichael into this spot, but he’s playing centre, killing penalties, and playing on the power play. He’s getting a lot of good ice time [in Hershey], and hopefully, his game and confidence can grow, and we’ll see where he is at the end of the year.”
Lapierre leads the Bears in goals (six) and points (15) in his rookie season. McMichael, meanwhile, has three points (two goals, one assist) in seven appearances.
Capitals Could Consider Blueline Reconstruction
The Capitals have an opportunity to rebuild their defence this offseason. John Carlson is the only defender committed to the club beyond this season, with Nick Jensen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson, and Matt Irwin due to become unrestricted free agents. They will also have to enter contract talks with Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev, who will hit restricted free agency in the summer.
MacLellan told reporters that he still wants to see a little more of the season unfold before he opens extension discussions with his defencemen.
“We’ve had [what] I’d classify as soft discussion with a few, but I think it’s important that our team is successful [if we are] to continue down the same path with the same guys,” he said. “If it is not going the right way, we naturally have to look at changes, and we have some flexibility with how we are set up with the salary cap.”
In other words, the Capitals will reconstruct their defence next offseason if they continue to flounder in the bottom half of the table.
Capitals Enter Crucial Part of the Season
The pressure is on. The Capitals return to the ice on Monday versus the Edmonton Oilers in a battle between two underperforming squads. Then they travel to Pennsylvania to take on the Philadelphia Flyers in a must-win affair.
“We have to have a good stretch here, starting now,” MacLellan said of his team’s schedule. “We have to come out of this trip still competitive. There are a [few] teams in front of us. You pay attention to Florida; you pay attention to New York, Detroit. We got to stay in the mix here and then grow it from there.”
If the Capitals want to keep their playoff hopes alive, they must find a way to climb above the .500-mark as soon as possible. With no reinforcements on the horizon after MacLellan’s press conference, it is over to the core to play their way out of trouble.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.