The Washington Capitals were one of the quieter teams this offseason after their worst season in over 15 years. They did add Max Pacioretty in free agency, but he’s projected to miss the first couple of months of 2023-24 as he recovers from his second consecutive Achilles tendon injury. Aside from that, their forward group, which boasted just two 20-goal scorers last season, essentially remains unchanged. While injuries took a significant toll on the team’s performance, a number of important scorers, such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie, had down seasons.
With captain Alex Ovechkin still in the fold and chasing the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring record, general manager Brian MacLellan has made it clear on numerous occasions that he doesn’t plan to let the team slip out of competitiveness while Ovechkin is still active. Speaking with reporters virtually today, MacLellan said he’s still making calls in pursuit of a top-six forward before training camps open next month. Those calls are likely being made in conjunction with trying to find a home for Kuznetsov, who the Capitals confirmed last month has requested a trade.
Adding Pacioretty on a one-year, $4MM bonus-laden deal should add a fair amount of goals if he stays healthy. After all, Pacioretty was on pace for 40 goals with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2021-22, but various injuries limited him to 39 games played that season. Given his quite extensive recent struggles to stay in the lineup, though, it’s unfair to pin much, if any, responsibility on Pacioretty to help elevate the Capitals back to the postseason. With the aging Nicklas Bäckström’s health in question, too, it quickly becomes clear why MacLellan feels a sense of urgency to add an impact player to the team’s top-six group. Given Bäckström likely shouldn’t be relied upon for second-line minutes at this stage in his career, a Kuznetsov replacement down the middle should be top of mind for MacLellan.
That being said, top-six centers don’t grow on trees. It’ll be quite a challenge for MacLellan to mine one via trade this late in the offseason after most of the dust has settled.
One has to wonder if MacLellan has been in conversation with the Calgary Flames regarding Elias Lindholm if he opts not to sign an extension with his current team. A Kuznetsov/Lindholm swap (including other assets heading to Calgary) with extensions attached to both sides could line up well with both teams’ missions to stay competitive throughout some roster turmoil. The 28-year-old Lindholm has 146 points in 162 games over his last two seasons with the Flames and would be a remarkable defensive upgrade, as well as in the faceoff circle, over Kuznetsov. The latter’s 44% career win percentage in the dot pales in comparison to Lindholm’s 53% win rate.
There’s also the matter of Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, who finishes out the trio of top-six centers you’ll hear thrown around on the trade market at this stage. The same circumstances would likely need to apply here as a Lindholm trade with extensions in hand for Kuznetsov and Scheifele with their new teams. While Scheifele wouldn’t aid much of Washington’s defensive woes down the middle with Kuznetsov, he would add a much more significant secondary goal-scoring punch to Ovechkin. He’s coming off a career-best 42-goal season and has scored 30 goals on two other occasions. He has a $6.125MM cap hit this season before his contract expires in 2024, but could block a trade to Washington if he so chooses if he includes the Capitals on his ten-team no-trade list.
Any trade speculation involving a top-six forward for the rest of the offseason will include Kuznetsov, Lindholm and Scheifele until proven otherwise. For Washington, needing to make a move like this to stay competitive is some unfortunate timing. They have pieces with intriguing long-term potential, like Connor McMichael, but their solid drafting in recent seasons just hasn’t caught up to them yet. If they want an impact player now to help bridge the gap between Ovechkin and the next Washington core, as well as keep them in the playoff race during the short term, it’ll need to come via trade.