Inconsistency makes it hard to get read on Capitals roster ahead of trade deadline

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Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan’s job might be harder than usual right now. For some games — take Saturday’s 2-1 statement win over the league-leading Boston Bruins, for instance — MacLellan’s team looks on par with the NHL’s best. For other games — take Sunday’s 4-1 letdown to the San Jose Sharks for instance — the Capitals look to be a step slow (the downside of being one of the oldest teams in hockey). 

The inconsistency can be maddening — especially for an executive trying to plan for the future with the March 3 trade deadline less than three weeks away.

“Twenty-five or so games left and we’re pushing towards playoffs and we want to stick together as a group,” Capitals winger Conor Sheary said after Sunday’s loss. “ We don’t want to look at who’s going to be moved or whatever.”

MacLellan used the Capitals’ recent 10-day break to lock up promising young skaters Dylan Strome and Sonny Milano — two players who arrived in Washington on one-year, prove-it deals and were rewarded with multi-year extensions. But those deals only represented a fraction of the business facing MacLellan and Co. over the next few months as the Capitals have 12 additional players on their active roster who have contracts set to expire by the end of the season. Another two on injured reserve are also set to be free agents. 

The Capitals’ brass will need to decide how much they want to ride this season out with their core — or whether a shake-up is needed. Depending on how the next few weeks go, MacLellan could decide to aggressively pursue upgrades in talent — or go the opposite direction and begin selling off parts.

Lately, the Capitals (28-21-6, 62 points) — in the thick of a competitive playoff race entering Monday’s action — have been a team searching for answers. 

“It’s hard to clump everything all in together,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said.

Washington’s most unsettled position on the roster is on the blue line. Outside of John Carlson — who hasn’t played since taking a puck to the face on Dec. 23 and is on long-term injured reserve — every defenseman on the roster is in the final year of his contract. That includes veteran Dmitry Orlov, who MacLellan has expressed interest in retaining. Only two of the Capitals’ pending free agents on the blue line will be restricted. 

In December, The Athletic reported that Washington could look to add help on the blue line by entertaining trades for center Lars Eller. Eller has been a long-time member of the Capitals, but his production has dipped this season with only seven goals. 

The Capitals need more help on offense. Washington ranks 20th in goals per game with 3.05 — the team’s lowest since 2015-16. Part of that dip can be attributed to injuries. Winger Tom Wilson, for instance, has missed 43 games after a year in which he finished with a career-high 24 goals. But beyond Alex Ovechkin — Washington’s leader with 32 goals — no other Capital has scored more than 13 goals.

By locking down Strome (25) and Milano (26), MacLellan rewarded players who can help in the short term and add some youth to Washington’s aging core. Strome (36 points with 11 goals, 25 assists) is on pace for a career season, while Milano (22 points with 8 goals, 14 assists) already has the third-most points of his career.  

MacLellan appeared to get both players at a solid rate as Strome signed a five-year, $25 million deal, while Milano was retained for $5.7 million across three years. 

“They put the faith in me and I’m gonna continue to grow and become a better player and I’m looking forward to it,” said Strome, acquired in an offseason trade with Chicago. “I signed with a team that believes in me enough to sign me to that deal and I’m really excited about it. I’m really happy to be here.”

“I fit pretty well here,” Milano said. 

During the second period of Sunday’s loss, however, Laviolette benched Strome and Milano for a stretch as he unsuccessfully searched for a jolt of offense. That spark wasn’t to be found, and the Capitals scored a single goal against a team with the fifth-worst record in the NHL. 

“There’s so many free agents here,” Sheary said. “It’s a lot going on. You never know what’s going to happen, but at the same time with the players that are in this room, you gotta just buy in every night.”

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