Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan met with the media on Monday, ahead of the first game of their Round One matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday.
MacLellan discussed everything from adjusting to the loss of Michal Kempny to injury, the additions of both Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen at the deadline, and how he believes that the 2018-19 Capitals might be even better than the Stanley Cup winning team of last season.
A full transcription of that interview follows below.
How is MacLellan feeling about the team heading into the playoffs?
Brian MacLellan: I think we’re all excited. I think that we would have said at the beginning of the year this is the spot we’d like to be. To win our division, to have home ice advantage, to have a team playing at a good level. We had a rookie coach come in and has done a good job, handled a little bit of adversity and then we come out on the other end of that, I think it’s been as good as we could’ve expected.
From the limited sample size, how does MacLellan feel the defensive corps have performed without Michal Kempny?
Brian MacLellan: Obviously it hurts to lose him, because he’s a perfect fit for what we were doing. You know, the coaching staff’s tried a a few different things, and I think to a certain level all of them have worked. Not as perfect as it would be with Kempny-Carlson, but Djoos has done a pretty decent job, they’ve used Brooks Orpik a little bit, Jensen a little bit. I would anticipate that’s kind of how it’s going to be for the rest of the year. Just trying to fill in situationally, and what they perceive the matchups to be and how they use the players.
How confident is MacLellan that Tom Wilson will continue to be a scoring threat in the playoffs, but also avoid the scrutiny of the Department of Player Safety?
Brian MacLellan: Tom’s had an outstanding year. Last year’s playoffs I thought he was outstanding too. And I would expect that it would just continue and he might even get a little better at every aspect of his game. I think he’s selective when he’s physical. I mean, he brings our team into battles, he wins a lot of puck battles, he goes to the net, he does everything you want from a power forward.
Does MacLellan believe it is harder to be selective about hits when everything ramps up in the playoffs?
Brian MacLellan: Yeah, I think just the nature of the game is more physical. People finish their checks more, people play stronger, harder. And I think that’s his game so he’s going to excel in it.
With Kuznetsov’s inconsistent play in the regular season, does MacLellan think he will step up his game in the playoffs?
Brian MacLellan: He played a very high level in last year’s playoffs. I think, as with all our high end players, we expect the same this year. I think Ovi, Kuzy, Osh, Nick, for us to win, all of them are going to have to play at a high level. And, you know, he’s an important part of our team. The position he plays and the role he has on our team, and we expect him to play like he did last year.
Have the additions of Hagelin and Jensen been more than MacLellan had hoped for?
Brian MacLellan: I think Hagelin’s been a really good fit. He’s got experience, got championship experience, he can play with pretty much anybody in your lineup and play well, and make players better that he plays with. I think it adds a lot of flexibility to our roster. Jensen is, you know, he’s played well. He adds speed, puck movement to our back end. I know the coaches are working with him on a few things they like to have system wise, and he’s played well in my mind also. So it’s been great. Both of them.
What kind of influence does MacLellan think that Justin Williams had on the team that helped with their Cup run?
Brian MacLellan: You talk to the guys in the room and you know he’s a great teammate. He has the right blend of leadership, have fun, compete. He really sets the tone of an organization, of a team and where they’re at in the games in playoffs. He did provide us with that leadership, and he’s doing the same thing in Carolina now. So he’s just a great guy to have on your team.
With the salary cap limit lifted for the playoffs, will Devante Smith-Pelly return to the lineup?
Brian MacLellan: Yeah, I’m not sure. We have guys here that have played well here. We played really well down the stretch. We’re not anxious to make changes but we’re open to whatever it takes. If we need Devante, he’s played well down there, we’ll use him.
Is it harder to call up black aces from the AHL when Hershey are also in the playoffs?
Brian MacLellan: I think it’s more advantageous, because these guys get to keep playing. Versus having a guy come up and do the extra player skate where you lose your game a little bit, you lose the timing of it. So we have guys down there that we’re considering bringing up. And they’re playing. They’re playing power play, they’re playing penalty killing. I think their game stays sharper and if we need them we can call them up.
Is Hagelin someone that the Capitals are hoping to re-sign after this season?
Brian MacLellan: We’ll make that decision after the playoffs. We’ll see how we do and I like the fit, but we’ll see what his representatives say and what he says.
Have Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen improved their play in the final stretch of the season?
Brian MacLellan: Yeah, I think the last stretch here, after the break, after the deadline too, there’s a new level. I think they both have played well recently, so it’s optimistic. I think the beginning of the year they weren’t at the level that they were last season and it’s taken them a while to find it. But I think we’re there now.
What does MacLellan think contributed to Orlov and Niskanen’s drop off in play?
Brian MacLellan: I don’t know. You know, maybe fatigue, maybe just whatever went on in the off season, stuff like that, I’m not sure. Take individual keg stand parties.
What is MacLellan’s evaluation of Andre Burakovsky going into the playoffs after his regular season struggles?
Brian MacLellan: I think he’s played well lately. You know, a frustrating year for him and everybody involved. He got off to a start that wasn’t ideal and struggled to find where his game’s at, and I think there’s frustration on his part and the coaching part. What the expectations were and where he was at, and it took probably a little longer than everybody would want to work itself out. This last stretch after the deadline I think he’s kind of settled in. There’s probably concern on his part mentally that he might get moved. But we have him now and he’s playing at a high level, and he’s playing in our bottom six and contributing offensively so it’s a big plus for us, for our depth going into the playoffs.
Is the feeling heading into these playoffs as the defending champions different?
Brian MacLellan: I think we’re more prepared mentally and emotionally to handle stuff than we’ve ever been. Having success at those critical moments gives everybody a little confidence that they can handle it. You look at teams that are always looking at guys who have won before, I mean, we have a team full of them. That’s obviously a positive sign.
With Carolina heading into the playoffs with a ‘nothing to lose’ mindset, does that make them more dangerous?
Brian MacLellan: I think they’re a good team. I really like their top six in forwards and their defence is outstanding. They’re fast, they play fast. I mean, they create a lot offensively. They forecheck hard, they move the puck north fast. This is a good team we’re playing. It’s not going to be easy, for sure. They’re going to be loose. I know Justin would make sure they’re loose, and they’re going to come hard.
Are the Capitals as good as or better than last year’s team?
Brian MacLellan: I think some of our players have gotten to the next level, Vrana, Wilson, I think Dowd’s come in and played well. I think offensively we’re a deeper team than we were last year, because we can get offence from a lot of different guys. I mean, the 20-goal scorers, what do we have, eight of them, seven of them. The year before we only had three, so that’s a good sign. I think we’re as good, maybe a little better.
How difficult has it been to replace Jay Beagle as a fourth line center but also as someone with a high faceoff percentage?
Brian MacLellan: It is important. Dowd’s 51-plus on faceoff percentages. We used Beags more in that role to take faceoffs, make changes. It’s a coaching philosophy, where we haven’t done that this year, you allow certain guys just to take their faceoffs. I don’t know that it’s hurt us a ton this year to be at that level. That being said, I think it’s important that we become more competitive on the faceoffs. We have guys that haven’t been as good as they were last year. And it’s not just centermen, it’s the wingers contributing. It’s a puck battle, and we should be better on puck battles. I count the faceoff as a puck battle, and everybody’s involved in it.
Has everything come together according to the plan MacLellan set out when he first became General Manager?
Brian MacLellan: No. I mean, you have a philosophy you bring in. You can try and implement it. But your plan changes as players change, as it evolves and as the salary cap evolves. Players do well, don’t do well. It’s not [like] we’re going to draw this up perfectly, that’s not the case. But philosophically you can come in and say here’s where I think we’re at and where we need to be. Which we did.
What stood out to MacLellan as the most impressive thing Ovechkin achieved this year?
Brian MacLellan: Obviously the stats, the 50 goals. But I think it’s been a consistent year for him. There was less dips and periods where he didn’t play at the highest level. I think it’s been a consistent, high level year. He’s had periods where the goals weren’t there, but he’s played very well all year. So I think that would be the best thing I’ve seen from him this year. And doing it at age 33 is obviously impressive.
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