Despite the Capitals running out of gas against the Boston Bruins and losing their third consecutive first-round series, general manager Brian MacLellan is hesitant to commit to a youth movement for next season.
Speaking on Wednesday during Capitals’ Breakdown Day, GMBM was asked about who would take the next step among the organization’s top prospects. There was only one prospect who graduated and is currently slated for a full-time role with the Capitals in 2021-22. That player is left-handed shooting defenseman Martin Fehervary.
“I think Marty’s ready,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s ready to be a full-time player. How high he plays in the lineup will be up to him. I think we’re counting on him to play right away and we’ll make adjustments after that. I don’t think we have to make any decisions right now. We’ll have to make some decisions in the Expansion Draft on who we expose on the D part so part of that will factor in to that decision.”
The Capitals have three left-handed shooting defensemen on the roster returning for next season including Dmitry Orlov, Brenden Dillon, and Michal Kempny. MacLellan also appeared open to bringing back 44-year-old Zdeno Chara if the Stanley Cup-winning defenseman opts not to retire.
When asked about the Caps being the oldest team in the league and if there needed to be an emphasis placed on the team becoming younger and faster, MacLellan initially stated “No”, but then elaborated to say that, “I mean. I guess we’re always…looking to add younger players, yes. You just can’t force that into your lineup. I think we had a gap where we didn’t have players to fill in so we tried to fill with outside players, free agents.”
The Caps entered this past season with an average age of 29.7, a full year older than the second oldest team the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 2021 season featured breakout years from young players like Daniel Sprong at the NHL level and Connor McMichael in the AHL.
“Sprong had a good year this year,” MacLellan said. “He’s a good young player. Looking to get him more ice time. Alex Alexeyev should be able to play games, but I don’t know if he’s a full-time player yet. I’d like to see Garrett Pilon get some games. We’re going to have two young goalies. I think there’s an opportunity to add youth to the lineup. I don’t think that we are… we’ll get younger, but we’re still going to have a veteran team because that’s our core.”
In regards to McMichael, MacLellan was less straightforward. The Capitals already having four veteran centers under contract for next season: Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd. The Capitals’ 2019 first-round pick led the Hershey Bears in goals (14) and points (27), earning AHL All-Rookie honors. The 20-year-old was also the first rookie to lead the Bears in scoring since Craig Fisher in 1990-91.
“He finished up the year well,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s how his offseason goes and what improvements he makes. He’s a young guy. We’re not going to force into the lineup. We’ll see how he does in camp and what he can handle. He had a really good year. He finished up the year on a high, improved in all areas. We’re going to look for opportunities to play him but we’re not going to force him into a situation he can’t handle.”
MacLellan’s shyness towards a youth movement could be explained by how he viewed Washington’s exit in the postseason. He thought the East was one of the most competitive divisions in the league and each series was a tossup.
“I thought we’re right there with Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh. I think they’re pretty similar teams,” MacLellan said. “I think Boston maybe separated themselves a little bit after the trade deadline a little bit, but we’re in that group the way we’re constructed right now. You tell me, we go in the playoffs, who would we pick out of that group that’s gonna win? I thought it was a tossup in all the series. I thought New York could win, I thought Pittsburgh could win, I thought Boston could win, I thought we could win. I think it’s a tough division and all the teams are fairly close in their abilities.”
The Capitals GM also did not appear to think age was the main factor in the rash of injuries the team suffered at the end of the condensed, pandemic-shortened season.
“We had a lot of groin issues, a lot of lower back issues, and it might be a factor of age,” Maclellan said. “I think we sit here and say all teams are doing the same thing. Ours happened at the wrong time. Other teams in our division had it earlier in the year where they had COVID breaks, COVID go through their team, and injuries happen to them. So they went through a period in their schedule where they struggled through it. And it happened at the wrong time for us.”
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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