Brian MacLellan gives Capitals vote of confidence with deadline deals

Brian MacLellan was telling the truth. The Capitals general manager said earlier this month that he did not envision being aggressive at the trade deadline as in past years. And indeed, when the deadline came and went Monday, MacLellan failed to make a move comparable to last year’s deal for Anthony Mantha or 2017’s acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk — big swings aimed at pushing the Capitals over the top.

But that didn’t mean MacLellan did nothing, either.

The Capitals (35-19-10, 80 points) acquired forward Johan Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes and old friend Marcus Johansson from the Seattle Kraken — two veterans that add depth to a suddenly hot Washington team. After MacLellan said less than three weeks ago that the Capitals had fallen from contender status, the general manager struck a different tone Monday when he met with reporters.

A 7-1-1 stretch since will do that.

MacLellan said the Capitals’ play of late has put his team back in the mix, saying they now have a “well-rounded” group that resembles more of the contender they looked like earlier in the season before they came out flat in the new year.

Monday’s moves were also done to keep pace in a competitive Eastern Conference. All eight playoff teams in the conference made trades over the past few days — including Florida with Claude Giroux, Toronto with Mark Giordano and Boston with Hampus Lindholm. Three weeks ago, the Capitals looked as if they had no shot in the postseason. MacLellan pretty much acknowledged as much.

Now?

“I think we can compete with anybody in our division,” MacLellan said.

Perhaps it should be noted that MacLellan said division — and not the league or conference, where heavy hitters like Colorado (93 points) and Florida (90) loom. But at this point, the Capitals have to prove they can get out of the first round of the playoffs well before they start mentioning the Stanley Cup — something they haven’t done since 2018.

In that sense, MacLellan‘s trades were done to help boost that goal. The most notable was the re-acquisition of Johansson, the former first-rounder who played for the Capitals from 2010 until 2017. Johansson has bounced around the league since his initial departure, but he remains a productive player. This season for the Kraken, the 31-year-old has 23 points (6 goals, 17 points) in 51 games.
MacLellan said Johansson should help contribute on the Capitals’ power play, praising his versatility. To land him, the Capitals gave Seattle a fourth-round pick, a sixth-rounder and winger Daniel Sprong.

“Jojo, he’s a really smart player,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson said. “He makes the players around him better. He makes smart plays — really good with the puck. He spends a lot of time with the puck. … It’ll be fun. It’ll be exciting to have him back in the mix.”

Larsson, meanwhile, brings experience and figures to slot in on the team’s fourth line alongside Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. Larsson — acquired for a 2023 third-rounder — has played 474 career games with the Minnesota Wild, Buffalo Sabres and Arizona. Larsson is currently recovering from hernia surgery, though MacLellan estimated the winger would be back in a week. In both deals, Arizona and Seattle agreed to keep paying half of their forwards salaries.

As busy as MacLellan was on Monday, the Capitals still didn’t make any major moves. For weeks, there was speculation that the Capitals were in the market for a veteran goaltender — namely three-time Stanley Cup winner and former rival Marc-Andre Fleury. But the trade didn’t materialize: Fleury was shipped from Chicago to Minnesota for a conditional second-rounder that can become a first depending on the Wild’s playoff success.

Even without Fleury, the Capitals remained pat behind the net. MacLellan Expressed confidence in No. 1 goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who has a .925 save percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average since the All-Star break.

“He deserves the opportunity to take the team into the playoffs,” MacLellan said of Vanecek.

Just weeks ago, MacLellan lit into his team publicly. Looking back, he said he was just trying to give an “honest assessment” — not provide motivation. Now, on Monday, he gave them a vote of confidence, with a little more help to boot.

“You can tell by the points how it’s going to finish up here, we’re all going to be pretty close in points,” MacLellan said of the playoff race. “It’s going to be about health, it’s going to be about playing the right way at the right time. We’ll see what happens in the east. Good teams could get upset (in the) first round, and you never know what’s going to happen after that.”



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