Earlier today, NHL insider extraordinaire Bob McKenzie posted a piece on Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane, his recent surgery and his inevitable departure from the organization that drafted him sixth overall back in 2009. Of particular interest to Caps fans is this bit from McKenzie:
[C]ontending teams who had strong interest in a healthy Kane – Anaheim, Boston, Pittsburgh and Montreal, amongst others – dropped by the wayside, for the next three weeks anyway, the moment Kane opted for surgery. ... But where it really gets interesting is there are three current playoff teams – Vancouver, Calgary and to a far lesser extent Washington -- who have legitimate, if varying, levels of interest in Kane as a pre-deadline acquisition.
Yes, it's counter intuitive. A playoff bound team potentially giving up player or players off its roster now for a player who can't play until the fall. But the Canucks, Flames and Capitals have thought about it or would at least like to explore that possibility; Kane intrigues them that much.
Even before last week's Kane-apalooza, the Capitals had made more than one pitch to trade for Kane. There has reportedly been dialogue between Washington and Winnipeg since last week's blow-up but now that Kane is gone for the year, it would be difficult for the Caps to swing a deal with the Jets and still do what Washington wants to do in the next three weeks: get better for the playoffs.
Putting aside whether the Caps will or won't, should or shouldn't continue their pursuit of Kane over the next three weeks, what does the fact that they had (or still have) interest tell us about what GM Brian MacLellan is thinking these days? A few things:
1. The Caps aren't content with what they have currently
Just today, Barry Trotz told reporters the following:
"I think we have a pretty good idea of what we need. Now, how to acquire it, I would tell you all of our needs, but I’m not going to, then everyone will know and hold us hostage, so I will not tell you. But we’ve talked internally, with Mac, of some areas that we need to continue to improve and get better. You can speculate all you want, because I’m not going to tell you."
Well, Barry, you don't need to tell us because a) Bob McKenzie just did and, b) we all pretty much knew anyway - a top-six wing and/or a second-line center. Maybe Evgeny Kuznetsov can be the latter (that's another post), but the Caps' interest in Kane shows that they've at the very least recognized an area that can be upgraded.
Trotz wrapped up the discussion of his roster on noting "If we were totally healthy, I could handle it... I’ve gone into the playoffs with less." But it's clear that he'd still like to add "a piece or two," as he said a few weeks ago, and the team's pursuit of Kane informs what type of piece they'd be looking to add.
2. The Caps are identifying the right type of player (on the ice, at least)
In the wake of the deal the Caps gave Brooks Orpik last summer, there's been plenty of teeth-gnashing and concern over how the Caps would be evaluating players, and some lineup decisions and player deployments Trotz has gone with in the interim has continued to provide fuel for those fires. But Kane is unquestionably a legitimate top-six forward (at a minimum), as his underlying numbers over the past three seasons clearly demonstrate (via Own The Puck):
Kane isn't fool's gold (like, say, Antoine Vermette - a third-line center in second-line center's clothing), and is still young (younger than Marcus Johansson, Michael Latta and most of the rest of the Caps). The interest in Kane shows a deeper dive into the numbers, beyond disappointing or lagging box car stats, and that's encouraging.
3. The Caps are willing to push some chips into the pot for a short- or mid-range run
A player like Kane doesn't come cheap and he doesn't come for cast-offs or expiring contracts. The Caps would have to move some real assets in a deal, and that likely means being willing to move some combination of high draft picks and/or prospects like Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber or more to even open discussions. Kane has term on his contract (more on that in a moment), so it wouldn't be a rental, but the last time the Caps moved a top prospect for a wing with term... well, you know how that turned out.
But the reality is that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom aren't getting any younger and the East is wide open. It's a good time to take a shot, but that shot won't come cheap.
4. The Caps are willing to do some roster juggling to make a trade happen
Related to the last point, Kane has three years with an annual cap hit of $5.25 million remaining on his current deal after this season. The Caps don't have room to take on a contract of that size right now, so they'd have to move out some salary. That would mean trading a veteran (or veterans) who have been a part of a playoff-bound team and almost certainly part of the organization for years. That's never an easy move to make, but a willingness to make that happen is both inspiring and bold.
5. The Caps feel they've established a culture that can handle a guy with baggage
The elephant in the room, right? The only reason Kane is available is because of his issues with the team and the controversies (real and contrived) that have followed him around. Without debating the merits of each of those dust-ups specifically, it's clear that Kane could use a change of scenery and the Caps clearly believe that they can take on a young player who has, at times, been a distraction off the ice and minimize those distractions on and off the ice.
Could they have absorbed a guy like that in the past and felt confident that it would turn out well? Maybe, maybe not. But their pursuit of Kane here evidences that the much-ballyhooed culture change in Washington is taking hold and the Caps feel they're in a position to possibly buy-low on some players that other teams might avoid for non-hockey reasons (think New England Patriots here).
Whether or not the Caps do make a trade for Evander Kane, the fact that they've been pursuing him is revelatory. It would seem that some of Brian MacLellan's cards are on the table. The question now is how many chips he's going to push into the pot.