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Why the Capitals Should Be Sellers

Being sellers this season can make the short term pain turn into long term bliss

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals are in a position they have not been in a long time: potentially missing the playoffs. They are currently in a playoff spot, holding the second wild card spot, but it’s hard to feel very confident in their chances - as our own J.P. wrote about yesterday. To say the Caps have been sputtering is an understatement, and the frustrating thing (or possibly the good thing depending how you look at it) is it’s nothing they can really control; they are simply too shorthanded.

The Caps continue to be the most injured team in the NHL, at least by quality. Check out the chart above provided by NHL Injury Viz. That’s a lot of blue chip players missing.

At one point it looked like the Caps were finally getting healthy with the return of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, but then they quickly lost Wilson (again), John Carlson, Nic Dowd, and T.J. Oshie to various injuries, and now Alex Ovechkin is on personal leave after the loss of his father. That’s a whole lot of talent the Caps are missing every night and it’s getting to a breaking point.

While Oshie has returned to play, it’s pretty clear that he’s not 100%, and (despite his nice and rather reckless goal against Carolina) his return hasn’t been stellar. It looks like Wilson and Dowd will be returning soon, which will be a nice boost, but Carlson (the player they miss the most) is still out indefinitely and Ovechkin is out for at least a week.

With all of these absences, and the time it will take for everyone to get back up to speed (and that’s barring any additional injuries going forward, which seems unlikely at this point), the Caps are running out of road - and given how tight the playoff race has been for the wild card spots, there’s a real chance the Caps could miss the playoffs.

As noted above, the Caps have left over 12 points on the board due to their injuries, and that was from over a month ago - so that number is likely over 20 points at this point. 20 points puts them second in the league; hell, even 10 extra points puts them comfortably in a playoff position.

So what should they do? They basically have three options: 1) just stick with what they have and hope they can stay healthy enough to squeeze into the playoffs; 2) go buy a big piece to really help; 3) sell, sell, sell.

It hurts to say it, but the Capitals’ smartest decision going forward is probably to sell. Because if the true purpose is to be Cup contenders through Ovechkin’s contract (the next three seasons), the best path forward is retooling and reloading this summer, and there is no better way to do that than hoarding as many picks/prospects as you can. The Caps are in the perfect position to do so due to their high amount of pending unrestricted free agents, with 10 currently unsigned - and many of them could bring back some great returns.

There are reports out there that defensemen such as Joel Edmundson, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Jake McCabe will get first round picks and possibly even more in return. No offense to those players, but none are worth first-round picks. Imagine what the Capitals could receive for actually good defensemen like Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, and Erik Gustafsson alone. Each could get a first-round pick and potentially more if the Caps are willing to eat some salary - there would likely be a huge market for many of them.

On top of that are players like Garnett Hathaway and Conor Sheary, solid players who are perfectly suited for the playoffs and could bring in second-round picks, and strong depth players like Lars Eller (with money eaten), Trevor van Riemsdyk and Marcus Johansson, each of whom could probably get a third-round pick. Even some of the lower depth-chart guys like Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Matt Irwin could draw some late picks.

That’s a lot of draft capital, with most picks probably being for this summer, which is supposedly the strongest draft in a while, meaning those picks have great value. Between their own picks and the picks they receive in trades, the Caps could go into the summer with a few picks in each of the first three rounds, and possibly more. The Caps can then choose to use them at the draft or package them together, alone or with other players/prospects, and make a bigger splash this summer with youth, speed, and skill to really go for it the next three years.

There’s even an outside chance that, by missing the postseason, the Caps could luck into a top-three lottery draft pick and bring home a generational talent in Connor Bedard or a couple of future superstars like Adam Fantilli, Matvei Michkov, Leo Carlsson, Zachary Benson, or Andrew Cristall.

That’s a lot of assumptions, to be sure. And whether the Caps would actually trade any of those players, or get the expected return, is unknown - but the point still remains that selling at this deadline will give the Caps the best chance to finish out Ovechkin’s career with some a strong team. It’s not fun to give up on the playoffs, but staying put the Caps could still miss the playoffs AND miss out on a ton of great assets that they could have acquired this summer if they just sold at the deadline.

I asked The Athletic beat reporter for the Caps, Tarik El-Bashir, if the Capitals’ front office has a certain point number or game losses or anything as a bench mark whether the Capitals would sell. He said the following:

The Caps certainly started their “big week” great, with a strong win against the Boston Bruins, but then they got spanked by the lowly San Jose Sharks the very next day. Then they played a top-tier team in the Carolina Hurricanes, and though they played very well, they couldn’t grab any points. That game kind of summed up the Caps issue: they know how to win but they simply have too much talent missing to get the wins.

They finish out the “big week” playing the Florida Panthers Thursday night (which has huge playoff implications), who are on their tail for the last wild card spot, before Saturday’s outdoor rematch against the Hurricanes. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Capitals lose both games.

Should GM Brain MacLellan decide to go into sell mode, he has the perfect excuse built in with the injuries. The fans may be upset, but it would be understandable if he decided to turn his focus to next season rather than making one desperate push for a low-seeded playoff spot and hope that his team will return to full health. So use that as the reasoning to sell, while simultaneously retooling on the fly in order to build a stronger, younger, faster team for the future. It doesn’t have to be a rebuild; with the right moves (which MacLellan has shown he is very good at), the Capitals can come out next season with players that help them be Cup contenders for at least the next three years. Staying put will nullify that and make retooling the roster much more difficult over the summer.

We’ll be the first to eat some crow if the Caps get healthy, squeeze into the playoffs, stay healthy, and go on a historical run to win their second Stanley Cup... but until that happens, the Caps should be sellers this trade deadline.