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Mac the Knife: Brian MacLellan and the Great Retooling of 2023

The Caps’ GM was in a tough spot - but is maneuvering through it pretty well.

2021 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Zach Guerette/NHLI via Getty Images

The past week hasn’t been easy to watch as Caps fans, with several longtime Caps and fan favorites headed out via trade (and potentially more to come before tomorrow’s deadline). Taking the emotional side out of watching your team become sellers is hard to do - but if we manage to do that, if we can step back and focus on the crest on the front rather than the name on the back, we start to see some pretty fine work being done by Caps’ GM Brian MacLellan.

Whether it was planned or purely coincidental (and as Mac seems like a bit of a chess player, it’s entirely possible this was done on purpose), the Caps put themselves in a great position to right the ship and do it quickly. Coming into this season, the team had 12 players whose contracts would expire at the end of the year - which means that, if things went south, they had a readily available stockpile of guys to offer up as rentals in exchange for draft picks and younger players.

Since then, the Caps have re-signed three of those pending free agents in Dylan Strome, Sonny Milano, and Nick Jensen - addressing the team’s need to get younger in the first two, and shoring up veteran support for what could be a fairly green blueline going forward with Jensen. None of the three deals exactly breaks the bank or is overly aggressive when it comes to either cap hit or term.

But over the last week, MacLellan has moved out five of the soon-to-be UFAs (although they did add one in Craig Smith, who becomes another potential trade chip), and one of the picks acquired via trade was then flipped for a younger blueliner. That’s some fairly nifty asset management, with one more day left before the trade deadline - and even if the remaining UFAs-to-be aren’t traded by tomorrow’s deadline, or don’t re-sign, it’s still a fine body of work (and no team gets away without losing at least one player to free agency).

All of that work puts them in a great position to make some big moves, be they trades or signings, over the summer. They can get younger and cheaper but still maintain a level of talent that can - we all hope - give the team’s aging core at least one more run at a Cup.

Of course, that aging core comes with some significant contracts, and MacLellan and his team of salary cap wizards will need to manage around those contracts to achieve his goal of an on-the-fly retooling.

But since those deals aren’t going away, with the moves made, and perhaps more to come, they at least now have plenty of flexibility to work around those deals and reload for next year. The trades have netted the team plenty of assets - 27 draft picks over the next three summers, to be exact - to either restock a cupboard that has gotten a little low (having this level of sustained regular-season success, and a Cup win, will have that effect) or to flip for good, young ready-now players to fill in the gaps left by these recently departed vets.

None of this is to say that MacLellan has been perfect, nor that all of his moves have panned out (or even made complete sense). Such is the life of an NHL general manager. But the work he has done to manage this latest round of adversity in a season full of it is pretty impressive, and gives the Caps a chance to let this rough run and likely missed postseason be nothing more than a blip.