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January 31, 2017 | 1:54pm ET
Capitals exit All-Star Break in Familiar Position

BY PATRICK GREISSING | TheFourthPeriod.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the Washington Capitals get ready to head out of the 2017 NHL All-Star break, they are in a familiar position at the top of the NHL standings.

For the second season in a row, the Capitals sit at the top of the NHL standings and are the favorite among NHL coaches to win the Stanley Cup, according to a recent poll by TSN's Bob McKenzie. And for the second consecutive season the Capitals have been on a torrid pace since mid-December.

The Capitals play the last two seasons from mid-December until the All-Star break are almost mirror images of each other. It is so eerily similar, it just makes me shake my head.

2015-16 season: 16-2-2, with 75 GF, 43 GA, and 14 PPG
2016-17 season: 15-3-3, with 83 GF, 45 GA, and 17 PPG

This year's version has a little more depth and has been very healthy to date. These factors have allowed them to basically repeat their results from last year in the League's toughest division this season.

Nicklas Backstrom is having a superb season for the Capitals and is currently sixth in the NHL in scoring with 13 goals and 24 assists. Alex Ovechkin in January has 15 points in 13 games and has shown exceptional play making ability.

Since the Capitals game on December 31st, when they beat the NJ Devils 6-2, the Capitals have a team shooting percentage of 16.8%. The league shooting percentage average for the 2016-17 so far is below 10%. So the Capitals have been on fire to say the least.

Braden Holtby is following up his Vezina season with another Vezina quality season. He has played in 37 games this season and is tied for second in the League with a 1.96 GAA. He is tied for fourth with 23 wins, is alone in fourth with a .929 save percentage, and leads the NHL with 6 shutouts.

As you can see the Capitals are at the top of their game and currently at the top of the NHL, but where will the next three months take them?

Banking Salary Cap Space

The answer to where the next three months take them all comes down to whether they make a significant trade at or before the NHL trade deadline on March 1.

The Capitals have been attempting to bank salary cap space for the last month. They have kept 12 F’s and 7 D with the big club as often as they can and called up and sent down AHL players only for road trips or if a player is questionable or sick. This leaves their current salary cap situation looking like this:

CURRENT CAP SPACE: $1,581,146
DEADLINE CAP SPACE: $2,964,650

Without trading a single player on the Capitals roster, the Capitals would be able to add an NHL player with a close to $3M NHL cap hit at the NHL trade deadline. This number will fluctuate over the next month depending on how often they need to recall players.

This season has shown the Capitals are good team, which we all pretty much knew. Last season, with almost the same roster, the Capitals did very little at the trade deadline adding depth on D in Mike Weber and sending out Brooks Laich’s contract for Daniel Winnik. So they went for a depth D and a 4th line forward and it resulted in them being eliminated in the second round and the year prior to that they acquired Curtis Glencross and Tim Gleason, again depth moves for the organization. What they haven’t done is swung for the fences at the deadline and the time to do so is now.

The Capitals have two options: swing for the fences or stand pat, depth moves clearly are not the answer for this team.

As I wrote a month ago here, the prime target should be Matt Duchene. Yes, I will eat crow thinking they couldn’t win the division when I wrote that piece but I quite simply didn’t see the run they just went on happening. I am not the only one who thinks the Capitals and Avalanche make sense as trade partners. A few NHL GMs relayed the same message to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman and he said so in his 30 thoughts this week:

14. A few weeks ago, a couple GMs figured Washington would be an underrated match for one of Colorado’s forwards. But now, with the Capitals streaking to the top of the NHL, why would they even think about changing anything?

The one piece of Elliotte’s point that I disagree with is the “why would they even think about changing anything.” Why do you think about changing things? If the opportunity is there to improve your club then you do it, or in my opinion you aren’t doing your job as a GM. This decision is ultimately up to Capitals GM Brian MacLellan and his staff and would need to be signed off by Ted Leonsis.

While Duchene is at the top of my list, here are a few other names worth keeping an eye on that would make the Capitals a better team.

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado, LW: Landeskog is having a poor season in Colorado, but let’s face it who isn’t? The former 2nd overall pick is under contract through the 2020-21 season with a cap hit of $5.571M. He has eclipsed the 20 goal mark in every NHL season except the lockout shortened season and is not on pace to do so this season.

James Van Riemsdyk, Toronto, LW: If I am Toronto, do I trade him? No, I don’t. Toronto could bring back their entire team and have cap space this summer to add top tier D-men. But if they do consider trading him, the Capitals should be all over it. He has another year left on his deal with a $4.25M cap hit and provides insurance for the Capitals this summer when it will be very difficult to bring back T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams who are having great contract seasons.

Oliver Ekman-Larson, Arizona, D: While there is no indication the Coyotes are willing to deal Ekman-Larson, why not ask? Would an Orlov, Johansson and a 1st round pick get the attention of Coyotes management? Probably, not. But with a $5.5M cap hit for a top pair LHD that the Capitals are in need of, why not see if he is available.

Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis, D: A right shot D that is a top trade target around the league as he has an expiring contract. He would bring more balance to the Capitals blueline, but is going all-in for a rental worth it?

And last but not least, the sleeping giant:

Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg, D: Byfuglien has a NMC and a monstrous $7.6M cap hit. So why do I list him? Because he is signed through the 2020-21 season. This season Karl Alzner is a UFA, next season John Carlson is a UFA, and both will be due big raises. So acquiring a D with term and a fixed cap hit makes a lot of sense to me. But Winnipeg would have to fall completely out of the playoff picture for them to consider moving him.

Patrick Greissing is the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.

 
 
 

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