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Capitals focus on building up bottom six

Washington GM MacLellan says adding speed, skill to third, fourth lines his offseason goal

by Katie Brown / Correspondent

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Surrounding Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin with a deeper team will be a priority during the offseason, general manager Brian MacLellan said Monday.

"I think he can play a lot more if he doesn't feel that pressure that he needs to win the games," MacLellan said.

Washington had a successful regular season, winning the Presidents' Trophy with 120 points and a team-record 56 wins. But the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Eastern Conference Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Capitals have not advanced past the second round during Ovechkin's 11 seasons in the NHL.

None of that is solely Ovechkin's fault, though he may take most of the heat for the early playoff exits. During the regular season, he scored 50 goals for the seventh time in his NHL career and kept performing at a high level during the postseason with five goals and 12 points in 12 games.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm 5: Ovechkin fires a one-timer for PPG

MacLellan said he feels responsible for surrounding Ovechkin with the best supporting cast possible.

This summer, that includes finding more skill and speed for his bottom-six forward group.

He said his goal is to build a top-nine forward group, which he didn't feel Washington had this season. He'd also like to get faster, something that stood out during the series against Pittsburgh.

"You need two-way guys, guys who can play both ways," MacLellan said. "Ideally for us, I think we need some offense out of it. I think speed needs to be a factor for us considering any players. I don't think we're a slow team. But I think at times we get exposed with the really fast teams."

MacLellan tried to improve that area during the season when center Mike Richards was signed as a free agent in January and left wing Daniel Winnik was acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 28. Winnik (20 games) and Richards (39 games) each had two goals during the regular season. Neither scored in the playoffs.

"Winnik did a great job for us penalty-killing," MacLellan said. "Richards did a good job and it's good to have that. But you still need to have a little offense from your bottom six."

One specific area that MacLellan said needs to be addressed is third-line center. Marcus Johansson, Jay Beagle and Richards filled that role during the regular season, but MacLellan said he doesn't know who may play there next season; that player might not be in the organization now, he said.

"I think it's a tough role to fill," MacLellan said. "There are a couple of free agents that could fill that role, but I don't know that the salary level is going to be the hole that we're going to have. I don't know that we'll able to afford them."

MacLellan said he's going to prioritize re-signing four restricted free agents, forwards Johansson, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta, and defenseman Dmitry Orlov. Forward Jason Chimera and defenseman Mike Weber are unrestricted free agents.

Chimera, 37, seems to be the most likely of the unrestricted free agents to return. He has played the past seven seasons in Washington and scored 20 goals this season as the oldest player on the roster. His speed and ability to play in any situation is an asset.

"Our priorities are going to be our restricted guys," MacLellan said. "I think everything will fall into place off of that, depending on what level of salary we need to get our guys signed and what do we have left and what [Chimera's] contract demands are. We're going to have to balance all those things out, whether we bring him back or not."

MacLellan has often spoken of his "two-year window" plan for the Capitals but said Monday that he hopes younger players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will help them remain contenders after that two-year period has passed. Their development also is a focus.

"Our bottom six needs a little work, and I think that's going to be the main focus for us," MacLellan said. "The other focus is development and we'll continue to develop our players -- Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Wilson, Orlov, [Nate] Schmidt. We've got to continue to make these guys better."

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