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Capitals retool to keep their playoff-contending window open during Ovechkin era


ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — In the midst of overhauling the Washington Capitals this offseason, Brian MacLellan received Alex Ovechkin's seal of approval.

Ovechkin texted his general manager a thumbs up emoji for acquiring new first-line center Pierre-Luc Dubois. MacLellan was not done, getting a new goaltender in Logan Thompson and a new defenseman in Jakob Chychrun via two more trades. He also signed big blue liner Matt Roy and forwards Brandon Duhaime and Taylor Raddysh in free agency to turn over roughly a quarter of the roster.

So much for just trying to help Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky's NHL career goals record. Six years since winning the Stanley Cup for the first and only time in franchise history, the Capitals went all in to keep their playoff-contending window open for next season and beyond.

“They’ve done a great job kind of retooling, guess you could say, on the fly,” said Chychrun, who arrived from from Ottawa. “They’ve been very aggressive, and it’s great to see.”

There's reason for that.

Washington squeaked into the postseason as the second and final East wild card last season after Ovechkin, who scored eight goals in his first 43 games, went on a tear with 23 goals in 36 games asgoalie Charlie Lindgren carried the team many nights. With basically all their energy expended just to get in on a tiebreaker, the Capitals were swept in the first round by the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers.

“We realized where we were at last year,” MacLellan said Wednesday. “We knew we had to get better. We had to add. For Ovi, too. I mean, there’s a lot of pressure on Ovi to produce last year because we lacked the depth in that area, so hopefully he’s supported here more with a better overall team this year.”

Ovechkin is 42 goals from passing Gretzky with two years left on his contract. He turns 39 in September. No one in league history has scored at this rate at this age until now.

“I’m going to really cherish this time with him and doing everything we can to help him be successful," Chychrun said. “Greatest goal scorer of all time, so it’s going to be very special to have an opportunity to play with Alex.”

If Dubois bounces back from an underproductive down year with Los Angeles after his third trade by age 26, he gives Ovechkin the kind of elite talent in the middle the Capitals used to have with Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Still, acquiring a player owed $8.5 million annually through 2031 who's coming off a 40-point season is taking a chance. And it's a different kind of gamble now trying to keep his team in the playoff mix than the ones MacLellan made upon taking over a decade ago to try to deliver the nation's capital the Cup.

“We’ve been trying to take risks: looking for upside in players, trying to find players that we think we can create environment where they’re more successful,” MacLellan said. “That’s been our philosophy, versus let’s just tank it and go down and try and win the lottery, which is a painful approach to it. We are taking a lot of risks.”

Winning the lottery two decades ago landed Ovechkin, and the recipe has helped Pittsburgh, Chicago, Colorado and Florida all get to hockey's mountaintop. This approach is more unconventional, and it relies on hitting on trades, signings and draft picks, something the Capitals almost certainly did drafting Ryan Leonard eighth last year.

Leonard, who is returning to Boston College to play a second NCAA season in search of a national title, could join as soon as next spring. As part of the next generation of talent, the organization's top prospect also gives this offseason of change a thumbs up.

“It’s a winning culture here, and that’s obviously what you want to be a part of," Leonard said. “You saw the day the other day with the free agency: They’re looking for top-end guys that can help win championships, and that’s what I’m here to try to do at some point.”