When he was promoted to be the head General Manager in spring of 2014, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan was doubted by many. While the need for a new general manager was apparent after missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, many believed outside candidates were the best option for the Capitals. The doubt did not stem from the fact he was an unknown, but because he had spent 13 years in the organization prior to being promoted. Many believed he would be the same as his predecessor, George McPhee, and after watching McPhee’s last few years with the team go in the wrong direction, many felt the Caps would remain the same.
But now, just over a year after his promotion, those doubters are singing MacLellan’s praises. In his first free agency period, he addressed the Capitals’ longstanding need for a shutdown defenseman when he signed former Pittsburgh Penguin Brooks Orpik to a questionable five-year,$27.5 million contract. To add icing to the cake, MacLellan signed the top blueliner on the market, Matt Niskanen, to a long-term seven-year, $40.25 million contract. For the first time in a long time, the Caps had made noise in free agency. Not only have both defensemen lived up to the lofty expectations that came with such large deals, but both are now undisputed leaders on the Capitals defense. Orpik, in particular, has proven he can remain healthy for a whole season, playing 78 games last year; his most in six seasons. Niskanen posted 31 points and has started off the 2015-16 campaign with five points (two goals, three assists) in his first 14 games; a 24-point pace. While it is still very early on, it’s safe to assume that the Capitals as a whole have not played their best hockey yet, so Niskanen’s early production shouldn’t be worried about too much.
Orpik sustained a lower body injury in the Capitals’ visit to Detroit on Tuesday night. According to CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley, it was a lower-body injury. Head coach Barry Trotz said that Orpik had been playing through “some small hurts”, which although is admirable to an extent, Orpik is 35-years old, not 29-years old. Orpik is a renowned health freak off the ice, but Father Time eventually catches up with every player.Hopefully for both Orpik and the Caps, it isn’t right now.
Despite this recent injury, Orpik and Niskanen have turned out to be exactly what the Caps needed on the blueline: two veterans that provide different contributions. One brings the physical, shutdown style the team has lacked since the days of Brendan Witt and Mark Tinordi, while the other brings a steady, two-way game with some offensive power. No matter how much criticism their contracts may receive, the former Penguins are now beloved members of the team in red.
But MacLellan also has continued McPhee’s successful drafting, which has produced key players over the years. Two of the the next wave of young talent, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov, are already on the NHL team and figure to play more prominent roles in the coming seasons. MacLellan has also done something McPhee rarely did: sign big-name players in free agency. While MacLellan stated that the team would go after a “shutdown defensive defenseman”, few expected the Caps to make such a splash like signing Niskanen. McPhee had a tendency to remain “loyal” to players when the Capitals were clearly better without those certain players. Instead of adding true impact players, McPhee often settled on bargain, low-costing players, such as Jack Hillen, Wojtek Wolski, and Joey Crabb. While some, such as Matt Hendricks turned out to be important players, many of them failed to make a positive impact and the team failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs. McPhee’s relationship with player agents was rumored to deter big-name free agents from seriously considering the Caps, something that was often mentioned come July.
But perhaps, above all, McPhee’s trade decisions in the final few years of his tenure caused the Caps to become a disorganized group. The most infamous was the trade that sent top prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators in exchange for veteran winger Martin Erat and prospect Michael Latta. Some have called it the “worst in team history”, and understandably so. Erat lasted less than two full seasons in Washington, posting just two goals and 27 points in 62 games before requesting a trade after seeing limited ice time. Forsberg, on the other hand, went on to score 63 points (26 goals, 37 assists) in his first full season in the NHL and finished fourth in Calder Memorial Trophy voting.
McPhee’s habit of being loyal to players also translated to trades, and a perfect example of the drastic differences between MacLellan and McPhee was when MacLellan traded fan favorite Troy Brouwer to the St. Louis Blues for right winger TJ Oshie. McPhee, on the other hand, would likely have not made such a high-profile move. MacLellan also dipped into free agency and signed three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams. The Capitals allowed longtime fan favorites in Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward to depart in free agency in the process.