How Much Can Brian MacLellan Be Blamed For This Summer

 This summer has been tough for the Capitals and Caps Nation. As General Manager Brian MacLellan put it, the Caps have the Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup. 

So basically all the bad feelings without the good ones that precede it or getting absolutely drunk for 2 years and doing nothing fun with it. Ugh… it’s a terrible life to be a Capitals fan.

A lot of harsh words have been thrown at MacLellan for his work so far this summer and, for some, it’s hard not to get behind them. Does he really deserve all the scrutiny?

He did a good job with the re-signing of all the Restricted Free Agents (RFAs). Goaltender Philipp Grubauer,  right wing Brett Connolly, and forward Andre Burakovsky were all signed on decent bridge deals.

When it comes to center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, it seemed he paid too much. This is not saying that they aren’t worth their contracts but, with RFAs, management usually has all the leverage. MacLellan essentially paid the Russians as if they were Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs), instead of RFAs.

MacLellan re-signed only one of the Capitals’ UFAs, TJ. Oshie. I don’t think anyone associated with the Capitals is against keeping the American hero. He’s a fantastic player, especially on an Annual Average Value (AAV) of $5.75 million, but on an eight-year deal?

He’s already 30-years old. Signing any player long-term until they are 38 is usually not a good idea. Players historically start to decline in terms of their play in their 30s, and it’s unlikely Oshie ever scores 30 or more goals again. It’s a huge gamble that will most likely not pay off in the long term.

Top shooting percentages for the Washington Capitals (2016-2017)

The biggest busts of the summer were the Nate Schmidt/Marcus Johansson debacles. There’s absolutely no reason the Caps should have lost both of those players. If MacLellan knew there was no salary cap room for Johansson, why not expose him in the Expansion Draft and keep Schmidt?

Even if he had to lose Johansson, MacLellan needed to get a good return for him. Johansson is worth a first-round pick, or at least two good second-rounders, but all MacLellan could get in return was a second and third-rounder in next year’s draft.

Perhaps the worst part of the Johansson trade was the fact that MacLellan dealt him to a team in their own division (New Jersey Devils). There wasn’t one Western Conference team that could have used a 26 year old, 50 point scorer on a great contract? Why not trade Brooks Orpik to make room for him? I know it’s easier said than done, but look at the Colorado Avalanche. They have space and only three defensemen signed. I’m sure there’s a deal to be made there. Or buyout Orpik and trade Grubauer. That could finagle enough room to keep Johansson. The whole situation was a botch.

After I came down from my fuming rage (more like constant sobbing) and really looked at the whole situation that MacLellan was faced with it got me thinking. Maybe the boss couldn’t really do much about what happened. He was faced with tough decisions in a small time frame during a unique summer in the NHL as it expanded. So let’s look back at the decisions he made above on the Russians, Oshie, and Johansson/Schmidt but in a different lens.

The Russians

With Kuznetsov and Orlov, MacLellan kind of hit the perfect storm of bad news when dealing with the Russians. One, they always have the ability to go to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and, two, it’s an Olympic year. Russians absolutely love their Olympics; it’s why the Capitals have captain Alex Ovechkin threatening to leave during the season for the Olympics even if the NHL doesn’t allow it.

With RFAs, management always has the upperhand because the RFA doesn’t have leverage like UFAs, meaning they can’t say “pay me or I’ll hit the market”. With Kuznetsov and Orlov they had all the leverage. All they had to say is “pay us or we’re going back to Russia to play in the Olympics”. MacLellan had to pay them what they wanted.

After they were signed, it was revealed that both Kuznetsov and Orlov were thinking of going to the KHL. Orlov’s agent said one more day and they’d have looked at KHL offers seriously and it was reported Kuznetsov was being offered $10 million a year to go back home.

MacLellan’s hands were absolutely tied. You could say they were bluffing, but is it worth the gamble losing a #1 center and top-pairing defenseman? If you lose that bet, the Caps aren’t winning the Cup. They probably wouldn’t even get into the playoffs in a tough division. I could understand calling their bluff if it was any other year, but in an Olympic year? I wouldn’t mess around and take that chance.

T.J. Oshie

On to Oshie. Yes the $5.75 million AAV is a great value for him. He’s a legitimate Top 6 player that can score 20-plus goals and 55-plus points (if he stays healthy), and that’s worth the money. I hate the argument for players that have “intangibles” because that usually means they are bad at hockey. Oshie is both – he’s a heart and soul guy that gives everything on every shift, he goes to the dirty areas to get the puck, and he has immense skill to back it up.

The length of the deal was for eight years, which will take him to age 38, and as stated above, that’s not good management. But there’s a couple of things to consider.

First, Oshie probably has four to five years left in him as a Top 6 player, so if he helps the Caps win the Cup within that time span, which is certainly possible, I don’t think many will care how long his contract lasts.

Secondly, even if Oshie stops producing like a Top 6 player after four to five years, he will still be good enough to play on the third-line. Is paying a third-liner $5.75 million a year too much? Yes, most likely, but it isn’t the end of the world if the team can save money elsewhere.

Alex Ovechkin’s, Nicklas Backstrom’s, Braden Holtby’s, and Matt Niskanen’s deals will all be off the books by then, meaning there will be a lot of free cash (about $28 million), but I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see Backy and Ovi return on cheaper deals.

Additionally, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the cap to be around $90 million by then. If it is, Oshie’s cap hit will be around 6% of the team’s cap. For reference, Lars Eller’s (a third-liner) cap hit currently takes up 4.7% of the team’s cap space. So again it won’t be outrageous at all paying Oshie $5.75 million to play on the third-line.
Lastly, don’t forget that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) ends after the 2021-2022 season, at which point Oshie will be four years into his contract and likely no longer producing like a Top 6 player. If the negotiations are anything like last time the CBA ended (a lockout), then teams could be granted a certain amount of compliance buyouts.

Compliance buyouts are similar to usual buyouts, but instead there would be no cap hit penalties. Meaning, if the Caps feel like Oshie is declining more than they are willing to pay him for and want to get out from the last four years of his contract, they could buy him out with zero cap penalties which would be huge.

The compliance buyout isn’t a certain thing every time a new CBA is being settled upon, but it’s possible. If they do buy him out, it means the Caps would basically have signed Oshie for four to five year at $5.75 million a year, which is much better than the eight years they are required as of now.

Johansson/Schmidt

As for the Schmidt and Johansson fiasco, it’s a bit harder to understand. It’s important to realize just how difficult and uncommon a situation MacLellan was in. An Expansion Draft is a rarity (except in the 1970’s and 1990’s). The last one was 17 years ago and this expansion was the first one that really made it impossible to keep a good team intact.

In the past, when an expansion team was selecting a player from another team, they were left with the scraps: bottom-six forwards, bottom-pairing defensemen, and backup goalies. This time the expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, was basically guaranteed to get one Top 6 forward, a Top 4 defenseman, or a starting goalie with their picks. That’s tough for any General Manager, but especially one that built such a great team over the last three years. MacLellan was going to and did lose a really good player.

The question still begs, why didn’t he protect four defensemen (Orlov, Niskanen, Carlson, and Schmidt) and four forwards (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Burakovsky) if he knew he was going to trade Johansson anyway? He might as well have protected Schmidt and let Vegas select Johansson, unless they feared Vegas would select Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, or Jay Beagle, but even then they aren’t as important as Johansson or Schmidt. This would leave someone to guess three things may have happened.

First, MacLellan may have thought Vegas was going to select Grubauer, which is understandable when looking at all the other available goalies. Secondly, the Caps might have had a trade lined up to shed salary to keep Johansson, like moving Grubauer and more, but it fell through with all the chaos of the Expansion Draft. Third, MacLellan might have thought Kuznetsov and Orlov were going to come in lower with their AAVs and Grubauer was going to move. Even with all of that, there wasn’t enough room to keep Johansson, they would need around another $2 million in cap space to make it work. Something must have happened to alter his plan, because it’s hard to see MacLellan just letting Schmidt and Johansson go for not much of a return.

In Summary

To sum it all up, MacLellan came into the summer with five NHL RFAs to sign (not including Schmidt) and these weren’t small ones, they involved a number 1 center, a Top 6 winger, a top-pairing defenseman, and a starting-caliber goaltender. Don’t forget two of those important RFAs had leverage, which a NHL GM can’t combat with. While MacLellan was doing that, he had to go over all the important UFAs such as TJ Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, and Daniel Winnik to try to fit them in. All of that had to happen, while in the background, an expansion draft was happening. That’s like juggling knives then someone throws in a chainsaw, while Russian techno blasts and you’re still trying to recover from a handover. Essentially, we should give MacLellan the benefit of the doubt here. He has three years worth of proof showing he knows how to build a strong team. Sure, he probably would want to go back and change something as all GMs would do. The fact is, he did what he had to do to keep the core together that can compete for a Cup. Losing Williams, Johansson, Schmidt, and Winnik hurts, but they weren’t the important parts of the core. Is the team perfect? No, but perfection has never gotten them anywhere anyway, so maybe these changes to the team are exactly what they need to take that next step. Maybe MacLellan isn’t finished yet, as there’s still a lot of time left in the summer, too much time if you ask hockey fans. Is it October yet?

 

By Luke Adomanis

Our house, our time.

A post shared by NoVa Caps (@nova_caps) on

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6 Responses to How Much Can Brian MacLellan Be Blamed For This Summer

  1. jane says:

    What happened, happened. All teams loosing players in exp. draft., loosing players hurts but
    Brian could not avoid it.

    But there is bigger mistake which Brian repeats every year.
    Brians obssession with showing the best he has in October prevents caps from winning SC,
    he has nothing new to show in playoff.
    There is nothing to invent for regular season, caps have best core players in the league , just coach must use them /not like barry last season/ and give them more independence rather than too much coaching.No need to have a perfect team for regular season.
    Brians decision to bring youngsters is possitive, he must give teenagers best opportunity
    to be significant factor in playoffs and therefore he must bring the best of them in spring, not in october.
    He must be more flexible and must be able to create perfect team fast before playoff, he must be less predictable.
    If he shows new faces on october, they will be old faces in the spring,it will be much more dificult for them to score in playoff as oponent will be prepared for them.
    Talented “no names” are much more important for postseason than for reg. season,
    they can score from first shot and take attention away from stars, and so create and illusion that
    stars elevated their game to so called next level / but in fact GM and coach must do that, not players/
    jane

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unfortunately for Caps fans, GMBM and GMGM have too many of the wrong things in common..

    Like taking shortcuts involving the loss of our young talent in exchange for rentals or players of mediocre talent…Can anybody say Michael Latta, Martin Erat and Kevin Shittenkirk?

    I’d much rather have Filip Forsberg and Zach Sanford, frankly…

    WOULDN’T YOU???????????

    Disgusted,

    Clifford
    Santa Monica

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Grading Brian MacLellan’s In-Season Moves | NoVa Caps

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  5. Pingback: Grading General Manager Brian MacLellan’s Offseason Moves for First 4 Years | NoVa Caps

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