Since Brian MacLellan became General Manager in Washington, the Capitals have gone from a team that missed the playoffs to one of the best teams in the league. How have his moves made during his tenure stacked up in retrospect? In this article, Harrison Brown examines the free agent signings, trades, and Expansion Draft decisions MacLellan has made during the four off-seasons to help improve the Capitals. [We graded MacLellan’s in-season moves earlier this summer, which can be read here.]
Playing armchair General Manager with the benefit of hindsight is easy compared to the job MacLellan has to do. Trying to assess talent and negotiate contract terms, while worrying about moves the rest of the league is trying to make is no easy job, but having others second-guess your work goes along with the job.
The first signing MacLellan made was the signing of veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to a five-year contract worth $27.5 million ($5.5 million AAV). “We are very excited to welcome Brooks to Washington,” MacLellan said at the time. “We feel Brooks’ leadership and experience will greatly enhance our defense for years to come. Brooks plays tough minutes against the opposition’s best players.”
Many Caps fans did not approve of the deal when it was announced, citing Orpik’s age and the length and financial terms of the contract. It is important to note that the Caps ranked 22nd in the league defensively the year before Orpik joined the team, and finished best in that category last year and second in the league two seasons ago.
Orpik has had a positive influence in the locker room and helped develop young players such as Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt.
“The whole situation just felt right,” said Orpik when he signed, adding that he was impressed by coach Barry Trotz’s vision for the organization. “It’s a group obviously that I guess for the last couple years people think has underachieved, but I’ve played against that group enough that I know what the potential is for that group.”
Orpik’s leadership has been a big help to the Caps, and they will need it this season with the possible addition of young defensemen such as Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos to the team. Orpik has won a Stanley Cup (with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009), and has what it takes to guide the young players.
Orpik’s lack of production offensively made it easy to overlook the fact that he led the Capitals in plus/minus last season with a plus-32 rating. Orpik’s defensive prowess notwithstanding, his $5.5 million cap hit is starting to pinch. The Caps were forced to trade Marcus Johansson this summer because they lacked the cap space needed to keep him and fill out the rest of the roster.
While Orpik has only scored three goals and produced 49 points during his three years in Washington, he has taken a bulk of the ice time, playing important minutes for the team, averaging 17:47 per game, and 2:24 on the penalty kill.
“The better you play in previous years, the expectations go up,” Niskanen said upon signing. “With a long-term contract and large money, expectations go up. That’s reality. I think I’m ready for that challenge.”
While his goal production declined from 10 in 2013-14 with the Penguins, to five last season, Niskanen has seen less time on the first power play unit, on which he was playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. “Certainly just playing with those guys [on the Penguins], you’re going to be a better player,” Niskanen said. “That’s the effect that they have. Alex Ovechkin is going to have that effect too. Nicklas Backstrom is going to have that effect. That’s one of my strengths, is that I can play with those high-end guys and help those guys out.”
Niskanen was a plus-20 last season and played well with Dmitry Orlov, helping the young defenseman have a strong year. He has been good at setting up his teammates for scoring chances, as his assist totals went from 27 in each of the first two seasons of his contract to 34 last season. Niskanen averaged 17:48 minutes of ice time, including 2:35 shorthanded. He and Orlov will go into this season penciled in as the No. 1 defensive pair.
2014 Off-season Cumulative Grade: B
Taylor Chorney was brought in as a seventh defenseman when the Caps signed him to a one-year contract worth $700,000. While he has not seen a lot of time in the lineup, Chorney has been strong defensively when he has played. Chorney was a plus-8 in each of his first two years with the team, and played in only 18 games last season after seeing time in 55 games during the 2015-16 season.
The Caps extended Chorney on a two-year contract worth $800,000 a year two seasons ago. Chorney didn’t see much playing time last season when in the lineup, averaging only 13:33 per game and just 43 seconds of them came on the penalty kill.
Chorney is expected to see more time in the lineup following the departures of Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk, and the Caps will need him to step up.
MacLellan signed three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams to a two-year contract worth $6.5 million ($3.25 million AAV) on the opening day of free agency in 2015. “He woke up this morning and said, ‘Daddy, where we playing?’ I told him Washington, and he was all smiles, so that passed the test,” Williams said about his son after he signed in Washington.
MacLellan brought Williams in, in an effort to get the Capitals past the postseason hump following a Game 7 loss to the top-seeded New York Rangers the previous season. Williams was 7-0 in Game 7’s in his career, and MacLellan believed he could be the spark to get the Caps a bit further in the playoffs. “The storyline’s (there), obviously,” MacLellan said. “He just brings the things we need, that we don’t have. We’re looking to get over the hump and he’s been there before.”
Williams scored 22 goals and 52 points in his first season with the Caps and played well in the team’s second round playoff series against Pittsburgh. He helped the Caps in a leadership role and calmed the team down after they lost Game 5 against the Philadelphia Flyers after winning the first three games of the series.
Williams scored 24 goals and 48 points last season despite a slow start. He also scored big goals in the Capitals’ first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring the first two goals in Game 1 after the Caps trailed 2-0 at the start of the game, and the overtime game-winning goal in Game 5, to give the Caps the 3-2 series lead.
Williams shooting percentages were over 10% both of his seasons played in D.C and he averaged 13:01 minutes a night. His contract expired this summer, and he signed a two-year contract worth $9 million with the Carolina Hurricanes.
With the loss of Joel Ward to free agency after the 2014-2015 season, the Capitals needed a top-line right wing to play with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals went through nine different wingers trying to find a fit with Ovechkin and Backstrom in 2014-2015, and really never found the right fit. Still looking to round out the top-line, the Capitals acquired T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Troy Brouwer, a third-round pick, and goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley.
“T.J. is an outstanding skater with a tremendous skill set,” said MacLellan in a release announcing the deal. “He is a powerful player and has a consistent track record of production throughout his career in the NHL. We feel that he complements our core group nicely and can help us get to the next level in achieving our ultimate goal.”
Oshie was excited about the move and his new linemates, saying “I’d feel kind of like a kid in a candy store, I guess, playing with that caliber of player.” Oshie went on to score 26 goals, then a career-high, in his first year with the team and then shattered that mark with 33 goals in only 68 games played this past season. He also scored on an insane 23% of his shots last season while averaging less than 18 minutes per night.
Oshie has also been effective in the playoffs, in which he’s scored 10 goals and 22 points in 25 games played with the Caps. With St. Louis, he scored just five goals and nine points in 30 playoff games. The fit in Washington worked out so well, that Oshie signed an eight-year contract extension worth $46 million this offseason.
2015 Off-season Cumulative Grade: B+
Lars Eller was acquired in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for second and third-round picks in an effort to find a speedy, productive third-line center, after the Penguins exposed the Capitals’ lack of depth that year in the playoffs.
“We identified Lars probably a year ago,” MacLellan said. “We’re trying to fill a third-line center with a good two-way guy that can give us a little offense and play defense.” Eller said, “There’s so many good things about this … From experience, it’s a lot more fun to play on a team with a winning culture than it is the other way around.”
Eller scored 12 goals and 25 points and had a career-high plus-25 rating with Washington last season, despite his ice time taking a hit of nearly two minutes. He has been a great addition to the penalty killing unit, helping the team kill off 83.8% of the penalties they took last season, good enough for seventh in the league. Eller was also strong defensively, with 31 takeaways. Eller was a good fit for the Caps last season, and he gives the Caps one of the best center units in the league.
Brett Connolly was brought in by the Capitals after not being qualified by the Boston Bruins as a restricted free agent. “I think his skill set is there,” MacLellan said. “You know, he’s got good size, he’s got good hands, he’s got the ability to score and make plays. I think he’s got the ability to play with good players.” Connolly signed a one-year contract worth $850,000 and rewarded the Caps in a big way, scoring 15 goals and 22 points in 66 games played with the Caps despite his ice time dropping by nearly two minutes. He also had a career high 18.5% shooting percentage. Connolly may have been scratched in the playoffs, but he was still very productive last season. The Caps ended up re-signing him to a two-year contract worth $3 million this offseason to shore up the third-line.
2016 Off-season Cumulative Grade: B
This summer the NHL added a new franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, meaning the league would have its first Expansion Draft in nearly 20 years (2000). The Caps protected Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and Eller at forward; John Carlson, Orlov, and Niskanen on defense, and Braden Holtby in goal. Unfortunately, that did not leave them with enough room to protect Nate Schmidt, who had a breakout showing last season.
While other clubs made a deal with Vegas to protect additional players, the Caps were unwilling to pay Vegas’ asking price to protect Schmidt. “We made a couple of good offers,” MacLellan said. “I think they just liked Schmidt.” Now, the Caps have a hole to fill in their Top 4, which will most likely have to be taken by a rookie due to salary cap constraints.
Capitals fans were disappointed to lose a fan favorite, but only time will tell whether the Caps will be able to tap the prospects at Hersey to replace Schmidt at both ends of the ice.
After re-signing Evgeny Kuznetsov to a monster eight-year contract worth $62.4 million ($7.8 million AAV), they were forced to ship Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for 2018 second and third-round picks. “We had to comply with his demands,” MacLellan said. “[Johansson] was making the money we needed to shed in order to sign Kuznetsov. We tried to do the best we could with the picks that were presented to us.” It’s unclear how many teams MacLellan spoke to about moving Johansson, so it’s uncertain whether the Caps could have gotten more in exchange for the Top 6 forward.
The Capitals signed right wing Devante Smith-Pelly to a one-year contract worth $650,000 this offseason after his contract was bought out by the New Jersey Devils. “I think there’s some untapped potential. I think maybe conditioning played a factor in some of it. I think we’re going to work with him to see if we can get a little bit of that back and create a player that we can use,” said MacLellan.
The Capitals are hoping that this helps them recover some of the production they’ve lost this offseason, and MacLellan is clearly hoping he has another Connolly in the offing. Smith-Pelly has shown flashes of being a solid contributor, but he hasn’t been consistent. “I think for us, we’re looking for ways on the bottom-end of our lineup to add cheaper players or develop cheaper players because of the [Evgeny Kuznetsov] signing and the [T.J. Oshie] signing,” MacLellan said. “So we’re going to have to be more creative on the fourth-line.” Smith-Pelly scored five goals in 12 playoff games with the Ducks in 2014 and two goals and 10 points in only 19 games played that year.
2016 Off-season Cumulative Grade: Incomplete
By Harrison Brown