After a disappointing 2nd round playoff loss last May, the Washington Capitals had to change. With a tight salary cap, the Capitals management team had to make some tough personnel decisions. Some of the moves made were very unpopular among the fans, but changes were needed for the club so it could stay competitive.
Fast-forward to the Capitals bye week this week, the Capitals are still sitting at the top of the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division. Barring a monumental collapse down the stretch, the Capitals appear to be set to make another playoff appearance. Even with the offseason turnover, the tough choices made by GM Brian MacLellan and Capitals management appear to be paying off for the club.
INSIDE THE MIND OF THE CAPITALS GM
With limited cash and cap space available, the Capitals had to be creative with the players they decided to keep long term. MacLellan re-signed Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and T.J. Oshie to long-term deals. With these long-term extensions to these respective players, the Capitals solidified their top-end defensive depth and forward depth.
With the long-term deals done, Brian MacLellan made the tough choice to trade Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils to free up additional cap space. While the move was not popular, it was a move that was needed to help the Capitals financial situation. In addition to the Johansson trade, GM Brian MacLellan let veteran winger Justin Williams walk and sign in Carolina. He also let veteran defensemen Karl Alzner walk and sign in Montreal, and he let Kevin Shattenkirk walk and sign in New York. The Capitals simply could not afford to let these players stick around at the prices the free agency market dictates.
KNOWING THE PIPELINE AND BARGAIN HUNTING
With low cap space and the major players signed, Brian MacLellan needed to fill the remaining depth spots on the Capitals roster. He signed Devante Smith-Pelly to an affordable 1-year contract worth $650k. He also brought in veteran winger Alex Chiasson on a 1-year deal worth $660k. Through the current bye week, Smith-Pelly and Chiasson have combined for 13 goals.
In addition to bringing in some players to fill some remaining roster spots, MacLellan knew what he already had in the Capitals pipeline. At forward, Jakub Vrana became an instant lock to make the Capitals roster. Through 44 games, Vrana has put up 10 goals and is still on his entry-level deal. In addition to Vrana playing with the Capitals more, the Capitals have seen plenty of action from Chandler Stephenson. In 32 games played, Stephenson has put up 10 points with the Capitals.
The blueline saw the most changes during the offseason, but they have not missed a beat. Coming off a 58-point season in Hershey in 2016-17, Christian Djoos has carried his offensive play to Washington. He has recorded 3 goals and 9 points in 36 games for the Capitals. By comparison, Karl Alzner currently has 1 goal and 7 points in 43 games for the Montreal Canadiens. Madison Bowey has also entered the defensive mix for the Capitals, mainly playing on the third defensive pairing. He has quietly recorded 10 assists through 37 games this year, and is still playing on his entry-level contract.
THE YOUTH MOVEMENT IS PAYING OFF
Even with veteran players out of the picture, the Capitals have not missed a beat as they filled in their roster with young new talent. Young players like Christian Djoos, Jakub Vrana, and Madison Bowey are contributing every game, and that makes some of the pricier alternatives appear that much more expendable.
The best general managers can do three things well – draft and monitor the development of players, make timely trades, and manage the salary cap. Brian MacLellan has shown that he can do all three of these things.
While the Capitals roster is not perfect, the tough decisions made have paid off. Some of the decisions made by management were not popular, but some were necessary to keep the long-term future intact. The NHL is a business where tough decisions are made all the time, and sometimes the decisions made are painful, even for the top executives.
For where the Capitals are in the standings right now, GM Brian MacLellan deserves a ton of credit for keeping a competitive roster intact despite plenty of offseason roster turnover. If the Capitals are playoff bound again, it was a well-done offseason for the Capitals GM. After all, it is a business that is dictated by winning games, right?
By: George Foussekis