It was no surprise that Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan made a trade for defenseman Nick Jensen days before the deadline last week. The championship-winning GM has made a move for a defenseman in each of his previous four years as General Manager. What was surprising this go around was that no more than an hour after the trade was made official, the Capitals inked the 28-year old to a four-year deal worth $10 million, the same deal fellow blueliner Michal Kempny signed back in June of 2018. It was a good trade and signing, but in adding a great talent, it created another problem.
A couple months ago, NoVa Caps looked at the Capitals’ overload of left-handed defensemen, and in order to fit them all in properly it would take a trade during the summer. Now that the Caps have added a right-handed defenseman, it makes it even more pressing that the Capitals will have to make a trade or two to make them all fit next season.
So what does the Jensen signing mean going forward? Looking at the future using CapFriendly one can see how he fits.
Assuming veteran Brooks Orpik retires or isn’t re-signed this summer and Christian Djoos is re-signed as a Restricted Free Agent, it leaves a full defensive bench with John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Kempny, Jensen, Djoos, and Matt Niskanen. Which may seem norml, but it is simply too much depth.
If the Capitals are set on the blueline on the NHL roster, it means young players such as Jonas Siegenthaler or Lucas Johansen will have no chance of making the lineup. It’s reasonable for Johansen to stay in the American Hockey League one more season because of two months missed due to injury this season. But for a player like Siegenthaler, that has already played 25 NHL games and looked very good, there can be an argument made he needs playing time. The AHL has nothing else to show him and sitting with the Caps to be the extra defenseman would be just as hurtful to his development.
Even if an argument could be made for him to play in the AHL, there simply isn’t any room down on the Hershey Bears’ roster either.
There are a couple caveats to this lineup. First, will the Capitals be able to get Chase Priskie under contract? He’s a senior currently second in points among defensemen in the NCAA and can become an unrestricted free agent this summer if he wishes. The good news is he stated he was going to sign with the Capitals last summer, but decided to stay for his senior year to finish on a good note; but nothing is certain in the business world of sports. Additionally, Colby Williams is a Restricted Free Agent this summer, but with all the young players on the team, Williams’ 156 games would give him the most professional experience outside of Tyler Lewington (who could very well be the extra defenseman for the Capitals) and his 222 games, so it’s likely they will want Williams to stay. Another thing to consider is whether the Capitals would be interested in signing Sebastian Walfridsson (2017 fifth-round pick).
And even after all of that, the Bears will probably want a more experienced veteran to play with the young roster. Not one player listed above would be considered a “veteran” by AHL standards, meaning they have played at least 260 professional games. Currently, the Bears have two veterans on the back-end with Aaron Ness and Ryan Sproul, both of whom are having very good seasons (Ness has 39 points in 54 games and Sproul has 15 points – seven goals – in 32 games with the Bears). It would be very hard to imagine that the Bears (or the Capitals, who oversee all roster decisions regarding the Bears, would be willing to roll with three rookies on their blueline. It seems likely that a veteran would be added onto this already large pile of defensemen. And if one or more is, it would add to 10 defensemen to sort through and find time for.
Now it’s easy to see how the problem is starting to emerge. The Capitals simply have too many defensemen fighting for spots not just in the NHL, but also in the AHL. This will lead one to think that there will have to be some sort of trade movement this summer, but the question is who?
At the NHL level it’s safe to assume Carlson, Orlov, and recently signed Kempny and Jensen are safe. That leaves Niskanen and Djoos. Whenever he’s been in the lineup, Djoos has been fantastic. He’s a young puck-moving defenseman that always seems to be doing the right thing to get the puck up the ice. His only downfall is he’s left-handed. And with Siegenthaler and Johansen poised to break into the NHL this makes him expendable. As for Niskanen, it’s easy to see that he has been struggling over the last two seasons. It shows up on the eye test and the underlying numbers, proven here by Evolving Wild’s WAR Charts.
And it’s nothing that he’s doing wrong, he has the mentality to do it; it’s more likely age (he is 32-years old) is beginning to catch up with him and it’s physically more difficult for him to keep up with top players, particularly for a player that has eaten heavy minutes the last six seasons going against elite players night in and out. This isn’t saying he’s a bad player, but he’s no longer a player that can take heavy defensive starts against great competition. The good news is that the Caps have someone who can do that, the very player they just traded for (graph provided by Bill Comeau).
And make no doubt it, the Caps traded for Jensen to play in the Top 4. Jensen hadn’t yet played a single game for the franchise and the Capitals signed him to a long-term. This says a lot. Teams don’t just trade for a defenseman and sign them for four years if they don’t envision them playing a big role for them, as teams can sign a player in free agency for half the money and half the length and the Caps have a handful of defensive prospects that could do it. The fact the Caps instantly locked up Jensen also alludes to the fact that they think he’ll end this season and (hopefully) the posteason looking more like a Top 4 defenseman, meaning he’ll cost way more than $2.5 million, saving them some money, making it a safe bet to assume that Jensen will play in the Top 4 at some point , sooner rather than later.
If Carlson and Jensen end up in the Top 4 on the right side, whether it’s this season or next, it would leave Niskanen on the bottom-pairing. Is it worth keeping a player making $5.75 million a season through the next two seasons after this one? For a team that’s always tight up against the salary cap and in need of draft picks, it checks off a lot of boxes in moving Niskanen: they will save money, get draft picks (if they want that return), and it makes room for young defensemen that need playing time. It certainly looks like arguably, the best route is to move Niskanen this summer.
Whether it’s Djoos or Niskanen, moving either would relieve a little pressure throughout the organization’s defensive depth. Here is what the NHL and AHL defensive roster would look like.
This looks a lot better. It would still be difficult for someone like Tobias Geisser to be sitting, but with all the new players coming in, he’ll still likely get a lot of playing time, and there is always the chance of injuries. As for Kristofers Bindulis, it’s hard to gauge his worth since he only played four games this season with the Bears before suffering an injury and hasn’t played since. Perhaps a stint in the East Coast Hockey League with the South Carolina Stingrays would be best for him next season, which would free up another spot in the AHL.
This still doesn’t address the possibility of the Bears wanting/needing a veteran presence on the blueline. The AHL, though, can have an unlimited number of players on their roster. For instance, the Bears have 10 defensemen on their roster right now. That doesn’t mean, however, it would be smart to have a bunch of young defensemen if they aren’t going to play. Essentially, all the players shown above should be getting consistent playing time to help their development.
MacLellan also mentioned that he wouldn’t be against moving a defensive prospect for an offensive prospect at the same skill level. If he can find a trade partner that makes sense, someone could very well be moved out for much-needed offensive depth.
Either way, the Capitals are loaded with defensemen throughout the organization. It’s a good problem to have, but if development is of importance to them (which it is), then moves will have to be made this summer to make some room. Some moves are obvious but the question is what the Capitals do about it. Even when/if this gets sorted out this summer, they will have the same issue the following summer, but that will be a bridge they’ll cross when they get there.
By Luke Adomanis