Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
After the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history in 2018, general manager Brian MacLellan chose to go with largely the same team heading into the 2018-2019 season but made some key changes to the coaching staff and added some depth at the trade deadline. NoVa Caps evaluates the Capitals’ moves for the NHL team that they made over the course of the year.
Barry Trotz Resigns As Capitals Head Coach on June 18 And Todd Reirden Gets Promoted On June 29
After a contract dispute with the Capitals, Trotz became the fifth coach in NHL history not to return to their team after winning the Stanley Cup. Trotz wanted a five-year contract worth $25 million ($5 million AAV) while the Capitals wanted him to stick to the two-year contract extension worth $3.9 million ($1.8 million AAV) that kicked in after the team had won the Stanley Cup, an agreement the two sides had reached when Trotz joined the Capitals in 2014. The Capitals agreed to let Trotz go after he refused to honor his original commitment.
Despite losing captain and star center John Tavares, Trotz’s system got the Islanders within one point of the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division title. He also transformed a defense that allowed the most goals in the NHL (3.57 goals-against average per game in 2017-18) to the fewest (2.33 this season) despite the fact that the Islanders also lost defenseman Calvin de Hann in free agency. Trotz and the Islanders swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs before getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Trotz is a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s coach of the year this season.
Reirden led the Capitals to a fourth straight division title and came within a point of matching the team’s 2017-2018 point tally, but the Capitals defense saw a significant drop off despite having the same lineup (and perhaps an even better defensive corps on paper after the team acquired Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings on February 22). The 2018 Capitals finished with the fourth-best defense in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs (2.54 goals-against per game) but ended the 2018-19 regular season tied for 17th with the Vancouver Canucks, who were 23rd in the NHL with 81 points. The Capitals had the third-worst among teams that made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs (3.02 goals-against per game). While the offense improved, jumping from 3.12 goals-per-game in 2017-18 to 3.34 goals-per-game this season, penalty-killing efficiency dropped from an 80.8% efficiency to a 78.9% this past season. The power-play also saw a decline, dropping from 22.5% last year to 20.8% this year. With weapons like captain Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and defenseman John Carlson, the Capitals’ top power-play unit was too talented to finish 12th in the league. The Capitals also didn’t make the second round for the first time since 2014.
Capitals Send Philipp Grubauer And Brooks Orpik To Colorado Avalanche In Exchange For 2018 Second-Round Pick On June 22
Needing cap space to re-sign Carlson, who was set to become the best defenseman on the unrestricted free agent market, the Capitals traded Grubauer and Orpik to the Avalanche to clear $8.83 million in cap space.
While the Capitals could have gotten more for Grubauer after he recorded a save percentage of .937 and a goals-against average of 1.93 post-Thanksgiving in 2017-18, it was important to clear Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit to re-sign Carlson and defenseman Michal Kempny. The Capitals were offered the 42nd overall pick by the Hurricanes for Grubauer and Orpik, but it was important not to send a potential No. 1 goalie to a division rival who the team could face in the playoffs.
Orpik was bought out by the Avalanche the next day and returned to Washington on a one-year contract worth $1 million later in the summer. The Capitals were able to keep Carlson, Kempny, and forward Tom Wilson, a restricted free agent, because of the much-needed cap relief the trade gave them.
Carlson Signs Eight-Year Contract Extension Worth $64 Million ($8 Million AAV) on June 23
A few hours after dipping his toe into free agent talks, Carlson opted to stay with the Capitals and become the second-highest paid player on the team behind Ovechkin ($9.5 million AAV).
After setting career-highs in goals (15) and points (64) in the regular season and a five-goal, 20-point postseason, Carlson proved that he was worth that big contract as he led the Capitals in assists (57) and power-play points (33). Carlson set a new career-high in points (70).
In addition, Carlson improved his defensive play, tying his career-best +21 rating, which was set in 2010-11, his rookie season. He led the Capitals in ice-time (averaged 25:04 per game) and blocked shots (164) and finished second in takeaways (55). Carlson backed up his career-year by besting it and establishing himself as one of the league’s top defenseman.
Devante Smith-Pelly Signs One-Year Contract Extension Worth $1 Million On June 28
Despite a seven-goal, eight-point performance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Smith-Pelly did not get a qualifying offer from the Capitals as a restricted free agent but signed a one-year contract a day later.
While many expected Smith-Pelly to improve after his breakout performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he posted just four goals, eight points, and a -6 rating in 54 regular season games before the Capitals put him on waivers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. He got called up for the final three games of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after forward T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, but he was held scoreless.
MacLellan told the media on breakdown day that there would be certain requirements to re-sign Smith-Pelly as it appears that he came into training camp out of shape. He was scratched for the first five games of the preseason.
While Smith-Pelly did not bring the same magic that he had in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you cannot fault MacLellan for bringing back one of the team’s heroes during that run on a cheap deal.
Kempny Signs Four-Year Contract Extension Worth $10 Million ($2.5 Million AAV) on June 29
After playing a key role alongside Carlson on the team’s top defensive pair during the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup last spring, Kempny got a big raise. Reirden helped Kempny establish himself as a top-four NHL defenseman the past couple of years and it paid dividends for Kempny and the Capitals.
Kempny’s +24 rating this season was the best on the Capitals and the 17th best in the NHL. In addition, he set career-highs in games played (71), goals (six), assists (19), and points (25).
While averaging 19:11 (the sixth-highest average ice-time on the Capitals), including 1:39 shorthanded, Kempny recorded 135 blocked shots (the third-highest on the team) and 84 hits (the ninth-highest) in a solid campaign for the 28-year old.
Kempny’s season-ending hamstring injury required surgery and left a massive hole on the Capitals as their defense struggled without him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, allowing an average of 3.00 goals-per-game.
Nic Dowd Signs One-Year Contract Worth $650,000 on July 1
After fourth-line center Jay Beagle signed a four-year contract worth $12 million ($3 million AAV) with the Vancouver Canucks, the Capitals signed Dowd to compete with center Travis Boyd for the fourth-line center spot in training camp. He would begin the season as a regular after Boyd suffered a lower-body injury that he took more than a month to recover from.
Dowd got off to a slow start to the year after scoring in the Capitals’ preseason finale and regular-season opener as he sat out the first few games after Boyd returned. After center Evgeny Kuznetsov and forward T.J. Oshie suffered concussions, Dowd earned a second chance and took advantage of it. He went on a three-game point streak (two goals and three points) and had a stretch of 13 games where he posted three goals and 11 points. He finished the season with a career-high of eight goals and a +10 rating. He also matched his career-high 22 points from 2016-17, when he was with the Los Angeles Kings. He played in all of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup Playoff games, posting a point (a penalty-shot goal) and a -1 rating. He also played a key role on the penalty kill, averaging 1:39 of ice-time per game, and had the Capitals’ highest faceoff winning percentage during the regular season among centers (51.9%).
The addition worked out so well that the Capitals gave him a three-year contract extension worth $2,250,000 ($750,000 AAV) just prior to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dowd was just the latest low-risk, high-reward addition for MacLellan and it worked out big time.
Boyd Signs Two-Year Contract Extension Worth $1.6 million ($800,000 AAV) On July 1
A lower-body injury that cost Boyd 14 games in the preseason and regular season set back the 25-year old’s rookie season in the NHL. Boyd made up for lost time, however, as he recorded two assists during his 2018-19 season debut in a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on November 5.
Like Dowd, Boyd stepped up with both Kuznetsov and Oshie out for the Capitals in November, posting three assists in six games. He went on a three-game goal-streak and a four-game point-steak in December. Boyd cooled off until a nine-game stretch in January where he posted a goal and five points. He went on a three-game assist streak and a stretch where he recorded four assists in six games in early March. Besides a goal on March 24 in a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he was held off of the score sheet the rest of the way and finished the regular season with five goals, 20 points, and a +6 rating in only 53 games.
Boyd had an impressive season, averaging .377 points per game while only skating 9:50 of ice-time per game, the lowest among Capitals players who appeared in at least 35 games. He didn’t record a point in one Stanley Cup Playoff game. For a fourth-line center who produced, this was another job well done by MacLellan.
Madison Bowey Signs Two-Year Contract Extension Worth $2 Million ($1 Million AAV) On July 19
Following a rookie season where the 24-year old posted just 12 points (all assists) and struggled defensively, earning a -3 rating, the Capitals signed Bowey to a lucrative deal as he was one of the Capitals’ top defensive prospects. Projected as the team’s seventh defenseman, Bowey appeared in the first two games of the season when Kempny was out due to a concussion.
While averaging 13:02 of ice-time per game with the Capitals, Bowey was credited with just five takeaways while he also had 18 giveaways. He also recorded 41 blocked shots and 47 hits.
Bowey appeared in only one game in a span of 11 just prior to getting traded along with a 2019 second-round pick to the Red Wings in exchange for Jensen on February 22. Giving a sophomore a rich deal after he failed to impress during his rookie season was not a good choice by MacLellan and the Capitals.
Orpik Signs One-Year, $1 Million Contract On July 24
After the Capitals were forced to move Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit to accommodate the signings of Carlson, Kempny, and Wilson, they brought him back on a much cheaper deal to anchor the third-defensive pair. Orpik’s leadership and strong postseason performance in 2018 was enough to convince the Capitals to bring him back.
While Orpik is not known for his offense, he scored two goals after scoring none in each of the past two regular seasons and climbed to within one point of last season’s total despite playing in 28 fewer games. His plus-minus rating increased from a team-worst -9 in 2017-18 to a +8 this past season. Defensively, he recorded 131 hits and 78 blocked shots but also had 31 giveaways while having only five takeaways. Only defenseman Matt Niskanen (2:46 average time on ice per game on the penalty kill) earned more PK time than Orpik (average of 2:37 per game) on the Capitals.
Getting a pivotal part of the leadership role during last year’s Stanley Cup run at a much lower price to keep key pieces from that run was brilliant work by MacLellan. In fact, it was so good that the NHL questioned the Capitals and Avalanche about whether there was an unwritten understanding that buying Orpik out so he could return to Washington.
Wilson Signs Six-Year Contract Extension Worth $31 Million ($5.17 Million AAV) On July 27
After Wilson set new career-highs with 14 goals, 35 points, and +10 rating in 78 games in the 2017-18 regular season and played a key role in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run with five goals, 15 points, and a +11 rating in 21 Stanley Cup Playoff games in 2018, the Capitals gave him a big payday in one of the most talked-about moves around the NHL last summer.
Wilson proved the skeptics wrong. Despite missing 19 games due to suspension and injury, the 25-year old enjoyed a breakout year, topping his career-highs with 22 goals, 40 points, and a +11 rating while primarily playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom/ Kuznetsov on the Capitals’ top-line. Wilson’s 2:14 average ice-time on penalty kills was the third-highest among Capitals forwards. He also topped his career-high in average ice-time by over two minutes and averaged over a minute (1:24) of power-play time for the first time in his career.
Wilson turned into one of the league’s top power forwards and cemented himself among the Capitals’ core after his big season in 2018-19.
Capitals Claim Dmitrij Jaskin Off Of Waivers From St. Louis Blues On October 2
Bracing for life without Wilson for a while to start the season, the Capitals were the only team to submit a waiver claim for Jaskin to add some physicality and depth that they would miss with Wilson out after Jaskin was waived by the Blues the day prior.
In only 37 games with the team, the 26-year old posted two goals, eight points, and a -5 rating in a fourth-line role, though he did get some time on the top trio with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov early in the season. Defensively, Jaskin’s 87 hits were the eighth-most on the Capitals and he also posted 14 blocked shots. He was credited with 13 takeaways and only six giveaways while averaging 10:05 worth of ice-time per game, the second-lowest on the team among those who appeared in at least 35 games.
While Jaskin did not match the 17-point plateau that he managed to hit with the Blues a season ago, he played well defensively. The fact that the Capitals did not have to give up anything for him also helps MacLellan’s case for picking him up. With Wilson slated to miss nearly a quarter of the season, Jaskin was a nice low-risk, high-reward option to replace the physically and the offensive upside that the Capitals were missing with Wilson out. Additionally, the team had to pay only 50% of his $1.1 million cap hit as they acquired him via waivers.
Copley Signs Three-Year, $3.3 Million ($1.1 Million AAV) Contract Extension On February 4
While the move ensured that the Capitals would have a goalie to expose in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, Copley turned into a solid backup goalie with a 10-5-3 record, 2.98 goals against average, a .903 save percentage, and one shutout prior to signing the deal. The 27-year old finished his rookie season with a 16-7-3 record, .905 save percentage, 2.90 goals-against average, and one shutout in 27 games, arguably exceeding expectations.
After Grubauer was sent to Colorado at the draft in June, back-up goaltending was the Capitals’ biggest question mark going into the season, but Copley solidified that position with a strong first season.
Capitals Acquire Carl Hagelin From Los Angeles Kings In Exchange For A 2019 Third-Round Pick On February 21
Looking for another depth forward who could help a struggling penalty kill that was 22nd in the NHL with an efficiency of 78.4% at the time of the trade, the Capitals acquired a speedy forward in Hagelin. A conditional sixth-round pick in 2019 was part of the deal but did not go to Los Angeles since the Capitals failed to reach the Eastern Conference Final.
After posting two goals, eight points, and an even rating in 38 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Kings at the time of the trade, Hagelin beat all of those numbers in just 20 games with the Capitals, recording three goals, 11 points, and a +7 rating. He added a point — an assist — in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games. The 30-year old averaged 2:21 of ice-time on the penalty kill, a team-high among forwards. Following the trade, the Capitals improved to 80% on the penalty kill and their 88% efficiency with a man down during the postseason remains the third-best among all 16 teams. His 2:56 of ice-time on the penalty kill during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs was second among Capitals forwards behind only center Lars Eller (3:19). His nine takeaways in the postseason were second on the Capitals behind Eller (11) and 15 hits were tied with Smith-Pelly and defenseman Dmitry Orlov for the fifth-most.
The acquisition, which cost just a third-round pick, bolstered the Capitals forward depth and was a remedy for an ailing penalty kill just before he got here. Hagelin was promoted to the top-six when Oshie went down with a broken collarbone and missed the final three games in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the second straight year, MacLellan nailed the trade deadline.
Capitals Acquire Jensen From Red Wings In Exchange For Bowey, 2019 Second-Round Pick On February 22
Looking for more help on the penalty kill, the Capitals acquired the best defensive defenseman on the trade market and extended him for four years shortly after. Like the contract Kempny got last summer, Jensen’s was worth $10 million ($2.5 million AAV).
The 28-year old recorded five assists and a +3 rating in 20 regular-season games after the trade but no points and a -2 rating in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games. Defensively, Jensen posted 26 blocked shots and 21 hits while playing an average of 15:32 of ice-time per game next to Orpik on the third-pair, including 1:27 on the penalty-kill. After Kempny went down for the remainder of the season, Jensen got more time on the top-pair with Carlson.
While the deal seemed expensive when it was announced, the fact that Jensen’s contract was extended and gave the Capitals more depth when Kempny went down does not make the trade sound like it now. With a full summer to prepare, Jensen is in a position to have more success in his second season with the team.
While the Capitals ultimately fell short of repeating their success from 2017-18, MacLellan deserves a ton of credit for keeping a majority of that team intact and improving it with trades at the deadline. With contract decisions looming and the bottom-six forward group needing improvement, MacLellan has some serious work ahead of him to improve his team and to bolster the Capitals’ status as a Stanley Cup contender once again in 2019-20.
Cumulative Grade: B+
By Harrison Brown