As the halfway point of the season came this week, it is time to look at the Washington Capitals‘ biggest change of the offseason, which came on June 14 when they traded defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for defenseman Radko Gudas. The Flyers retained $1.005 million of Gudas’ $3.35 million cap hit as part of the transaction. NoVa Caps reviews each players’ performance to assess the trade after seeing 40 plus games.
Before we dive in, it is important to remember why the trade was made. The Capitals needed to shave cap space in order to re-sign forward Carl Hagelin, who signed a four-year contract that carries a cap hit of $2.75 million two days after they made the trade. He could have become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
After Niskanen’s game dropped sharply last season and with him set to turn 33 on December 6, the Capitals thought that it was time to move on from his $5.75 million AAV deal. After they acquired defenseman Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings on February 22 in the midst of a breakout season, the Capitals felt like they had an in-house replacement for Niskanen.
With defenseman Brooks Orpik pondering retirement, the Capitals were also looking for a veteran physical presence to replace him on the third defensive pairing. The Flyers needed to bolster their defense after they allowed an average of 3.41 goals-per-game last season, the third-highest in the NHL.
Offensively, the Flyers seem to have gotten the better of the deal. Niskanen is currently on pace to tie his career-high in goals (10) that he set with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14 and has 16 points. Meanwhile, Gudas has just one goal and 12 points and Jensen has just two assists after slotting in to Niskanen’s former pairing with Dmitry Orlov. Niskanen has averaged 2:09 of power-play ice-time per game this season on a power-play that’s clicking at a 19.9% rate this season while neither Gudas nor Jensen plays on the Capitals’ deadly power-play unit. Three of Niskanen’s five goals and half of his points this season have come on the power-play. While he has been more productive than Jensen and Gudas so far, he is counted on more for his offense as only 27.8% of his zone starts have come in the defensive zone, where 31.1% of both Gudas and Jensen’s zone starts have occurred.
Defensively, Gudas (51) and Jensen (42) are both among the Capitals’ leaders in blocked shots, which rank third and sixth on the team, respectively. Niskanen has 46 blocks this season. Gudas has 114 hits, which rank third on the Capitals, and Jensen has 41 hits, which is eighth, while Niskanen has 69. Both Jensen (15, 25) and Gudas (12, 23) each have more takeaways and fewer giveaways than Niskanen (11, 34). Though Niskanen (average of 21:46 per game) has played more than both Jensen (17:58) and Gudas (17:08) this season, the Capitals have had the luxury to spread ice time among their defensemen with their depth while Niskanen has been leaned on to play on the top defensive pairing with Ivan Proverov. Gudas’ +17 rating is currently tied for the 11th-best in the NHL this season while Niskanen is stuck at an even rating and Jensen’s -7 rating is the second-worst on the Capitals, ahead of only captain Alex Ovechkin’s -12.
Niskanen and Gudas’ Corsi-for percentage (shots + blocks + misses for vs. against) is relatively similar as Gudas holds an edge by just 0.13%, though Niskanen has a better Fenwick-for percentage (shots + misses for vs. against) by 0.85%. Jensen’s Corsi-for percentage of 51.34% is slightly worse than Gudas (51.79%) and Niskanen (51.66%) but his 51.46% Fenwick-for percentage is better than both as Gudas has a 50.44% percentage and Niskanen has one of 51.29%. Niskanen’s 53.02% scoring-for percentage is better than both Gudas’ (49.9%) and Jensen’s (52.3%) while he is on the ice for 54.67% of the Flyers’ high-danger chances. Gudas is on the ice for just 48.36% of the Capitals’ high-danger chances while Jensen is on the ice for 46.15%.
All three defensemen are relied upon heavily by their teams to kill penalties as Niskanen’s average of 2:23 worth of penalty-killing ice-time per game is less than Gudas’ 2:42 but more than Jensen’s 2:19. Though, Gudas is called to the task more than Niskanen as the Capitals’ 425 penalty minutes are fourth in the NHL while the Flyers are 24th with only 302.
While Niskanen has been better offensively this season, the Capitals stressed over the summer that their focus was improving defensively which was evident after some of their other moves. The Capitals (2.93 goals-against per game) and Flyers (2.83) are close defensively, though the Capitals’ defensive numbers have gone up as of late as they have allowed 18 goals in their past four games. Before then, they averaged 2.76 goals-against per game, eighth in the NHL. Both teams have seen improvement as the Capitals currently sit first in the league with 59 points while the Flyers occupy the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference after missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If the Capitals’ goal for the trade was to improve defensively, they look like they have done so at a much lower price, while Niskanen has performed as the Flyers’ had hoped and bounced back to be a sturdy defenseman who can also score. As the Capitals sit first in the NHL, they appear to have the edge in the trade for now, but both teams have seen an upside.
If the season ended today, the Capitals and Flyers would face one another in the first round. If that were to happen, the playoff result would have the final say as to who won this deal, but for now, both teams have to be happy. We’ll have to see more to declare a winner.
By Harrison Brown