After a first-round Stanley Cup Playoff exit in 2018-19, Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan was forced to make some changes to his roster. Unfortunately, it backfired as the Capitals fell in the first round once again, and it appears that more changes are coming. Before they do, NoVa Caps reviews his moves from the 2019-20 season.
Matt Niskanen-Radko Gudas Trade: June 14, 2019
To shed some cap space to re-sign forward Carl Hagelin after he fit in well with the team after being acquired at the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, the Capitals opted to trade Niskanen, 33, to the Philadelphia Flyers for Gudas, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season and will unlikely be brought back. The Flyers retained $1.005 million of Gudas’ $3.35 million cap hit.
Gudas got off to a strong start as his +16 rating in his first 37 games of the season was 10th in the NHL but declined as he posted a +4 rating after that as he was the Capitals’ seventh defenseman for most of February and March. He was scratched for six of the final 14 regular-season games and Capitals’ three of the eight Stanley Cup Playoff games. Gudas would have likely been scratched more had John Carlson not missed the round-robin tournament with an undisclosed injury. The 30-year-old finished the regular season with a 51.43% Corsi-for percentage and a 49.44% expected goals-for percentage.
Meanwhile, Niskanen shined in his first season with the Flyers, averaging 21:54 per game (the second-most on the team) while helping Ivan Provorov develop into a top defenseman. Niskanen tied his career-high in goals (eight) while he was with the Capitals (set last season) in 12 fewer games this season and recorded 33 points and a +15 rating. Also, he had a 52.2% Corsi-for percentage and a 53.93% expected goals-for percentage.
While Gudas got off to a strong start with his new team, he ended up to be the Capitals’ seventh defenseman while Niskanen bounced back from a tough 2018-19 season and turned into the Flyers’ top shutdown defenseman. He played a vital role during the team’s breakout season. Even though Gudas was not bad for the Capitals, the deal would look fair had Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher threw a mid-to-high draft pick into it. While the Capitals figured Niskanen was not going to be what he once was after a poor season as he got a year older, Niskanen proved the doubters wrong this season and made MacLellan look like he got robbed. However, no one expected Gudas to be as good as Niskanen was for the organization anyway.
Hagelin Signing (four years, $2.75 million cap hit): June 16, 2019
After a slow start as he recorded just seven assists and a +5 rating in his first 30 games of the season, the 32-year-old finished with eight goals, 18 points, and a +7 rating in his final 31 games of the season. He missed 11 games in November due to a lower-body injury. Hagelin played a vital role on the Capitals’ penalty kill, averaging 2:55 per game (the most among the team’s forwards and second on the team behind defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler: 3:11), which ranked sixth in the NHL with an 82.6% penalty-killing rate.
Hagelin finished the season with a 53.96% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.29% expected goals-for percentage.
He may be getting a little on the older side, but that is a problem for later. He should still be productive next season at least, and turned in a solid season.
Andre Burakovsky Trade: June 28, 2019
After months of trade speculation, the Capitals pulled the trigger on the 25-year-old, acquiring second and third-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft from the Colorado Avalanche. The Capitals also acquired the rights to pending unrestricted free agent forward Scott Kosmachuk, but he never signed with them.
Despite missing some time due to injury, Burakovsky had a career season with the breakout Avalanche as he set career-highs with 20 goals, 25 assists, and 45 points in just 58 games this season while getting opportunities to play in the Avalanche’s top-six forward group, including with center Nathan MacKinnon. He recorded a 52.08% Corsi-for percentage and a 47.99% expected goals-for percentage.
While this trade is looking like a steal for the Avalanche, it seemed like a good one at the time for the Capitals since he struggled to live up to his potential for years with the team. Burakovsky broke out this season, but had he stayed in Washington, he would probably have not gotten an opportunity next to centers Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov this season, meaning his production would have likely been down compared to how it has been in Colorado. The Capitals flipped the second-round pick acquired in this deal to the San Jose Sharks in the trade that sent defenseman Brenden Dillon to the nation’s capital.
Richard Panik Signing (four years, $2.75 million cap hit): July 1, 2019
To fill the left open by Burakovsky’s departure, the Capitals signed Panik intending to play him on the third line. The 29-year-old ended his first season in Washington with nine goals, 22 points, and a +16 rating, the best among the team’s forwards and behind only defenseman Michal Kempny (+19) on the Capitals. He finished the season with seven goals, 19 points, and a team-high +11 rating in his final 34 games.
Panik’s tenure in Washington got off to a rocky start with poor play out of the gate and a lower-body injury that cost him ten games out of the lineup at the end of October. But he eventually found it and led the Capitals in assists (five) and was second in points (seven) behind only captain Alex Ovechkin (eight) in seven regular-season games after the team acquired forward Ilya Kovalchuk from the Montreal Canadiens on February 23. He finished the season with a 51.63% Corsi-for percentage and a 51.39% expected goals-for percentage.
While Panik gained ground, it appeared that he fit in better on the fourth-line, and $2.75 million might be too expensive to pay a fourth-liner in the long run. If the Capitals put him on the third-line next year, that paycheck would be adequate, but after watching the way he played next to forwards Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd, would it make sense? Either way, Panik’s fast finish to the regular season makes up for the slow start.
Garnet Hathaway Signing (four years, $1.5 million cap hit): July 1, 2019
The 28-year-old was signed to make the Capitals’ fourth-line harder to play against. Hathaway finished the season with nine goals, 16 points, and a +6 rating in 66 games. Like Panik, he heated up towards the end of the regular season as he posted three goals and four points in his final seven games after the NHL Trade Deadline.
Hathaway posted 189 hits (second on the Capitals and 16th in the NHL), a 53.39% Corsi-for percentage, and a 57.05% expected goals-for percentage during the regular season. He went through a mid-season slump as he posted just one assist in a 24-game span but got off to a solid start and finished even better. Hathaway also chipped in on the penalty-kill, averaging 1:23 per game.
After seeing the difference Hathaway made on the penalty kill and defensive play, the Capitals got him at a reasonable price. He brought the sandpaper and physicality that the Capitals needed for their fourth-line. At $1.5 million per, this deal looks pretty good.
Brenden Leipsic Signing (one year, $700,000 cap hit): July 1, 2019
Leipsic got off to a strong start as his feistiness and speed fit in well with the Capitals at first. In November, the 26-year-old recorded three goals, five points, and a +4 rating in a 12 game-span, but he only tallied six assists the rest of the season. While he was never expected to put up substantial offensive numbers and instead was there to provide physicality and defensive play, his play started to go down in February, forcing the team to acquire Kovalchuk.
Leipsic earned pretty strong possession numbers during the regular season, recording a 52.97 Corsi-for percentage and a 55.25% expected goals-for percentage. He was also among the team leader in hits (57), so he definitely did what he was brought in town to do.
While he played well to start with, he never played another game for the Capitals after the trade deadline and had his contract terminated after screenshots of an Instagram group chat were revealed where he and other natives of Winnipeg trashed girls in the area and called his linemates losers. Leipsic’s character was flawed, which is on MacLellan for bringing into the locker room. If not for Leipsic’s strong underlying stats and if the deal wasn’t for league-minimum, this grade would be an F.
Jakub Vrana Signing (two-years, $3.35 million cap hit): July 16, 2019
The 24-year-old followed his first 20-goal season in the NHL with a breakout one after getting a bridge deal as he set career-highs in goals (25), assists (27), and points (53) in only 69 games but had only two goals, 10 points, and a -5 rating in his final 19 games.
Vrana finished the season with a 50.98% Corsi-for percentage and a 51.36% expected goals-for percentage. He also earned a spot on the top power-play unit, averaging 2:23 per game on the man advantage, third on the team.
The Capitals signed Vrana on a bargain of a deal and have him on it for one more year before he is expected to get a massive raise. This might be the most team-friendly contract the team has… for now.
Chandler Stephenson Signing (one-year, $1.05 million cap hit): July 27
The Capitals signed Stephenson to a prove-it deal after the 26-year-old’s production declined last season, and his plus-minus rating went down by a difference of 26. He got off to a nice start with the Capitals this season, earning three goals, four points, and a +5 rating before getting traded to the Vegas Golden Knights when the team had to make room under the NHL salary cap to activate Hagelin off of injured reserve.
The team shipped him to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a 2021 fifth-round pick. Since joining his new team, Stephenson has broken out as he recorded eight goals, 22 points (seventh on the Golden Knights), and a team-high +19 rating in 41 games. He has earned opportunities he would have never gotten in Washington, getting time next to forwards Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone in Vegas, so it is not like he would have lit it up had he stayed with the Capitals.
After a solid season, Stephenson will be in for a big payday this offseason as a restricted free agent, one that the Capitals could not have afforded anyway.
Stephenson Trade: December 2, 2019
Stephenson recorded a 54.34% Corsi-for percentage and a 56.18% expected goals-for percentage this season, both among the NHL’s best.
The Capitals’ season also fell off a cliff less than a week after the trade as they went 19-4-5 (second-best in NHL) while the Golden Knights were 14-11-4 (12th) at the time the trade was made. After the deal, the Capitals went 22-16-3 (18th) while the Golden Knights were 26-13-4 (fourth).
They had the option of trading Stephenson or center Travis Boyd, who posted three goals, 10 points, and a +9 rating in 24 games during the regular season. He was on pace for 27 points, one more than Stephenson in that span.
Even though the trade looks terrible now, players thrive in specific environments and under certain systems, just like with Burakovsky in Colorado. You can look at it like the Capitals got a fifth-round pick for their 13th forward, which would seem pretty good. However, they definitely did not win this trade.
Brenden Dillon Trade: February 18, 2020
The Capitals acquired the 29-year-old defenseman in a trade with the Sharks to bolster a defense that gave up an average of 3.44 goals-per-game, the most of the 24 teams that participated in the NHL’s return-to-play plan, since just before Christmas.
While giving the Capitals a more formidable top-four defensive unit, Dillon recorded no points, a -2 rating, a 51.12% Corsi-for percentage, and a 54.44% expected goals-for percentage in 10 regular-season games with the Capitals and fit in well, giving the backend some bite to it. He averaged 20:02 worth of ice-time per game with the Capitals, including 2:40 on the penalty kill.
Dillon can become an unrestricted free agent after this season is over and has expressed interest in re-signing with the Capitals. He played well, but not many players did in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making it understandable if the Capitals want a change. MacLellan did pretty well with this trade, though.
Ilya Kovalchuk Trade: February 23, 2020
To add more scoring punch to the bottom-six forward group, the Capitals acquired Kovalchuk from the Canadiens in exchange for a 2020 third-round pick after a career renaissance in Montreal.
Even though he put up one goal and a respectable four points in seven regular-season games with the Capitals, he only recorded one assist in eight Stanley Cup Playoff games, arguably a disappointment.
Kovalchuk earned a 54.6% Corsi-for percentage and a 60.92% expected goals-for percentage with the Capitals. He averaged 1:41 on the power-play.
Kovalchuk is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and will almost certainly not return.
If the Capitals wanted to add more scoring punch, perhaps they should have inserted center Travis Boyd, who recorded 10 points in only 24 regular-season games, into the lineup more. Instead, they gave up a third-round pick for a player that did not work out for them. Looking back on it, it was a bit of a hefty price to pay.
2019-20 Cummulative Grade: B-
By Harrison Brown