Photo: NBC Olympics
Another year of Washington Capitals hockey has come and gone as has another round of moves after a third straight first-round exit in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They did not work out as well as everyone had hoped they would but GM Brian MacLellan put a strong effort forward. NoVa Caps gives its annual evaluation of MacLellan’s moves from the 2021-22 season.
The NoVa Caps staff graded each move and the final grade was calculated to determine the average for each one.
2021 NHL Expansion Draft
The Capitals went with the 7-3-1 format for players that they can protect from the Seattle Kraken. Center Nicklas Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, right-wing Tom Wilson, right-wing T.J. Oshie, right-wing Daniel Sprong, left-wing Anthony Mantha, and center Lars Eller were the forwards that were protected (leaving left-wing Conor Sheary exposed). Defensemen John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk were exempt from being taken (exposing Brenden Dillon, Justin Schultz, and Nick Jensen) in addition to goaltender Ilya Samsonov (in favor of Vitek Vanecek). Captain Alex Ovechkin was exposed since he was due to become an unrestricted free agent following the expansion draft, which allowed the Capitals to protect an extra forward.
If MacLellan could have a do-over, changes could be made. Sprong was traded mid-season after appearing in just 47 of the Capitals’ 63 games (due to COVID-19 and being a healthy scratch) at the time and would likely be exposed in favor of Sheary. The Capitals could have probably gotten away with exposing players with large contracts such as Carlson, Eller, and Backstrom (though, he would have had to waive his no-movement clause) as teams like the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues did with goaltender Carey Price and right-wing Vladimir Tarasenko (the Kraken passed on both), especially since Backstrom was not healthy this past season. That would have allowed them to protect their players on bargain contacts such as Sheary and Jensen.
Choosing which goaltender to protect was a coin flip then and would be today. The Capitals ultimately went with Samsonov who had higher upside as a first-round pick with Vanecek coming off of a lower-body injury suffered in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Kraken ultimately took Vanecek, who finished the 2021-22 season with a 20-12-6 record, a .908 save percentage, a 2.67 goals-against average, and four shutouts. Though, they traded him back to the Capitals after signing Philipp Grubauer in free agency. Vanecek pulled himself ahead of Samsonov on the Capitals’ goaltending chart during the second half of the season but lost it in the postseason.
While the Capitals arguably won the expansion draft, that would not have happened had Grubauer not signed in Seattle and the outcome was not designed to happen like it did. The team pursued an upgrade in free agency but was not able to find one and was forced to go back to Vanecek with the Kraken having three NHL goaltenders (Grubauer, Vanecek, Chris Driedger).
Traded Dillon For Winnipeg Jets’ 2022 and 2023 Second-Round Picks
With the Capitals needing cap space to re-sign captain Alex Ovechkin and roster space to make room for Martin Fehervary, they dealt Dillon for more than what they had to pay the San Jose Sharks to acquire him 17 months earlier (Colorado Avalanche’s 2020 second-round pick and their own 2021 third). Dillon finished his first season in Winnipeg with three goals, 20 points, a +16 rating, a career-worst 48.16% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a career-low 48.52% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a career-worst 48.74% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage while averaging 18:50 per game (fourth among Jets defensemen), including 1:45 on the penalty kill (fourth). MacLellan got the Jets to overpay for Dillon while accomplishing other items on his to-do list.
Re-signed Ovechkin (five years at $9.5 million cap hit)
The Capitals re-signed the NHL’s third-place goal-scorer of all time at a slightly lower cap hit from each of the 13 seasons before ($9,538,462). Ovechkin, 36, had his best season since 2009-10 with 50 goals and 90 points in 77 games this past season and the Capitals may have been in deep water without him as Backstrom, Oshie, and Mantha each missed huge chunks of the season.
Signed LHD Matt Irwin (one year, $750,000)
The Capitals added some defensive depth with the signing of the 34-year-old, who tallied a goal, four points, an even rating, a career-best 56.01% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a career-high 59.32% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 54.55% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage (highest since his debut season) in 17 games while averaging 12:39 per game (ninth among Capitals defensemen), including 34 seconds on the penalty kill (seventh). While Irwin did not play much, he did the job when asked upon and did not count much against the salary cap.
Re-acquired Vanecek From Kraken For Jets’ 2023 Second-Round Pick
The Capitals re-acquired Vanecek from the Kraken a week after Seattle plucked him in the expansion draft. While the team needed an upgrade in net, they were not able to lure one in and had to pull the trigger on this trade. The pick given up may have been a bit of an overpay but Vanecek came up large during a stretch where he went 11-7-4 with a .935 save percentage (third in the NHL), a 1.96 goals-against average (third), and three shutouts (tied for league lead) from December 16-March 6. He finished with a save percentage much lower than .935 but he turned in a solid sophomore season for the most part. Though, Vanecek coughed up the starting job twice this season.
Re-signed Samsonov (one year, $2 million)
The Capitals re-signed the 25-year-old restricted free agent, who finished this season with a 23-12-5 record, an .896 save percentage, a 3.02 goals-against average, and three shutouts after an 11-1-1 start where he posted a .916 save percentage, a 2.42 goals-against average, and three shutouts through December 9. The team will likely move one of Vanecek or Samsonov this offseason to upgrade at the position and it would not be a surprise to see Samsonov not get tendered a qualifying offer, which is required to be at least a $2.2 million cap hit as a restricted free agent this offseason but re-signed at a lower cap hit after the deadline if the Capitals choose to keep him.
Re-signed C Nic Dowd (three years at $1.3 cap hit)
The Capitals re-signed the 32-year-old fourth-liner, who hit the double-digit goal mark for the second consecutive season and set a career-high in points (24) in 64 games. Dowd, who averaged a team-high 1:57 on the penalty kill, is relied upon to shut down other teams’ top guns and finished the season with a 50.44% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 51.83% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 51.81% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage. While Dowd is a strong shut down forward and the Capitals got him at a reasonable price tag, perhaps giving him three years was too long. There were sure to be younger options for a fourth-line center in free agency had the team chosen to go that route to find a replacement instead.
Acquired LW Johan Larsson From Arizona Coyotes For Capitals’ 2023 Third-Round Pick
With left-wing Carl Hagelin done for the season after undergoing eye surgery, the Capitals acquired the 29-year-old to replace him on the fourth-line. The Coyotes retained half of Larsson’s $1.4 million cap hit for the rest of the season. After missing four games due to sports hernia surgery underwent in February, Larsson earned a goal, six points, a 55.35% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 58.92% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 57.04% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 14 games with the Capitals. He added two assists in the team’s six-game loss to the Florida Panthers in the first-round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Larsson can become an unrestricted free agent on July 17.
Acquired RW Marcus Johansson From Kraken For Sprong, 2021 Fourth, 2022 Sixth
The Capitals wanted to add versaitility at the trade deadline with center depth being an issue over the past two postseason exits and brought back the 31-year-old, who put up three goals and six points in 18 regular-season games after the trade and two points (including the game-winning goal) in Game 3 against the Panthers. While Johansson didn’t regain his scoring touch from his previous tour of duty in Washington (which last for seven seasons), he finished with an impressive 53.56% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 55.7% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 52.13% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage.
The Capitals did not give up any high picks to acquire Johansson and traded a player in Sprong who likely would have been a healthy scratch for them down the stretch and into the postseason due to his lackluster 200-foot game. In fact, Kraken GM Ron Francis said Sprong, who may have had issues in the locker room, was “a player they wanted to give back to us” after the deal was made.
Re-signed LW Joe Snively (two-years, $800,000 cap hit)
The Capitals re-signed the 27-year-old to a one-way contract in the midst of a season where he scored four goals and seven points in just 12 NHL games in addition to 15 goals and 38 points in 35 AHL games. Snively missed March and April after undergoing wrist surgery and did not appear with the Capitals after that as the club re-assigned him to the Hershey Bears. Expect Snively, who was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end before the Capitals re-signed him, to be in the mix to be Washington’s 13th forward to start next season.
Cumulative Grade: B
The best move made by MacLellan was re-signing Ovechkin while acquiring Johansson was the worst.
Below are the individual grades handed out by the NoVa Caps staff for each move MacLellan, who said that the Capitals will be active this offseason after a fourth straight first-round exit, made during the 2021-22 season:
By Harrison Brown