Grading Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan’s Moves From The 2021-22 Season

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).

Grade: B

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.

Grade: A-

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.

Grade: A-

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.

Grade: B

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: B

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.

Grade: B+

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.

Grade: C-

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.

Grade: B+

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

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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28 Responses to Grading Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan’s Moves From The 2021-22 Season

  1. Jon Sorensen says:

    All in all, a fairly good year for Mac, with little to no salary cap space. Yes, that’s ultimately his own doing, but in a big picture sense, not a bad year.

  2. novafyre says:

    More generous than I would be in some of those grades. Caps finished 30th in faceoffs after being down at the bottom all year. Having a known problem and not trying to address it does not earn a high grade. Trying to address it and not having it work out is one thing, but Caps ignored this.

    Same for powerplays. This one is harder to pin just on Mac but I don’t see his actions helping to solve it.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Faceoffs are an odd stat, as there have been a number of studies that have shown they have very little (if any) correlation to wins. For example, the Colorado Avalanche finished 28th in the league during the regular season, just 2 spots ahead of Capitals. While you want to win faceoffs, it’s difficult or less of a priority to trade for a player just to improve in the faceoff circle.

      The power play improved and saw a direct correlation to the return of Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. There was a point the power play was in the top 5 for a certain few-week period when all of the players had returned.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Would not have had to trade Dillion if he hadn’t signed Schultz. Return in trade was fine but overall scenario grades F. Dillion is just the type of Dman we need. None of these moves were helpful for the team so the overall grade should be lower even if the individual moves were blah. Grade for moves not made is F.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dillon stats were not good, and the return was excellent. Two second round picks. Still, I see your point, the team might need the extra toughness on the blueline.

      • Anonymous says:

        Disagree. Dillon had second best plus minus on team. Mediocre team especially offensively. Would have taken him over any Caps Dman, maybe not Orlov. Would give those picks back to get him back this offseason.

        • Franky619 says:

          Agreed, he was one of our best Dman in Washington, brought some size and toughness to that blue line, something that is clearly missing.

          • Jon Sorensen says:

            Not statistically, he was one of the worst in the league. You may prefer his fighting, but defensively, he was sub par. To get two second round picks for him was a robbery.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Wish they would quit trading young guys. How come the trade for mantha is not up there? F grade.

  5. Lance says:

    The Caps were a lot softer this year. Dillon and Chara are tough hombres. Tough to replace those guys.

    I didn’t like our soft defense all year. BMac said he was happy with the D. I don’t see it. Jensen is a good skater and tries hard but he’s a bottom pair D man at best. He gets beaten physically when he tries to play a physical game. They drove Carlson way too hard. Fehervary had a good year overall but he’s not physically intimidating at all at this point. Schultz and TVR were ok overall but again no physically presence to speak of. I think the make up of the D corps is influenced by Laviolette but the buck stops with BMac.

    A weird year.

    • Speaking of gritty D, Josh Manson could hit UFA but 30 yo

      • Lance says:

        Good player but free agents over 30 scare me off unless it’s only for a year or two.

        I’d go for a fairly drastic re-build, I think. I mean, there’s no need to trade everybody but we could trade a lot of veterans for picks and be just about as competitive in the playoffs as we were this year (not very competitive!).

        We need blue chips prospects. Haven’t had any since Carlson?

  6. steven says:

    The Expansion draft to me was a C at best but probably more a D as they should have exposed Samsonov and then they would have have wasted a #2 pick to get VV back. There would have been no need and IMHO a waste of $2 mil to resign Sammy if he had been exposed to to the draft and this summer there would be no need to trade him or truly ovepay him so this is an F. Acquiring both Leasson and Johansson are both F as lost draft picks and player who was better than either of those traded for. The trust in the Gm to put out a good team F and the HC to make a difference F. As Alex only needs 115 to break the record and I think he is shooting for 900 before he retires, so that would be 120 goalsand he could do that in the next 3 and then retire. If it takeshim 4 years then his contract will be up and there will be a ton of oney on the table that hopeully whoever is the GM does not throw around but instead banks so taht as westart to get into the top 10 and hopefully top 5 for picks in the 1st round there will be money there to sign players. This is why getting the high picks the next few years is so important and also keeping out picks not tading them away for older players so that we can acquire top notch talent and hopefully not head cases.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Dowd is a legit third line center who plays on the fourth line. Dowd drives play, kills penalties, wins faceoffs, is a great forechecker and hitter, and brings respectable offense while starting in the d zone most of the time.

    His deal was, and remains, underrated, like Jensen’s was.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      I agree with all you say. Caps 4th line has been best line last two seasons. Lavi loves that line. The only issue I had was term for a 31-year old.

      • Anonymous says:

        I am perfectly happy with the term. By all accounts, Dowd is a great person and has a great family. He has been in good health, and even if he slows down skating-wise, his faceoffs and defensive play will ensure that he won’t be a bad contract.

        Guys like Dowd are certainly replaceable, but it’s a pretty rare find to extract the kind of value that Dowd has brought and continues to bring at his cap hit. It’s better to lock it up and keep the chemistry in tact than let him walk to Pitt for 100k more.

        Besides, Dowd has turned into a pretty skilled forward. I imagine that he’ll adapt just fine as he ages.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Mojo move could’ve gotten a higher grade in my opinion. Showed a lot of skill and heart in the playoffs. Great read

    • Anonymous says:

      He played well but wasn’t a fit in terms of what the team needed. It’s hard to argue that he juice was worth the squeeze- we’re out a pick and the team won two games.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Agree, Mojo did much better than people give him credit for.

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