At the trade deadline for the 2021 NHL regular season, Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan made a last-minute deal with the Detroit Red Wings, sending fan favorite Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first round pick and a 2022 2nd round pick in return for Anthony Mantha.
MacLellan looked to acquire some cost certainty with a top-six forward in Mantha with Vrana heading to restricted free agency with arbitration rights. Vrána also fell into poor favor with head coach Peter Laviolette. Additionally, the Capitals sought to get out from under the Panik contract that didn’t pan out the way MacLellan and the Capitals had pictured when signing him in free agency in the summer of 2019.
In this post, we’ll re-evaluate the blockbuster of the 2021 trade deadline. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick. The contract information is courtesy of CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHLAnalytics Glossary.
Rationale Behind the Trade
Many fans across social media had harsh reactions to the package required to acquire Mantha and to unload the Panik contract. Mantha had been a bona-fide top-six winger for the rebuilding Red Wings and was considered to be a bedrock of their young core with Dylan Larkin at the time. Moving a young forward in Vrana was tough enough to swallow, but MacLellan also had to part with two premium draft picks: a 2021 first rounder and a 2022 second round pick.
In return, the Capitals freed up future cap space by moving out Panik’s contract, which had become burdensome. That contract, with a cap hit of $2.75M that didn’t expire until after the 2022-23 season, could have constrained the Capitals from making other moves, like re-signing franchise cornerstones in Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, who were nearing the end of their long-term deals.
On top of the financial side, it was clear that Vrana’s relationship with new bench boss Peter Laviolette had soured. Laviolette didn’t trust Vrana late in close games, and sometimes benched him for nearly entire periods due to defensive mishaps. In a March 9, 2021 game against the New Jersey Devils, Vrana seemed to stare down Laviolette after scoring the OT winner after being benched for large swaths of the game:
Jakub Vrana…. ssssss’fast!!!! pic.twitter.com/lxsKAYIBx8
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 10, 2021
It seemed like the season’s worth of struggles in a relationship between a young player and his coach had come to a head at this point. Vrana, who was once looking like one of the future solid pieces of the franchise, seemed to be in Laviolette’s doghouse. He had less on-ice deployments, less ice time, and ultimately, it seemed like the relationship was not going to recover.
With the trade to Detroit, the Capitals relinquished the conflict in the locker room, while also solidifying cost certainty. Mantha’s contract with a cap hit of $5.7M doesn’t expire until after the 2023-24 season. The Capitals didn’t want to risk going to arbitration with a disgruntled and talented player who was a solid contributor to the 2018 Stanley Cup championship run.
MacLellan and the front office had let other players go to arbitration in the past, and it hasn’t turned out well. The most recent example had been Chandler Stephenson, who played a depth role on the Capitals but ended up getting a higher cap hit in arbitration than the Capitals were expecting. This was a large reason for MacLellan sending him out to Vegas for a paltry 5th-round pick in return.
The Capitals, being a veteran-led team, are going to be tight to the salary cap ceiling every season. Every dollar counts, and that’s why both Vrana and Panik were packaged with picks for Mantha. Mantha fit the team’s physical, big-bodied identity and has top-six capable scoring abilities.
The Red Wings were able to parlay moving out a player that likely wasn’t going to stay in Detroit for much longer for a younger talent that fits their team’s rebuilding timeline more, and two valuable picks. With the Capitals’ first they acquired, they were able to package picks to move up in the draft to take their potential goalie of the future in Sebastian Cossa.
Ultimately, time will tell if the move was the right one, but let’s take a look at the performances of Mantha and Vrana (with a bit of Panik’s sprinkled in) to understand the returns of the trade.
Offensive Production and Possession
Arguably, the most important statistical component that you’d look for in a top six scoring winger is their on-ice production. Let’s take a look at their scoring rates per sixty minutes during five on five play:
Over the past two seasons, Vrana has edged out Mantha in terms of production rates when normalized for sixty minutes of play. The other side of that is that Vrana had skated in fewer games and ultimately fewer minutes on the ice, which will skew the data.
In 26 games last season with the Red Wings, Vrana scored 13 goals, notched 6 assists for a total of 19 points. Mantha scored 9 goals, 14 assists for 23 points in 37 games last year, marred by a gruesome shoulder injury suffered early in the season in a tilt against the Panthers.
Now, let’s look at their on-ice possession and goals for percentages:
Over the past two seasons, Mantha has had very solid possession numbers, coming in above the 50% threshold for both Corsi For and Fenwick For shot attempts. Vrana struggled in this regard, where he was on the ice for more shot attempts against than attempted. This can be expected, though, since Vrana went from a playoff caliber team in Washington to a rebuilding squad in Detroit. Mantha had solid CF and FF percentages in Detroit prior to his final season there, so Mantha continued his trend of solid possession play.
Vrana’s value in GF% is a driving factor for a large portion of his overall value as a forward. He drives offensive production, and thus sees a higher percentage of goals scored than against. On the other hand, Vrana struggles defensively, so the quality of chances he’s on the ice against tips the scales into the sub-50% threshold we see here.
Goals Above Replacement Value
Now that we’ve looked at production, let’s take a look at these players’ goals above replacement (GAR) values, which rates their value above a replacement (average) level player. First, we’ll peek at their true GAR value, then we’ll look at their expected GAR value (xGAR).
These values confirm what we know about these players on ice. Vrana’s value is mainly (almost solely) derived from his even strength offensive ability, but his defensive performance reduces his overall value.
For Mantha, he is solid offensively during even strength, but has above replacement level value defensively, which ultimately brings his total GAR value slightly above Vrana’s. I included Panik’s values here to show why the Capitals had to unload him and pay picks to Detroit to take his contract.
Here’s their xGAR figures:
Vrana’s xGAR figures offensively are a lot higher than his actual GAR value, because he generates a lot of expected goals and chances with his overall offensive ability in a relatively low set of ice time. That drives his value up, but we also see that he’s still a below replacement level player defensively. Mantha is at a solid 11.9 xGAR, but doesn’t exactly blow anyone away with any of his GAR figures.
Trading Vrana out of DC was a tough pill for most fans to swallow. As a key part of the team’s sole Cup win and pinnacle of the Ovechkin era, trading Vrana was a shock. Unfortunately, with Vrana potentially entering restricted free agency with arbitration rights, the Capitals sought cost certainty and a top six player that fit the mold and the identity of the team.
Mantha fit that mold and had multiple years of team control remaining on his contract. Mantha added a bit more defensive stability with a slightly lower offensive production output, but with the other forwards on this team that can produce offensively, it seemed like a worthwhile move at the time. Time will tell if this is a trade that the Capitals end up regretting.
By Justin Trudel