Halfway through the month of January, we can start getting a clearer picture of the teams that are going to be willing to sell NHL roster players at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 3rd. With the standings picture a bit clearer in terms of who will be buyers and sellers, the trade market for players — especially those on expiring contracts — will be set.
Historically, the Washington Capitals have shown a propensity to acquire defensemen at the trade deadline, and with a deep forward group that effectively has no room for a new acquisition, defense is more than likely going to be the position group targeted for an upgrade at the 2023 deadline.
In terms of cap and roster space, the trade picture becomes a bit more complicated for the Capitals. With John Carlson on the shelf “long-term”, the Capitals currently have $5,002,117 in cap space (via CapFriendly). The complication comes into play with the uncertainty of just how long Carlson will be out of the lineup and on the long-term injury list.
If the Capitals activated Carlson and sent Matt Irwin through the waiver wire and potentially to the AHL, the Capitals are still over the salary cap ceiling by $221,667 and would have a full 23-man roster. That predicament would mean that the Capitals would need to free-up considerable cap space if there’s even a chance that Carlson returns prior to the regular season ending, if they’re looking to add a difference maker on the blue line.
Before we step into the tiers of potential trade targets on the blue line, let’s check out how the Capitals’ defensemen are performing in terms of Goals Above Replacement (GAR) via Evolving Hockey. [If you’d like to learn more about GAR and other advanced statistics, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.]
The top five defensemen in Gustafsson, Jensen, van Riemsdyk, Fehervary, and Orlov are performing at a solid clip. They’re all above the replacement watermark that GAR measures against, which means they’re not as easy to replace.
The issue for the Capitals is, whether Carlson is out of the lineup or playing, he’s performing at a below-replacement level, and so is Matt Irwin. In fact, Carlson’s -1 GAR is by far the lowest in the last five seasons of his career, where he posted 19.2 in 2018-19, 7.6 in 2019-20, 6.4 in 2020-21, and 6.3 in 2021-22. The Capitals could use an upgrade on the blue line to help bridge the gap there.
It’s unrealistic to expect that Carlson will be out of the lineup when he’s healthy. The issue is, if another defenseman were to get injured on the stretch run or in the playoffs, the Capitals lack experienced depth that drive positive GAR value. The Capitals could surely use an upgrade on the blue line in the mean time as well.
TIER 1: DIFFERENCE MAKERS
Tier 1 includes players that will very likely stay in the lineup when Carlson returns. They’re high-performing players that can help the Capitals get better on the blue line.
Shayne Gostisbehere – Arizona Coyotes
The former Philadelphia Flyer has had a really strong 2022-23 season, posting 9 goals and 19 assists for the Coyotes. He has posted a 6.7 GAR so far this season, which would slot him in at second on the Capitals if he were to join the team today. The issue in acquiring Gostisbehere would be his $4.5M cap hit. The Coyotes could retain 50% of his salary, but the Capitals would still have to move a contract to make the money work if Carlson were to return. Gostisbehere would add another offensive defenseman to the mix, which could help the power play.
Jake Walman – Detroit Red Wings
Walman is posting career-best marks in GAR, with 5.4. He’s had an immense turnaround after posting a -6.8 GAR last season and a -4.8 GAR in 2020-21. Walman is only 26, and could potentially be a player that the Capitals try to keep around for the future, considering Carlson is only signed to a contract past this season. Walman has 5 goals and 3 assists in 26 games played this season. Walman carries a cap hit of $1.05M, which might be a bit more palatable for the Capitals.
TIER 2: SOLID ADDITIONS
Tier 2 includes players that are likely to stay in the lineup when Carlson returns from injury. They’re likely second or third pairing players as the roster stands, but could be relegated to a depth role if Carlson returns during the season.
Kevin Shattenkirk – Anaheim Ducks
This would be a blast from the past. Since the last time the Capitals acquired Shattenkirk at the trade deadline didn’t exactly pan out as hoped, it’d be really surprising to see the Capitals go after him, again. But, Shattenkirk has performed well in Anaheim, posting a 3.2 GAR this season and 6.6 GAR last season. Shattenkirk carries a $3.9M cap hit.
Olli Maatta – Detroit Red Wings
Maatta is a solid defenseman whose value is driven mainly by his even-strength defense. He has posted a 2.8 GAR so far this season, and would be a solid option for the third pairing, or potentially a solid partner for Carlson if/when he returns to the lineup. Maatta has posted 4 goals and 11 assists in 38 games played this season. He carries a $2.25M cap hit.
Jarred Tinordi – Chicago Blackhawks
Tinordi is another defenseman on this list that is performing at a career-high rate in GAR. So far this season, he has posted 2.5 GAR, with a solid 3.1 defensive GAR this season on a woeful Chicago team. Tinordi is pretty much solely a defensive defenseman, posting -0.9 offensive GAR this season. Tinordi carries a $900k cap hit, which is very affordable for the Caps.
Lawrence Pilut – Buffalo Sabres
Pilut doesn’t have a large sample size in terms of experience in the NHL, even at 27 years of age. He has only 63 games played in his career, including 17 this season. That being said, Pilut has a solid 1.9 GAR this season in Buffalo. He’s relatively balanced in terms of style of play, posting 0.2 offensive GAR and 0.8 defensive GAR. He also stays out of the penalty box, with zero penalty minutes so far this season. Pilut has a goal and two assists in 17 games played this season and carries a cap hit of $750,000.
TIER 3: DEPTH ADDITIONS
These are players that have some value, but are likely not going to stay in the lineup when Carlson returns from injury. They should perform decently when they are in the lineup, but would be useful in the case of more injuries, or injuries in the playoffs.
Nathan Beaulieu – Anaheim Ducks
Beaulieu is an above replacement level defenseman, posting 1.1 GAR in 22 games this season. He’s offensively focused, with his only positive GAR value being offensive GAR, at 1.8. The Capitals could use some depth in the offensive defenseman role since Gustafsson is effectively the only offensively focused defenseman in the Capitals lineup with Carlson out. Beaulieu has 3 assists in 22 games this season and carries a cap hit of $850k.
Scott Harrington – San Jose Sharks
Harrington is another defenseman whose sole value in GAR is their offensive GAR. He’s sitting at 0.9 GAR this season, and he’s posting 1.2 offensive GAR. Harrington would be similar to Beaulieu here, could just add some offensive defensive depth. Harrington has a goal and 5 assists in 16 games played this season. He carries a cap hit of $750k.
Nick Holden – Ottawa Senators
Holden is an absolute black hole offensively (-1.7 GAR), but really solid defensively (2.1 GAR). His total GAR value sits at 0.6, largely because of his lack of offensive value, but the Capitals surely wouldn’t mind an above-replacement level defensively focused defenseman who is above replacement level on the penalty kill. Holden carries a $1.3M cap hit.
Justin Braun – Philadelphia Flyers
Braun is another defenseman who has abysmal offensive value (-1.6), but is rather solid defensively (1.5 GAR). With that offset, Braun is sitting at 0.1 GAR this season, which narrowly puts him above replacement level. Braun could be valuable because he’s a right handed defenseman. With Carlson out of the lineup, the Capitals only have two right handed defensemen in the lineup (Jensen and van Riemsdyk). The balance of right and left shots on defense is valuable to NHL teams. Braun carries a $1M cap hit.
The Capitals’ trade deadline strategy really hinges on John Carlson’s health and ultimately when he can return to the lineup. Once he’s deemed healthy enough to play, he has to be activated off of the long-term injury list.
As it stands, if Carlson is likely to return to the lineup before the end of the regular season, the Capitals need to clear cap space to be cap compliant when Carlson exits the long-term injured list. The Caps have a couple of contracts they could trade, such as Lars Eller’s expiring $3.5M cap hit or Anthony Mantha’s $5.7M contract, to offer a bit more flexibility in acquiring players at the deadline.
If the Capitals are expecting Carlson to be back during the season, it’s likely General Manager Brian MacLellan will acquire a depth defenseman that’ll cost less to acquire. With the Capitals at the tail-end of their current core’s window, it’s less likely that MacLellan will be as willing to give up high draft picks or top prospects to take the team over the edge.
By Justin Trudel