Deriving Lessons From The Chandler Stephenson Miscue

Yes, it’s true. Hindsight is “20/20”. And it’s also true that “there’s no use in crying over spilt milk”. Once it’s done, it’s done. Get over it and move on.

However, post-incident analysis is a very common practice among successful organizations and can be very beneficial in reviewing processes and and identifying the source of resultant mistakes. The analysis helps better understand what went wrong and assists in being better prepared for the next big personnel decision ahead.

Chandler Stevenson, a third-round pick by the Capitals in 2012, was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights on December 2, 2019, for a 5th round pick in the 2021 draft. Trading a third-round pick for a fifth-round pick is not ideal, but not uncommon, particularly when there are several years between the two events. [The Capitals ultimately selected Haakon Hanelt with the pick they received in the Stephenson deal].

The part of the trade that has ultimately become a punch to the gut is the fact that the Capitals were unable to realize what they had in Stephenson, and were unable to see the player reach his potential while in Washington. Stephenson has thrived in Vegas and become a top-line center and top scorer for Golden Knights.

Stephenson also leads all forwards in the regular season in five-on-five and power-play minutes while being second in short-handed minutes. He was even named an All-Star this year. All for a fifth-round pick. Not bad value.

I think most will agree the Capitals dropped the ball with Stephenson and could really use a player like him on the team right now. So what happened? But more importantly, what can be corrected?


In order to properly assess what went wrong, we need to understand the atmosphere in the run up to the trade. The feeling around the Capitals at the time was that there was no room for Stephenson on a regular basis. For reference, here were the lines for the first game following the trade of Stephenson, for what it’s worth:

With the exception of an injured Nicklas Backstrom, and Brendan Leipsic, who would later unceremoniously be shown the door, it’s difficult to say who, if anyone, Stephenson would or should replace. That’s where the roadblock won.

Stephenson echoed that sentiment in a recent interview with ESPN.

“The team we had in Washington was loaded,” Stephenson told ESPN. “It was tough to slot into some of those spots. Just as it went on, it was tough for me to just play there toward the end because you’re not really just playing. You’re thinking more about trying to stay in the lineup, get up in the lineup, you’re overthinking things.”

So if it was simply a matter of no room for Stephenson, was there really a mistake on the Capitals end?


The question at the time was whether it was better to trade Travis Boyd or Stephenson. And many at the time felt keeping Boyd over Stephenson was the right decision, if you had to trade one or the other. The two traded healthy scratches in the final days before Stephenson was moved to the dessert.

Before that it was Nic Dowd versus Stephenson for the fourth line center position. Dowd still centers the Capitals fourth line and Boyd wound up in Arizona. There may be an answer in that.

In addition, Stephenson filed for arbitration in the summer of 2019, likely leaving an uneasy feeling with the Capitals front office for the next free agency period with Stephenson. He was about to get paid and the Capitals simply couldn’t afford him with the way the roster was constructed at the time.

The failure with Stephenson was obviously not recognizing what the Capitals had in the player. That initially falls on the shoulders of Todd Reirden, with a side helping Brian MacLellan. It’s difficult to discern who had a bigger say in the final decision, but it ultimately ends up in their kitchen. Barry Trotz is not unscathed in this, as he set the tone with Stephenson as being a 13th forward. Once a perception takes root, it’s difficult to alter.

Unfortunately, defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler followed a similar path out of Washington, over very much the same reasons.


But back to the point, purpose and value of this post. How can the Capitals help prevent this from happening in the future. All teams have goofs like this in their rear-view mirrors. The key in minimizing those types of miscues.

Continuous reloading for a championship run inherently breeds the perception that the youth has been neglected and utilized incorrectly. It’s unfortunately integral to the philosophy. So in some ways, letting players like Chandler Stephenson and Jonas Siegenthaler escape is part and parcel of the philosophy of reloading inside a closing window of cup contention. They were good players but not good enough to crack the starting lineup…at the time.

While those type of decisions are possibly correct at the time, the philosophy neglects consideration of future value. That’s were the issues arise. They were unable to realize the potential.

“I think it’s just I got a really good opportunity when I came here (Vegas),” Stephenson said. “It was just sort of this, ‘Let’s see what you got’ and they just let me play. I already had three years with Washington. I knew what to expect, knew how the games were played, how fast it was, physical and all that stuff. But when I came here, I felt like myself and that I could just play.”

The general manager has the final say in all trades, as it should be. But should the general manager intervene during what is perceived to be misuse of a player? MacLellan should be commended for his management style of allowing coaches to make the key decisions, but how is MacLellan supposed to realize potential if the players aren’t playing?

There needs to be a stop-gap before sending players like Stephenson and Siegenthaler packing. That doesn’t seem to be the case, but it should be the course of action. How that is achieved is a question all team’s wrestle with to this day.

Stephenson and Siegenthaler are gone, and so are the coaches overseeing the use of those players. Unfortunately, the loss of the players will have a longer lasting affect on a team.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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35 Responses to Deriving Lessons From The Chandler Stephenson Miscue

  1. Anonymous says:

    Imagining Stephenson and Siegenthaler still on the Capitals makes me sigh.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      While I still wish we had both players, Siggy was a healthy scratch for one game in the playoffs, so there is a small bit of uncertainty remaining there. At least that’s what I’m hanging on to. 😁

  2. Anonymous says:

    Another that slipped through the cracks was Tanner Jeannot, in Capitals development camp in 2017 (Trotz era)

  3. Greg Findlay says:

    I really appreciate and enjoy your Caps insight!
    I remember that we were really up against the cap that year, and we could not send anyone down to Hershey, or we would risk losing them. I think the root of this problem was bringing in Panik. We over paid, and he did not fit our system. I remember thinking that BMGM is bringing in another Connolly, and Panik would flourish in our system. Wrong! Not only did we lose Stephenson, we had to give up draft picks to Detroit to escape the contract.
    I would really like to see what your thoughts are on the Lujo/Iorio pairing making it to the show. I’m worried that the organization may be overlooking Lujo, because he is taking so long to develop. He isn’t a big offensive threat, but he gets the puck out of the zone, and he is in position almost all of the time. I hope that he gets a shot this Summer.

    • Prevent Defense says:

      Agree! Lucas J. is a major talent, currently “doghoused” by the Caps and Bears organizations

      • GRin430 says:

        Johansen appears to be a tweener… pretty good but not great. He doesn’t embarrass himself at the NHL level, but also doesn’t do much to earn a full-time job.

        Watching him at the AHL level during this Calder Cup run (admittedly with old eyeballs on a crappy AHL feed), he appears to also be pretty good at the AHL level but not great. His lack of strength is more apparent with the larger number of minutes he gets in the AHL, and he also has been beaten to the net a couple of times. If he doesn’t offer much offensive upside, he has to be able to shut opponents down on D, and he is only pretty good at that.

        Iorio looks to be the much better prospect. His size and strength are obvious now, and he’s going to get stronger over the next couple of years as he matures. He’s better than LuJo both in the corners and in front of the net. He also appears to have a bit more offensive upside.

        I’m not down on Johansen, I think he could be a serviceable 7th NHL defenseman. But Iorio is a legitimate 1RD or 2RD prospect once he grows up. If Chesley develops as he should, the Caps should be in good shape on the right side in a couple of years, when their current RD group ages out of the league.

        Put another way, the Caps near-term/mid-term future looks much better on defense for the next 5 years than it does at the forward positions. They have at least 5 defensemen in their early 20s who look like potential top-4 NHL D.

        At forward, they have a bunch of guys in Hershey who might turn into good bottom-9 contributors, at best. That’s a reflection of where the Caps have drafted. It ain’t easy to find legit first-line forwards after the top 5-10 players in any given draft class.

        It’s generally easier to find and develop defensemen later in the 1st, and in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, since they tend to develop later. There aren’t a lot of junior teams playing real defense, so evaluating 18-yr-old defenders’ potential has to be based on raw physical tools. Those physical tool sets, along with their ability to play their positions, can change pretty drastically from age 18 to age 25, assuming a kid is motivated to work hard on and off the ice, and is well-coached.

    • GRin430 says:

      Panik was a mistake, and reflected panic (sorry again… but these bad jokes are just too easy) that the window was closing on the Ovechkin/Backstrom era, and that the team had to win NOW. The Chara situation was similar. In the end, the Caps have chosen to obtain and play mid-level veterans (at least they were mid-level by the time the Caps got them) over promising young players over most of the past decade. It is costing them now, as they certainly knew was a possibility. The real question is, how quickly can they dig themselves out of the hole they’re in?… And of course there’s always the risk that continuing to dig while you’re in a hole will just bury you deeper.

      • Diane Doyle says:

        Panik was definitely a mistake. Too long of a contract to begin with — 4 years. Basically, a good soldier contract to a guy who hadn’t proven he’d be a good soldier for the Caps. They were hoping to replicate their success with Brett Connolly.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Greg, thanks for the kind words, it really does mean a lot to us. 🙏👊

      I agree with your assessment regarding talent evaluation at the time Stephenson was traded. There we’re mis-calls by everyone, including myself.

      As far as d-pairs in Hershey. Iorio had a very good year of development. He probably still needs another year in the AHL, but that’s on track, he’s still a teenager.

      LuJo is a tougher call, I don’t if he ever makes it full time. He’s 25 now, and there are players ahead of him on the depth chart. Iorio might even be ahead of him. On top of that, I don’t see many changes to Capitals blueline by opening night, other than possibly adding some experience on the left side. All of the Caps left-handed defensemen are 23 years old.

  4. Prevent Defense says:

    Great discussion, gents!

    “In the Doghouse” has been the condition of most of these excellent young players who’ve been shipped out of Washington. My heartburn has been: Whose Doghouse?

    Bona fide disasters were the shelving of Siegenthaler and Stephenson, and they were resident in the Reirden doghouse. GM Mac took the cue from his Head Coach, and adjusted roster accordingly. Pi$tol Pete misuse of players? Primarily ignoring or demoting Hershey prospects in favor of veterans. Having to watch “You know what you’re getting with Matty” and a combination of Eller and Mantha was full-scale torture for Caps fans.

    Earlier coaches made fumbles too (all NHL teams have this, nobody bats a thousand). The crucial – critical selection coming up for the franchise is the new Head Coach. He will “have the ear” of GM Mac and do his personnel thing. I was disgusted with Reirden “doghousing” outstanding players, inducing GM to cycle-in new players that didn’t work out. Pi$tol Pete did some of the same. GM Mac can reverse the trend by hiring Head Coach who “hits” rather than “misses.” Easier said than done

    “But should the general manager intervene during what is perceived to be misuse of a player?” Emphatically Yes. That’s part of his job description

  5. Hopeful says:

    In retrospect it would have been better to trade Eller but that is with the benefit of perfect hindsight.

    Too make me feel better… are there some good examples of other teams boneheaded roster moves we can look to and say we are not alone?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Wonder if they have learned anything from these errors. If choosing potential of youth over a veteran is lesson then certainly not learned. Not valuing their own draft picks is something maybe they are starting to learn. I see a few names that should have gone before Stephenson in hindsight. Can’t remember discussion at that time. Hope new coaching gives guys like him a chance before they are assumed not useful.

    • Prevent Defense says:

      This post is “all over it.” Well done
      NJD “values its draft picks” and they lived and died with a half-dozen of them over the past 5 seasons. It seemed that NJD stunk … then suddenly all those in-house draft choices, they all jelled at once and now NJD is a beast in the East. We should do the same in WSH

      • GRin430 says:

        You have to lose a LOT of games to accumulate the kind of young talent that NJ has in their line-up. Is the Caps’ fanbase willing to support a losing team for the next 5+ years?

        • we’re already many years into that now

          • Diane Doyle says:

            Caps are more like an “underachieving” playoff team in recent history as opposed to being a bad team. While both New Jersey and Carolina are beasts now, they both endured very long and painful rebuilds and were mediocre/bad for a long stretch. Carolina had 0 playoff appearances from 2009-10 through 2017-18. The Devils had just one playoff appearance between 2012-13 through 2021-22. Except for 2017-18 when they made the playoffs as a wild card, after drafting Nico Hischier, they missed every year in that stretch. So both those teams accumulated talent and depth.

  7. hockeydruid says:

    Yes Chandler was a BIG loss and a stupid one which shows that PA and GMBM suck at evaluating talent and the same when they sent Siegenthaler packing. This is why the next HC needs to have a new and younger GM who is more in tune with todays game and will not have the Ovie cloud hanging over his head. the move now would be to call in Backy and ask him to waive his no trade clause or retire and offer to buy him out or retire and become a scout as his current salary for the next 2 years.

    • GRin430 says:

      GMBM deserves some of the blame, but he has an owner who is in perpetual “win now with Ovy” mode, so there’s a limit to how much he can wait for kids to learn to play. The coaches — hired by GMBM, of course — also deserve a good share of the blame. But remember also that the Caps drafted these guys we hated losing, and they drafted them in the 2nd round or later, which indicates that they aren’t as sucky at evaluating young talent as you suggest.

      In my view their real problems are in scouting NHL players, since they trade the kids and replace them with veterans who mostly don’t work out.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Siegenthaler is easy to complain about, but ultimately the team did right by him and found a place where he’d have a bigger opportunity to play.

    Panik was a good gamble, because the Caps struggled to replace the scoring depth that had propelled then to President’s Trophys and the Cup. Williams, Burakowsky, and Connolly were hard to replace, and while it didn’t work out with Panik, it wasn’t a bad move. It just sucks in hindsight.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Agree team did right by him. Mac seems to take care of the kids that paid their dues with the Caps. I just don’t like dealing a starting defenseman within the Metro.

      • Anonymous says:

        Nor do I, but in a personnel driven business, I think it’s a net positive in the long run.

  9. redLitYogi says:

    I was an early fan of both players and believed the Caps had made mistakes in letting them go. So how to not make this mistake again? I believe they need to evaluate players with skating and skill and hockey IQ tests outside of game situations. You see what the player can do and how they think the game. It’s frustrating because our scouts have clearly done a great job of finding talent, but our team has done a poor job of properly developing the talent. Hell, I think Tobias Geisser is an NHL player but he’s not going to even get a look.

  10. Jeremy says:

    This just loops back to the problem of the front office and multiple different coaching regimes philosophy of not giving the young guys an opportunity. The team gets clogged up with older forwards who have a high floor-low ceiling and prioritize them too much at times. I understand that a prospect has to prove themself to earn more larger roles. But this organization isn’t even giving them much of a chance to prove themselves in a large role.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I’m not. I’m not surprised Stevenson turned into a really good player (I liked him when he was here and hated the way they used him). I was not surprised Panik didn’t work out, I was underwhelmed when they brought him in. I’m not surprised that “win now with Ovi” has turned out to be a self-defeating philosophy.

  12. jagretab says:

    MacLellan said at the time that Stephenson was traded because he deserved an opportunity he simply wasn’t getting in DC, so I’ve always put this one on Reirden. The 4th line was a revolving door all year, a telltale sign of a rookie head coach tinkering when he should be allowing a line to gel.

    The part you can put on Mac is the context you left out — that they had to move one of Stephenson or Boyd to bring Hagelin back from IR. Getting/keeping guys like Hagelin and the corpse of Chara is 100% the reason you lose the Stephensons and Siegenthalers of the world. Stephenson is the bigger loss because he showed us what he had in 2017-2018. He thrived everywhere we put him, was a standout PKer, and had a Beagle-like motor. Reirden couldn’t see the forest through the trees.

    So I wouldn’t start an article like this off with “Hindsight is 20/20.” It didn’t require the benefit of hindsight to see what we had in either of those guys. Siegs was less obvious, but also boxed out by the stupider acquisition. His underlying metrics were solid and we needed the cheap guy that had an entire career ahead of him, not the last gasp of a formerly great player.

    I said it at the time and I’ll say it now: Eller was the move. Trade the guy that actually would have yielded cap space AND the roster spot we needed to keep the younger, faster, more versatile guy. And it would have been moving Eller at a time when we’d have gotten something significant for him, not giving up Stephenson for a 5th.

    The desert is a hot, dry place where coyotes chase roadrunners. Dessert is a yummy thing.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t think anyone saw Stephenson being a top line center and scoring the second most points on the best team in the Western Conference. If you have proof that you called it, I’ll eat my hat

      • jagretab says:

        Who said that? I said we knew what we had — a young, cost-controlled, versatile, high-energy player who spent our Cup year showing up big all over the lineup.

        That he’d come this far is certainly a surprise, but you’ll never be pleasantly surprised that way if you refuse to give young players a chance to play, boxing them out instead by bringing in more expensive players whose ceilings are already clear. We’ve remained perpetually cap-crunched for years as a result, never embracing natural turnover.

        The time to move on from Eller was years ago when he had real trade value and we had younger, cheaper players in hand who could replace him. You don’t need Hagelin at all if you prioritize the developmental payoff of your draft, scouting, and farm systems. I like both of those players, but those are the types of spots where you can save a couple million bucks without dramatic falloff in performance.

        Don’t want to lose Siegenthaler? Okay, then maybe stop feeling the need to prop up a 50-year-old vet in a 3rd pair spot. We won a Cup with a 90-pound defenseman chewing up 3rd pair minutes playing his off side. We couldn’t take a chance on Siegenthaler? We didn’t need Orpik 3.0 or Zombie Chara. We needed to develop the handful of promising LD prospects we had champing at the bit.

        Yes, I thought the Stephenson trade was a bonehead move the day it happened. He was one of those unsung depth guys that came up big to help us win a Cup, and Reirden put his foot on his neck the second he took over for no real reason. He mismanaged our bottom 6 mightily. MacLellan isn’t blameless, but his “support the coach” philosophy is consistent, so with him as your GM the pressure is on the coach to not screw up deployments.

        Did I think he’d blossom this much? Of course not. I thought we had a natural successor to Beagle and a worthwhile replacement for Eller if we wanted to save some cap without sacrificing much performance. Natural turnover that, in this case, would have ended up paying off way more than we anticipated. We’ll never reap the benefits of player development if we continue to refuse to develop players. You’ll never unearth a gem if you won’t pick up a shovel.

        • GRin430 says:

          There’s a lot of really good points in this comment. The one that really resonated with me is that you really have to be ready to move your bottom 6 forwards or bottom pair defenders to allow a natural turnover and replenish with kids.

          This is particularly important when you aren’t drafting at the top of the first round. You aren’t going to find many gems after the top 5, so the good mid-level players you do find later in the draft need to be developed and supported, even if it means parting with a veteran player who is still productive, might even be a SC hero, but can be replaced with a kid who can do the job at a much lower cap hit and will sustain that performance for a much longer period.

          Eller was a great Caps player, on the ice and off, Hagelin was an effective penalty killer, but both could have been replaced with kids years ago. Same with every player in the bottom-six forwards and bottom pair D since 2018.

          Watching the Bears in this year’s CC chase, you realize how many kids have been held back in this franchise. How is Malenstyn not a full-time NHL player yet? Pilon could certainly have filled a bottom-6 role on the Caps this year. Sutter has taken a while to develop, but given the way he played this year, he should at least have gotten a few games at the end of the season.

          And on and on. Even beyond the Stephensons and the Siegenthalers, there are kids like Gersich who showed in 2018 that they could play in the NHL but have been buried in Hershey. The Bears are so stacked this year that Gersich can’t even get in the line-up, but he played reasonably well in the ’18 Cup run, right out of college. I’m not saying Gersich is a savior, only that he (or AJF or a host of others) could have filled a 3rd- or 4th-line role the past few years for cheaper than Hagelin (or Hathaway, etc.).

          The Caps have mortgaged their future to try to win for the past couple of seasons. That needs to stop.

          • andrew777dc says:

            As if this wasn’t enough in what is already a pretty disturbing picture, there’s a few other things that I always take exception to, ever since that Cup run. Yes, we all know the “win with Ovi” mantra, and frankly, I really do admire how the organization has done good by the vets, and generally players that will surely become the stuff of club lore. They were given enough patience, and the exits we’ve seen so far have been mostly graceful. Were Kuzy to be let go of, or Backy or Osh “forced” into LTIR (the former into retirement as an option), it would also not be too offensive for them. At least I’m sure they understand the circumstances and that they’ve been given ample time (and money). So, good on that.
            What really disturbs me is the chaos and lack of strategy in recent years. Yes, one can always say that with the contracts of core players, there’s only that much cap space left, and people are generally hired to plug holes until time comes to rebuild. But when you see players taken on board (as already mentioned here, often in place of people they are not really superior to), then dealt away in 1, 2, at most 3 years, and the way they are let go of, it begs a few questions. Was it not clear at contract signing what this player would cost if he performs as planned, in that number of years time? Was there no player development strategy in place at the time? Something Trotz was especially good at, and to a significant extent, Reirden too (something Lavi seemed to be lacking altogether). Was there no strategy for forward lines and D pairs for at least a few years for these players? Yes, we’ve had Covid and The Bubble struggles, then this “injury epidemic”, but this player churn still affects chemistry, synergy, cohesion, game plan execution, etc. The Caps still have that team spirit and “like family” atmosphere, it seems, but it can only last so long with people coming and going all the time. And last but not least, how does it help motivation, when it is often the best performing players that are dealt away? I mean, business is business, but does it start to trump the team and sporting aspects? I don’t see how it helps keep up team morale and motivation to excel, when as soon as you’ve broken through (and there have been numerous awesome finds by mgmt), it’s “OK, off you go now. Next!” There’s a list of well over 10 people like this I’ve accumulated, and it would take too long to go into the details… So just a few general notions here.

        • Mike D says:

          Rec’d for using “champing at the bit” properly.

  13. dwgie26 says:

    Lots of great GM’s right here. Making perfect decisions. Know how to draft and evaluate talent. Amazing! Makes you excited about the future of NHL GM’s. But I’m just wondering… why haven’t any of you interviewed? Surely you would get an invitation. Hell they might even give you the job with a formal interview.

    On a serious note, mistakes were made. Not ones that cripple a franchise. But decisions that were pretty solid at the time given the needs and desires. Sadly it didn’t work. So yeah, everyone has to take some blame in that.

    In terms of did they learn from those mistakes… I don’t know that learn is the right word. But adjusting yes. Timing, salary cap, and team structure strategy all play a part. GMBM wouldn’t do those moves TODAY in the current situation. And the signs are clear that we want to get younger. But Caps also want to compete for a Cup the next three years. So how the Caps do the draft and Free Agency and primarily trades will have a different lens this year. Don’t think we’ll see signing of bottom 6 players. Exception might be Brown who is a middle 6 guy.

    We’ll see where it goes, but I am sure we’ll see a different approach this offseason.

    • andrew777dc says:

      We all have our day jobs, and that’s what makes us who we are 😎
      But if you ever happen to buy out the Caps – with your eye and appreciation for sheer managerial talent, I’m sure we can have some very productive discussions 😁

    • Anonymous says:

      I personally would like to apologize for sharing my opinion. As noted I am not a GM nor have I been interviewed for a position. I should not comment on the management of the Caps nor any other subject outside of my degree and experience. Thank you for pointing out the error of my way. Best of luck in your GM position.

  14. Jon Sorensen says:

    Greetings folks! Just a quick note, if you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to NoVa Caps posts in the “subscribe” box located in the upper right corner. Thank you!

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