When the Capitals let go of Chandler Stephenson in late 2019, they did so with his role — and the salary cap — in mind.
Stephenson was awarded arbitration that summer and was given a one-year, $1.05 million deal. With injuries in the bottom six, and Travis Boyd playing well in Stephenson’s role, the team opted to take a fifth-round selection in the 2021 NHL Draft instead.
But in the time he’s since spent in Las Vegas, Stephenson has carved out a role for himself in the Golden Knights’ top six. This year, in 51 games, he tallied 14 goals and 21 assists. He’s yet to score a goal in the playoffs, but he’s put up six assists in 14 games and helped the team counter Nathan MacKinnon’s speed in the second round of the playoffs.
In 168 games as a Capital, he put up 14 goals and 19 assists. In 92 games as a Golden Knight, he’s scored 22 goals with 35 assists in a complete role reversal for the speedy centerman.
With the Capitals in salary cap trouble, they had to make a move at some point and Stephenson was the easiest man to single out. And as the Golden Knights move deeper in their series with the Canadiens, he’s battling an upper body injury — which has put a strain on the Golden Knights’ top six.
The Stephenson move was similar to the Andre Burakovsky trade, as both were homegrown players who priced themselves out of a role in Washington. In return, the Capitals got a second and third round pick for Burakovsky, but the Avalanche got a player that has shown the ability to score upwards of 25 to 30 goals.
In Washington, Burakovsky maxxed out at 17 goals per game in 79 games in 2015-16. In just two seasons in Colorado, he’s scored 20 and 19 goals, respectively, in just 58 and 53 games.
With a qualifying offer of $3.25 million, the Capitals moved Burakovsky to give themselves more room for Jakub Vrana’s bridge deal.
In both situations, the Capitals had to move a player too expensive for his role with some inconsistencies on the ice. And perhaps more painfully for the Capitals, both players have gone to their new teams and thrived in ways they never did in Washington.