Monday was not a good day for Capitals fans. While the defense was coughing up a second straight loss at home, the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off a huge trade, acquiring forward Jason Zucker for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a first-round draft pick.
Despite a myriad of injuries this season, the Penguins have managed to keep pace with Washington in the Metropolitan Division. Now with Sidney Crosby back in the lineup, the Penguins trail the Caps by just three points, have one game in hand, and a big new addition on offense.
There's no sugar-coating it. This was a great trade for Pittsburgh. The Penguins removed the perennially inconsistent Galchenyuk who had managed only five goals this season, and added Zucker who, not only is a top-six forward, but also has another three years left on his contract. He is locked in at $5.5 million until 2023. That's a long-term gain. In the short-term, a team that was already challenging for the Metro just got better while the Caps have suddenly hit a slump in their season.
The question now is do the Caps have to respond to the Penguins?
The answer is no.
I am always wary of general managers making reactionary trades. That's how you get fleeced. While you have to tip your cap to Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford for this one, let's not forget some of the reaction trades he made because Pittsburgh just had to get tougher in response to Tom Wilson. Somehow Pittsburgh added Erik Gudbranson to the roster at last year's trade deadline and they thought that made them better.
You also don't want to make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. It really felt like general manager George McPhee was grasping at straws in 2013 when he traded Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Did either of those players really make the team better? Not really. And it took the team's top prospect to make that deal happen.
So no, you don't want to see general manager Brian MacLellan pull of a reactionary trade, because there will be plenty of other general managers more than willing to take advantage.
But the reality of the situation is that the Caps have to make a trade anyway.
The team is going through a major slump right now and, while they may not be as bad as they are currently playing, the defense has been a major question mark for the entire season and it is not hard to spot the hole in the lineup. Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are both right defensemen and are very capable of handling a third-pair role on the team, but neither has proven they can take on a top-four role. That leaves right defenseman on the second pair a major hole.
It's not a coincidence that Martin Fehervary was recalled a few weeks before the trade deadline and spent the majority of his time playing on the second pair. The goal was to see if the team had an internal solution. But the defense did not seem to improve and, while Fehervary has a bright future ahead of him, clearly a top-four role at this point is too much too soon.
If the Caps want to win a Cup, they will need to add a defenseman. There is no way around it.
So no, the Caps do not need to respond to the Penguins trade because they already needed to make a trade to bolster the defense regardless. If you want to argue the Zucker trade adds more urgency, fine, but even if the Penguins had not made a move, Washington would still need to find a right defenseman to play on the second pair if they hope to make a deep run.
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