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Facing a salary cap crunch, Caps trade Chandler Stephenson

Facing a salary cap crunch, Caps trade Chandler Stephenson

The Capitals have said goodbye to another member of the 2018 Stanley Cup championship team.

Hard against the NHL’s salary cap, Washington traded forward Chandler Stephenson to ease the financial burden. Stephenson, 25, was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night for a fifth-round draft pick in 2021.

The seeds of this deal were sown over the summer when Stephenson went to arbitration and was awarded a one year, $1.05 million contract. He has played in 24 games this season for Washington and actually has three goals and an assist.

But with so much money allocated elsewhere on the roster, the Capitals are struggling to deal with injuries and are playing one forward short. They have had to recall players from AHL Hershey the day of a game, used seven defensemen and just 11 forwards in a game and sent backup goalie Ilya Samsonov to Hershey for a few days to have cheaper backup goalie Vitek Vanacek on the roster.

None of this is ideal. With veteran forward Carl Hagelin returning from long-term injured reserve for Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks, it was time to make a move and forward Travis Boyd had done more with his opportunity than Stephenson. The team had to choose. In the process, it at least recouped a pick.

Stephenson is primarily known as a penalty killer. But even there he ranks just sixth in minutes among Washington’s forwards on the PK. He is badly underwater on shots (44.09%), worst on the team among any player who has appeared in more than six games. Stephenson does have three goals already and his career best is six in 67 games during the 2017-18 season.

You hate to give away home grown players. The Capitals picked Stephenson in the third round of the 2012 draft. He slowly pushed his way from junior hockey to Hershey to Washington, where he’s played in 167 NHL games after making his debut in 2015.

Stephenson appeared in every game of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. He had two goals and five assists and played higher in the lineup at times when a three-game suspension to Tom Wilson and a hand injury to Nicklas Backstrom left the Capitals short.

Stephenson actually started on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov in Game 5 of the second round series against Pittsburgh series that spring. He had a huge short-handed goal in the Game 6 clincher against Columbus in the first round that put that game out of reach at 5-2. He scored in Game 3 against the Penguins – a 4-3 win in Pittsburgh. 

Stephenson’s memorable assist on Devante Smith-Pelly’s third-period goal in Game 6 against Tampa Bay about blew the roof off Capital One Arena. He hustled past a Lightning defenseman to negate an icing call, won the board battle behind the net and found Smith-Pelly out front for a highlight-reel goal that made it 2-0 midway through the third. He was also on the ice for Smith-Pelly’s game-tying goal in the Cup clincher against Vegas in Game 5. 

But in the end, Stephenson was making too much money for his role and there were no other obvious candidates to move. There will be no corresponding roster move. Washington will go with six defensemen on the California trip. That’s a little risky given a back-to-back in San Jose and Los Angeles, but maybe the Capitals figure they can rush someone out early in the morning on Wednesday if someone gets hurt against the Sharks. 

One thing’s for certain: You don’t want to tinker too much with a roster that’s tied for the NHL lead in points (43) with Boston. Hagelin is back on Tuesday and Nicklas Backstrom could return from an upper body injury, too.

This would be a rare game with the full complement of forwards. Evgeny Kuznetsov was suspended the first three games of the year and Garnet Hathaway missed three with a suspension of his own. Nic Dowd sat three games with a knee injury and five more with a cut hand. Hagelin was out for 10 games. Richard Panik (upper body) was also out for 10. Backstrom has missed five so far. Other teams certainly have more significant players out (Pittsburgh says hello) or more serious injuries, but this is a lot to deal with.  

This Stephenson move still doesn’t solve all of Washington’s problems, however. The Capitals remain in salary-cap jail and will play with just one extra forward for the foreseeable future. Boyd has an $800,000 cap hit compared to Stephenson’s $1.05 million.

They could afford to recall a seventh defenseman, but only just barely. And it probably couldn’t be Christian Djoos, who played in Washington the past two seasons but has a bigger salary-cap hit than Stephenson ($1.25 million) thanks to his own arbitration award this summer. Djoos was able to come up while Hagelin was on LTIR. 

The Capitals will simply roll with six defensemen for now and bank as much daily cap space as they can so they have more options later in the season. Tyler Lewington makes the most sense as a recall given his low cap hit ($675,000).

Looking ahead at the schedule, Washington’s upcoming back-to-back games are easy recalls for Hershey players. They have a game at New Jersey on Dec. 20 and then a home game Dec. 21. They have a home game against Columbus Dec. 27 and at Carolina on Dec. 28 and a home game Jan. 7 vs. Ottawa and in Philadelphia on Jan. 8.

The schedule eases considerably the next two months. There are consecutive weeks later in December where the Capitals have three days off in a row. That happens again the first week of February in the middle of a four-game homestand. The NHL All Star break is also between Jan. 19 and 26. Washington plays 24 games over the next 62 days.

Stephenson is the 12th player from the Stanley Cup team, including the playoff taxi squad, to depart the organization in the past 18 months. He joins Brooks Orpik (retired), now a member of Washington's player development staff, Jay Beagle (free agent signed by Vancouver), Matt Niskanen (traded to Philadelphia), Andre Burakovsky (traded to Colorado), Philipp Grubauer (traded to Colorado), Nathan Walker (free agent signing by St. Louis), Brett Connolly (free agent signing by Florida), Madison Bowey (traded to Winnipeg), Alex Chiasson (free agent signed by Edmonton), Jakub Jerabek (KHL) and Smith-Pelly (KHL). Shane Gersich, Djoos and goalie Pheonix Copley are in Hershey  

 

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The biggest ‘what ifs’ in Capitals history: What if Lars Eller never scored the 2OT goal?

The biggest ‘what ifs’ in Capitals history: What if Lars Eller never scored the 2OT goal?

This week NBC Sports Washington is looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals. Last week, we looked at what ifs for the season. This week, we are looking at some of the bigger what ifs from franchise history.
 
Today’s what-if: What if Lars Eller had not delivered the game-winning goal in double overtime of Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets?
 
Lars Eller scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, but that arguably was not the most important goal he scored during that 2018 postseason.
 
Down 2-0 in the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Eller scored the double-overtime winner to give Washington its first win. It was a fluky one that bounced off a number of body parts on its way into the net, but it still counted. But what if he had not scored that goal and the Caps had lost Game 3?
 
While Washington was able to erase a 2-0 deficit to win four straight against Columbus and win the series, it’s hard to believe they could have done the same thing if down 3-0. At that time, despair would have started to sink in. 

RELATED: WHAT IF THE CAPS HADN'T WON THE 2004 NHL DRAFT LOTTERY?
 
In terms of moves head coach Barry Trotz could have made, he would have had to get creative because the standard panic move of a goalie change would not cut it. Philipp Grubauer started Games 1 and 2 and was replaced by Braden Holtby in Game 3. Going back to Grubauer was not a realistic option at that point. Chances are, Washington would have suffered a first-round exit.
 
Considering Trotz left after winning a Stanley Cup, it is hard to imagine him staying after a first-round exit. So with another year of falling short of expectations in the postseason and in need of a new head coach, this is the point where I believe Brian MacLellan would have had to seriously consider dismantling the team. 
 
I don’t think there was ever a scenario where Alex Ovechkin would be traded considering what he means to the franchise, but I think everyone else would have been on the table. After all, by 2018 what reason would the team have to believe the core was good enough to make a deep playoff run? It had not done it after four seasons with Trotz and about as loaded a lineup as a team can have.
 
It would not have meant the end of the Ovechkin era as he would have stayed, but it probably would have meant the end in terms of the Ovechkin-led Caps pursuing a Cup. By that time, it would have been clear it was time to start over and it would have meant a very long 2018 offseason.

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How Capitals players grappled with the decision of whether to opt out of the 2020 postseason

How Capitals players grappled with the decision of whether to opt out of the 2020 postseason

Monday's 5 p.m. deadline came and went and, though a handful of players around the league decided to opt out of the 2020 postseason, none of the Capitals players did. But don't mistake this to mean it was an easy decision. For perhaps the first time in their lives, the players had to honestly ask themselves if they wanted to play hockey and whether it was even possible to play the sport they love without putting the people they love at risk.

"I think for me, we went through every single thing the NHLPA and the NHL threw at you since day one in terms of the health risks and everything and you're weighing your options," Carl Hagelin said.

"I think around the league a lot of guys had their own personal situations, whether it was their families or just how their last couple months have been," Brenden Dillon said. "I think for us as NHL players we respect any decision made regarding that."

It wasn't a difficult question for everyone.

"I'm pretty sure my wife support me, it doesn't matter what decision I will make," Ovechkin said, "But obviously I miss hockey and they miss hockey so for me it's not even a question to skip it or play."

Winning a Stanley Cup was of course a factor for many players.

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When the 2020 postseason gets underway, almost five months will have passed since the league paused the season. With 24 teams in the postseason and over a full offseason break between games, there is a feeling that the Cup is truly up for grabs.

That is not something that players took lightly, but the pursuit of the Cup is not the only factor the players had to think about considering playing could potentially put one's family at risk.

"A lot of thoughts going into the decision, weighing the pros and cons," Lars Eller said. "For me personally, we're going to have a new addition to our family here in a couple weeks. I don't know when it's going to happen, but it's going to happen. But at the same time, I want to be with my team and also committed to that and want to win another Cup."

Eller's baby, his second child, is due Aug. 8. He said Tuesday that he intends to leave the bubble to be there for the birth.

Carl Hagelin is in a similar situation with his second child due in September.

"I spoke to my wife too and she said as long as you come back when the kid is born, you're welcome to leave," Hagelin said. "She knows hockey is a big part of my life and it's a big part of our family's life and so we have an opportunity here to win the Stanley Cup and that's the goal right now."

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It's a tricky tightrope that the NHL players are now forced to walk, trying to balance the safety of their families with their desire to get back on the ice.

While Ovechkin may have been adamant that whether to play or not was "not even a question," he was also very clear that he felt safety was the top priority.

"That's the most important thing for us right now to get safe," Ovechkin said. "I think for right now in this type of situation, you have to be careful, you have to be 100-percent sure you're not going to get COVID and you're not going to bring it to your families."

While they may not have opted out, concerns over safety have led to some players and even team personnel to make significant sacrifices. Head coach Todd Reirden and his wife decided it was best for her to take their immunodeficient son, Travis, to Valparaiso, Ind. while Reirden went back to practice. Nicklas Backstrom left his family back in Sweden when he returned for training camp.

"I think we decide pretty early that I was going to go over myself," Backstrom said. "We liked our setup better for my fiancee and kids to stay back in Sweden there. It wasn't really a long conversation."

But even with all the extra precautions being taken by the players and with coronavirus cases spiking in various parts of the country, still not one Capitals player opted out.

The NHL and NHL Players' Association negotiated health and safety protocols in great detail for the 2020 return to play plan. The players seem to be very satisfied with the results given that the league needed the NHLPA to approve the protocols in order to return to play.

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"I think everybody’s in a different situation at home with families and stuff and the one constant is that it’s an infectious disease and anybody can get it," Tom Wilson said, who is the team's player rep for the NHLPA. "I think we had to be confident in the protocols. We had to be confident that the league and the PA were taking all the different measures to make sure we’d be as safe as possible."

in the end, the players are back because they believe they can safely conclude the season given the protocols put in place by the NHL and NHLPA. The question is, are they right?

"Obviously we all love hockey and we want it back and if we can do it now and we're all very strict about this, I think we can make it happen," Backstrom said. "We all want sports back and we want to do what we love, you know?"

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