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
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Ovie spark: Alex helps the Caps wake up with hat trick performance
- Managing the cap: 'Day-to-day process'
- Orlov nets game-winner: Caps beat Lightning in OT