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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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5 fun facts you may not have known about new Capital Ilya Kovalchuk

5 fun facts you may not have known about new Capital Ilya Kovalchuk

On Sunday, the Capitals traded for Ilya Kovalchuk making him the newest player on the team and perhaps the last piece to what Brian MacLellan is hoping will be a championship roster.

Kovalchuk should be a familiar name for most hockey fans considering he was a superstar player in his prime, but here are five fun facts you may not know about the Capitals’ newest forward.

Reirden and Kovalchuk were teammates in Atlanta

Before he was an NHL coach, Reirden had a journeyman’s NHL career with stops in Edmonton, St. Louis, Atlanta and Phoenix. His one season in Atlanta came in 2001-02, which was Kovalchuk’s rookie season.

"He was very underrated I think,” Kovalchuk said of Reirden. “He had big shots, scored some goals, but I think he was more a stay-home defenseman, but great off the ice. We spent a lot of time together on the road and he teach me some English, I teach him some Russian. I think he knows more than I expect, Russian words.”

It may have only been one season, but Kovalchuk and Reirden hit it off. Reirden credits the very little Russian he knows to the time he spent with Kovalchuk that year. He even had him and fellow teammate, Dany Heatley, over for Thanksgiving that year.

“[Kovalchuk] was the one that we first started on the word exchange,” Reirden said. “Obviously now his English is perfect and my Russian still is not perfect. That was when I was realized, I was a sixth, seventh defenseman on the Atlanta Thrashers and our team wasn't very good. We got to Thanksgiving time and I didn't feel like enough time was being spent with those players to help them get ready to play in the NHL. So I remember Thanksgiving having both of them over to my house and my wife cooking a Thanksgiving meal for them. So that was the first time we really started to connect.”

Kovalchuk is on the cap for four different teams

As part of the trade that brought him to Washington, Montreal agreed to retain half of Kovalchuk’s salary. That means he is counting $350,000 against the cap for both teams. In addition, Kovalchuk is still on the books in Los Angeles for $6.25 million for both this year and next after his contract was terminated. And, though it feels like a long time ago at this point, Kovalchuk continues to count against the cap for the New Jersey Devils. That massive 15-year contract that Kovalchuk signed in 2010 will continue to cost the Devils $250,000 in cap recapture penalty through the 2024-25 season.

Kovalchuk is an Olympic gold medalist

Alex Ovechkin has a Cup, but Kovalchuk has something that Ovechkin does not and that is an Olympic gold medal. Since the NHL chose not to participate in the 2018 Olympics, Ovechkin was not able to suit up for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) team. Kovalchuk at that time was playing in the KHL so he was free to represent his country, or at least he was free to play for a team of a bunch of people from the same country but who definitely weren't representing that country...or something like that. The OAR team went on to win gold, the first for Russia since the country participated as the Unified Team in 1992 with all the countries that made up the Soviet Union.

Kovalchuk has two different-colored eyes

Move over, Max Scherzer. You’re not the only athlete with different color eyes.

Heterochromia iridium is the condition in which one eye is a different color from the other. Scherzer has it and so does Kovalchuk.

Many of you out there are trying to Google a picture of Kovalchuk right now or are wondering how you never noticed this before. The reasons is because Kovalchuk’s heterochromia is much more subtle than Scherzer’s. Instead of having two completely different eye colors like Scherzer has with one brown and one blue, Kovalchuk’s eyes are light brown and dark brown. Most people wouldn’t notice unless you stood close to him or got a very up-close picture.

The Caps are one of two teams with two of the top-five active goal scorers on the roster

Ovechkin obviously has the most goals among all active players with 701. In Kovalchuk, the Caps added the No. 4 active scorer with 442 career NHL goals. Only one other team in the league can boast having two of the top five and, of course, that team is the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Sidney Crosby is third among active players with 459 goals and he is now teammates with Patrick Marleau, who was acquired in a deadline trade. With 561 goals, Marleau is second only to Ovechkin.

That’s a lot of goals between those four players. Ovechkin and Kovalchuk have a total of 1,143 goals with Crosby and Marleau combining for 1,020.

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Not enough grit and not enough power from Capitals in Winnipeg

Not enough grit and not enough power from Capitals in Winnipeg

The Capitals were shutout for the first time since Dec. 16 as they failed to build off their two-game win streak. Connor Hellebuyck was tough to beat, but did the Caps do enough to get to him?

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

This team has to play physically to win

If you want to know the importance of physical play, compare this game to the last few the Caps have played. The Caps did not dictate the physical play in this game nearly as much as they had in their last two wins and it was very noticeable. You have to take the "hit totals" with a grain of salt because it varies from building to building, but in this game the Caps out-hit Winnipeg 17-16. On Tuesday, Washington led in hits 25-17. In Tuesday's win, the Caps used the physical play to dictate the game as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead. They just did not do that at all on Thursday.

Make life difficult for the goalie

Give all the credit in the world to Hellebuyck, he was great. He was on his game and seeing the puck really well. When that happens, the Caps have got to make life more difficult for him. It felt like there was not enough traffic in front of Hellebuyck and not enough battling to win rebounds. It was going to take an ugly goal to beat him and it looked like the Caps could not deliver that. You can't always win with skill, sometimes you have to get dirty.

Turning point

Down 1-0 late in the second period, Washington got its first power play of the game when Neal Pionk was called for hooking Alex Ovechkin. Just three seconds after Pionk's penalty expired, Anthony Bitetto was caught hooking Ilya Kovalchuk giving the Caps almost four continuous minutes of power play time. Washington could not take advantage and suddenly when the team headed into the locker room it was clear Hellebuyck was going to be tough to beat.

Play of the game

Hellebuyck was great, but the save of the night came from Ilya Samsonov when he denied Jack Roslovic with the toe.

Stat of the game

Hellebuyck's performance overshadowed what Samsonov was able to do, but he had a solid night overall as well.

Quote of the game

Considering all the talent on this roster, it is always staggering when the Caps get shut out. It happens to everyone, the league is really good and really tough, but it is still surprising. The players feel the same way.


Fan predictions

You got the one from Dmitry Kulikov, but that was it.

The dream was over 23 seconds into the game as Patrik Laine took a puck off the heel and was forced to leave the game.

He got really close from the Ovechkin spot on the power play.

They have to score to do that.

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