Capitals

Quick Links

Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

matt-niskanen-puck-capitals-usat.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

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.  

MORE CAPITALS NEWS

Quick Links

Caps cut an additional nine players, but keep all four goalies in the midst of fierce competition for backup role

Caps cut an additional nine players, but keep all four goalies in the midst of fierce competition for backup role

The Capitals reassigned nine players from its roster to the Hershey Bears on Sunday, sending Kristofers Bindulis, Tobias Geisser, Connor Hobbs, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Brett Leason, Philippe Maillet, Bobby Nardella, Garrett Pilon and Joe Snively to its AHL affiliate.

Training camp for Hershey begins on Monday making Sunday a convenient time to update the roster.

The latest round of cuts contains no major surprises. Jonsson-Fjallby is likely the most NHL ready of the group, but after returning to Sweden he is not quite used to the North American game as he needs to be. After a disappointing showing in the Prospects Showcase and in training camp, he now finds himself headed to Hershey. He has committed to remaining in North America this season regardless of where he plays and given the Caps’ salary cap constraints and depth, he will likely spend most if not all of the 2019-20 season in the AHL.

Leason was a second-round draft pick by Washington in 2019 and scored a goal in Saturday’s preseason contest. As a 20-year-old, however, he is headed to Hershey instead of to a junior team.

The Caps elected to keep both rookie netminders Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov which will leave the Bears a bit shorthanded as camp opens. Both goalies are competing with Pheonix Copley for the backup role behind Braden Holtby this season.

The Caps are expected to make additional cuts prior to their preseason road trip beginning Wednesday in Chicago.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS:

Quick Links

3 players who stood out in playoff rematch against the Hurricanes: Samsonov gets the full game and the win

3 players who stood out in playoff rematch against the Hurricanes: Samsonov gets the full game and the win

WASHINGTON -- In a reversal of last season’s playoff, the Capitals dominant forecheck suffocated the Carolina Hurricanes for much of the game on Friday in a 3-2 preseason win. The game was the final preseason game in Washington as the Caps’ three remaining contests all will come on the road.

Here are three players who impressed in the home preseason finale.

Ilya Samsonov

Samsonov faced only 15 shots from a clearly outmatched Hurricanes roster, but he looked impressive in the few times he was tested. The save of the night came in the second period when he denied Julien Gauthier on a breakaway.

Gauthier attempted the old Peter Forsberg move and skated to his right while trying to craftily tuck the puck in to the left. Samsonov slid with Gauthier, but stuck out his stick to deny the shot and make the tremendous save.

Samsonov continued to demonstrate his comfort playing the puck with his stick as he also denied a scoring opportunity with a well-timed poke check and was always quick to play the puck when it came behind the goal line.

One area in which he was not comfortable was the glove. There were multiple occasions in which he was able to get a glove on the puck, but was not able to catch it creating dangerous opportunities for Carolina’s offense.

The Hurricanes managed only seven shots on goal through the first two periods, but managed some more pressure in the third. The shutout bid was ended in the third when Brock McGinn followed up his own rebound to score Carolina’s first goal of the game. The second goal came on a fluky bounce off the backboards that Janne Kuokkanen was able to whack behind Samsonov before he could get a glove to it.

While Todd Reirden likely hoped Samsonov would be more tested than he was, he was up to the task with 13 saves.

Brian Pinho

The Caps recorded three goals on the night and Pinho had two of them.  In the first period, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby created a turnover on the forecheck. Feeling the pressure, Fredrik Claesson tried a hopeful clear that was cut off at the blue line by Pinho who skated in and tucked the puck through the 5-hole of goalie Anton Forsberg. He scored again in the third period on the power play when his shot deflected off of Jake Bean and took a favorable bounce up before dropping into the net.

Pinho led the Capitals with five points in three games at the 2019 Prospect Showcase, but at 24 years old, he would be expected to play well. He faced slightly better competition on Saturday and still was able to produce with two goals on the night.

Richard Panik

One of the newest Caps, Panik has looked extremely comfortable in both of his preseason games thus far. He was again strong on the penalty kill where he logged 1:35 of ice time. He also looked strong offensively.

Panik played very heavy below the goal line which suits the Caps’ offensive cycle the team likes to utilize. He also showed good vision as, in the third period, he was able to fight off a check and literally kicked the puck out to a wide-open Tavis Boyd in the slot.

With Panik and Carl Hagelin together, the Caps should have a much more formidable penalty kill this season.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS: