ARLINGTON -- It is that time of year.
The NHL season is approaching the final 25 games, general managers have a good sense of how good their team is and how much help they need to reach the playoffs, to make a deep run, to win a Stanley Cup.
The trade deadline is Feb. 25. In most cases the decision to add has been made already. It’s just a matter of finding a match. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan has played it several ways during his four previous cracks at the deadline. He has tweaked at the margins of a loaded team, he has swung for the fences to push a Stanley Cup contender over the top and he has made small moves that helped swing a season. With 10 days to go before the deadline, here is a look at MacLellan’s first four trade deadlines.
In his first year as GM, with a new coaching staff and some upgrades on the blueline with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, MacLellan was in a pickle. The Capitals were solidly in a playoff spot, but not really a good one. They owned the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 24 with 20 games to go. They had 76 points and were nine clear of the Boston Bruins, who held the second wild-card berth.
Washington was going to be in the tournament. MacLellan needed to figure out if it was worth pushing to get better. The Capitals were in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but only four points behind the first-place New York Islanders (Huh…sounds familiar). The New York Rangers (80) and Pittsburgh Penguins (79) were in between.
The moves: MacLellan acquired defenseman Tim Gleason from the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Jack Hillen and a 2015 fourth-round pick on Feb. 28. He was desperate for a healthy body on the blueline. Dmitry Orlov wasn’t coming back from a wrist injury and Nate Schmidt was recovering from a broken shoulder blade suffered in the minors. Neither player was a proven commodity yet anyway. Cam Schilling was playing on the third pair. MacLellan decided he needed a veteran.
Gleason was 34 and past his prime, but probably better than the alternative. Schmidt wasn’t quite ready for prime time and didn’t appear in the playoffs. Gleason played in 17 games down the stretch and in all 14 playoff games as Washington advanced to the second round against the New York Rangers before suffering a crushing overtime defeat in Game 7. Gleason played just a handful of shifts in Games 6 and 7 against the Rangers. He retired after the season.
On March 1, MacLellan made maybe his worst trade. Trying to upgrade his forward depth, he gave up 2015 second and third-round picks for Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross. At age 32, he, too, was fading. Twice a 20-plus goal scorer for the Flames, Glencross had just nine goals when the Capitals acquired him. But his best days were only three years earlier and he seemed a good fit. He played 18 regular-season games to get acclimated and had four goals and three assists. But he was basically a fourth liner in the postseason with just one goal in 10 games. He was scratched four times, including Game 7 against the Rangers.
If your key trade pickup can’t get in the lineup with a trip to the Eastern Conference final on the line, that’s a giant fail. The Capitals finished second in the Metro and made a great playoff run anyway, but MacLellan didn’t do much to help this group at all. Glencross and Gleason never played again. And the cost was almost wiping out the entire 2015 draft. The Caps did have an extra second-round pick (Jonas Siegenthaler) and held onto their first rounder (Ilya Samsonov).
Analysis: The intention was good given the Capitals were coming off a year out of the playoffs and didn’t look like a championship team. MacLellan tweaked the margins of his roster, which proved to be better than expected come playoff time. Gleason was a warranted move that didn’t work out. The team gave up way too much for Glencross, who was clearly not the same player he’d been. That should have been more obvious.
What to get the team that has everything? A group of emerging young players combined with stalwarts Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson, summer trade acquisition T.J. Oshie and free agent Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7 himself, fueled the NHL’s best team. Ten days before the Feb. 29 trade deadline the Capitals had a ridiculous 90 points with 25 games to go. They were way ahead in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy.
MacLellan didn’t want to mess with team chemistry so he added defenseman Mike Weber in a Feb. 23 deal with the Buffalo Sabres and upgraded his fourth line by grabbing Daniel Winnik from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Brooks Laich, defenseman Connor Carrick and a 2016 fifth-round pick. It wasn’t much of a price. Laich was on his way out after years with the team, Carrick, 21, was way down the organizational depth chart. Winnik had two goals and three assists in 20 games down the stretch playing a bottom-six role. He was a bust in the playoffs without a point, but his time would come the following year.
Weber made it into the lineup just 10 times in March and April and appeared in two playoff games. The Capitals had Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Schmidt and a hobbled Karl Alzner. Taylor Chorney was the primary fill in when Orpik missed six playoff games thanks to a concussion in the first round against Philadelphia and a three-game suspension in the second round against Philadelphia.
Washington made it to Game 6 against the Penguins before falling in overtime in a bitter disappointment. MacLellan had chosen not to take a swing at a big-name defenseman and the suspension/injuries to Orpik and Alzner (groin), who didn’t miss a game but played hurt, left the blueline thin in a titanic series. At the time it was hard to blame MacLellan. It still is. But he would internalize the lesson the next year: You can’t ever have enough depth on defense.
Analysis: Not making a move was understandable given how good Washington was at that point. It was a championship-caliber team. But Weber was a non-factor and while Winnik was a nice addition he wasn’t going to tilt the scales against a team like the Penguins. When injuries and bad luck struck, the Capitals weren’t quite good enough to match the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Maybe the Capitals weren’t quite as good as the previous year. But they had 85 points in 58 games 10 days before the March 1 trade deadline, had a small lead over the Penguins and again were the favorites to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Who’s complaining? MacLellan could have gone down the same path and stayed pat. If anything he had more reason to do so.
Winnik scored a career-high 12 goals on a killer fourth line with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. The addition of Lars Eller in a trade over the summer solidified the third-line center role and they were as deep as any team at that position with Backstrom and Kuznetsov. Brett Connolly had a career-high 15 goals and he and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals) provided depth scoring. Even with Alex Ovechkin’s relatively meager 33 goals the Capitals were fine. Oshie had 33. Williams and Marcus Johansson had 24, Backstrom had 23. The top five defenseman (Carlson, Orpik, Orlov, Niskanen, Alzner) were back and Schmidt proved he could handle a bigger role in an injury-shortened 60 games. Where’s the hole to fill?
The move: MacLellan, though, remembered how close his team had been the year before and another series against the Penguins seemed inevitable. He made one deal and it was a doozy. Washington, the best team in the league for the second year in a row, traded for St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the best available at his position.
An offensive wizard, Shattenkirk had already topped 40 points in a season for the fifth time in six seasons – and the only time he didn’t was in a lockout-shortened 2012-13. The Capitals suddenly looked unbeatable. Given that St. Louis had waited so long to trade the pending free agent, it had little leverage. MacLellan gave up forward prospect Zach Sanford, center Brad Malone and a 2017 first-round draft pick. If every you’re going to give up a first that’s the time.
But there was an unseen cost: Shattenkirk was a power-play specialist. It was a waste to not use him there. That meant Carlson had to give up his job with the top unit even though he was good at it. It meant the defensive pairs were altered even though they were working. Thrust into an absolute pressure cooker, deemed the player that would push Washington over the top and get it a Stanley Cup for the first time, Shattenkirk never seemed comfortable. Shattenkirk had two goals and 14 assists in 19 games playing with elite talent. But while a very good puck-moving defenseman, he was prone to mistakes as he learned a new system with new teammates. He also was nowhere near in top condition, which limited him and surprised Washington.
The Capitals finished the regular season 14-6-1. They again won the Metro and the Presidents’ Trophy. But Shattenkirk epitomized their issues. The crushing weight of pressure and expectation proved too much. They survived a feisty Toronto Maple Leafs team in the first round in six games, but fell behind 3-1 in the rematch with Pittsburgh in the second round. Shattenkirk actually had a huge goal with the overtime winner on the road in Game 3. He had a goal and five assists in 13 postseason games. He was good. But he wasn’t the guy to push Washington over the top. The Caps rallied to force a Game 7, but came unglued when Pittsburgh took a lead in the second period of the deciding game and looked lifeless as their season ended in a 2-0 loss.
Analysis: You have to make this trade. Banners fly forever, the Capitals were the best team in the league and you never know when injuries will hit. Shattenkirk’s presence altered the roster’s chemistry, though, and it was already a fragile group given the expectations. They knew multiple players would be gone after the season thanks to free agency and a salary-cap crunch. It didn’t work out. It was worth the risk.
A mood of total grief took over after that devastating loss that lasted for months. Johansson was traded for draft picks (New Jersey Devils), Williams (Carolina Hurricanes), Shattenkirk (New York Rangers), Alzner (Montreal Canadiens) and Winnik (Minnesota Wild) left in free agency and Schmidt (Vegas Golden Knights) was swiped in the expansion draft. There was little room to do anything except sign its own players to extensions (Oshie, Kuznetsov, Orlov) and try to fill out a weakened roster. MacLellan didn’t even give coach Barry Trotz a contract extension so he was a lame duck.
Yet despite all of that, the Capitals STILL were in first place in the Metro 10 days before the Feb. 26 deadline. They had 73 points and weren’t going to win a Presidents’ Trophy. Even taking the Metro looked dicey with the Penguins just a point back. But they were in the mix again. Ovechkin looked on his way to 50 goals (he fell one shy), Kuznetsov had 83 points, Backstrom had 70 and Philipp Grubauer helped make up for Braden Holtby’s up-and-down regular season in goal. The blueline was shakier than it had been in a while with Orpik forced into a top-four role with Niskanen, Carlson, who led all NHL defensemen in points (68) and Orlov.
A nice rookie season from Jakub Vrana (13 goals, 14 assists) helped make up some of the goals lost and Connolly (15 goals) was productive again . But for the first time MacLellan had all kinds of holes to fill. For more than half the season he was playing two rookies (Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos) as the third pair. Vrana and Burakovsky were plugging holes at wing on the second and third lines, but the fourth line around Beagle was always in flux.
The moves: This time MacLellan’s scouts searched for an underutilized player who could help stabilize the Capitals’ weaknesses. They figured they were good enough at forward. But they saw Michal Kempny was playing limited time with the Chicago Blackhawks and frustrated. On Feb. 19, just a few days after getting blown out in Chicago, they traded for him. It took a few games, but Kempny is a good skater and he and Carlson became an excellent tandem. Niskanen and Orlov took on tough assignments and thrived. That allowed Orpik to play with one of the rookies on the third pair. Another minor trade for Jakub Jerabek gave Washington depth to go with Bowey and Djoos in case of injuries.
Kempny wasn’t the best player available. On most other playoff teams he’d have made a limited ripple. But he was a perfect puzzle piece for the Capitals. Sure, other things had to go right. Trotz pulled Grubauer as the starting goalie two games into the playoffs and Holtby responded beautifully. The stars almost all dominated. Unsung heroes like Devante Smith-Pelly came through. Eller’s overtime goal prevented an 0-3 deficit against Columbus in the first round. But the overall stability of the blueline made all of those things possible and Kempny was the trade that made that happen. They won their first Stanley Cup.
Analysis: MacLellan’s scouts found him an underutilized piece that fit. He wasn’t a big name like Shattenkirk and he wasn’t an over-the-hill veteran that could help some, but not enough in a close series against a good team. Those are the type of trades that make contenders into champions. If it was easy to replicate they’d do it every year. Luck plays a huge role. But with his defending champs again in the playoff mix and again with some issues to sort through, MacLellan needs another one of these deadline deals to give his team the best chance to repeat.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: