Capitals offseason review

After being bounced by the Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs, the Washington Capitals entered the offseason with a lot of questions.

The uncertainty of the salary cap only added to the problems that the 2018 Stanley Cup Champions faced. After months operating under the assumption that the salary cap would be around $83 million, news broke that the cap would fall around $81.5 million, leaving many teams in a pinch with free agents to sign.

Like other contending teams, Washington faced a salary cap squeeze, with unrestricted free agents F Brett Connolly, F Devante Smith-Pelly, and F Carl Hagelin, along with restricted free agents F Andre Burakovsky, F Jakub Vrana, F Dmitri Jaskin, D Christian Djoos, and F Chandler Stephenson all needing new contracts.

With seven major free agents, and only $12 million to split between them, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan went to work.

Matt Niskanen traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Radko Gudas – June 14, 2019

The first major move of the offseason was a bit of a surprise. To clarify, Niskanen’s name had circulated for weeks as a potential trade candidate, given his $5.45 million cap hit.

But MacLellan’s plan here was masterful. In one trade, MacLellan traded Niskanen’s large contract and got Radko Gudas in return, and also managed to convince the Flyers to retain 30% of Gudas’s $3 million contract.

Not only did that free up an additional $3 million in cap space, but the Capitals also received a very solid third pairing defenseman.

Gudas, a native of the Czech Republic, is an excellent addition to the Capitals blueline. With Brooks Orpik’s retirement, there was a lacking physical presence. With Gudas, the Capitals have a punishing defenseman, who can keep up with the quickening pace of the game.

Now, Gudas might have a reputation as a goon, but he is quite a sound defenseman as well. Check out his metrics here, courtesy of Micah McCurdy over at Hockeyviz.com:

As we see here, Gudas does a great job limiting shots in the defensive zone, especially in front of the net, where the Caps have struggled in recent years.

Offensively, Gudas can hold his own, creating offense from the right point. Thankfully, Washington will not be asking Gudas to be a point-producer, so his lack of creation on offense should not hurt. His PK ability is another asset, as he has proven to be a solid PK’er, especially in front of the net.

Compare that to Niskanen’s shot chart:

As you can see, Niskanen’s defensive capabilities have declined in recent years. With this trade, the Capitals shored up their 5th/6th defenseman spot, exchanging a declining defenseman for a grittier shot-suppressor. And to get Gudas at a 30% discount is even better.

While it hurts to see Niskanen walk, especially after some great years as arguably the best defenseman on the roster not named John Carlson, Washington got better as a result of this trade.

Grade: B+

Carl Hagelin signed to a 4-year contract worth $11 million

First off, I love this deal. I was initially hesitant at first to be happy about the trade for Hags.

Given his point production before the trade deadline, I was quite weary of a player struggling to put up points like Hagelin. His time with both the Rangers and Penguins conditioned me to dislike the guy. But props to MacLellan, Hagelin was an absolute gem for the Capitals.

First inserted into the lineup against the Buffalo Sabres, Hagelin reinvigorated the Capitals forecheck and PK unit. Before Hagelin, the Capitals’ penalty kill ranked 26th in the league. After his addition (and Nick Jensen’s), the Capitals’ penalty kill ranked 6th in the league after the deadline.

He had 11 points in 20 games, mostly playing on the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

If Hagelin can produce at a similar pace, .5 points per game, this contract will be no problem for the Capitals moving forward. Check out his shot chart:

What is not to like? Hagelin suppresses shots defensively as well as any forward in the NHL, thanks to his incredible speed, and he generates a ton of offense with his great forechecking ability. A line of Hagelin, Eller, and Panik (who we will get to in a second) is going to be hell to play against.

Grade: A-

Capitals trade Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2nd and 3rd round pick

This one is tough. I love Andre. I love his speed and his skill. His shot is tremendous. He also happens to be the most frustrating Capital I have watched since Alex Semin donned a Capitals jersey.

Drafted 23rd overall in 2013, Burakovsky made the team in 2014, playing in 53 games and registering 22 points. His sophomore season was fantastic, recording 38 points in 79 games. Then the injuries began mounting.

Two broken hands stifled the young forward. In the following two years, Burakovsky hit 25 points twice. After demanding a trade last December, the Capitals dealt him this June to Colorado, where he has a chance to play in a top six role with a talented Avalanche team.

On one hand, it hurts to see a lovable player like Burky go, but well done by MacLellan to maximize his value and get at least a second and third rounder for him. It would not be surprising to me if Andre breaks out this year and hit 20 goals. But it also would not surprise me if he struggles once again.

Grade: B-

Free Agency

After all of the maneuvering, the Caps still had a few holes. The third and fourth line needed some serious tinkering, given the departures of Dmitri Jaskin, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brett Connolly, and potentially Chandler Stephenson.

Capitals sign Richard Panik to a 4-year, $11 million contract

The first free agency move for the Capitals was to fill the third line right wing spot vacated by Brett Connolly, who signed a 4-year deal with the Florida Panthers.

After testing the waters with former Capital Marcus Johansson, Washington pivoted to Panik, a former second round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Panik, 28, registered 33 points (14g,19a) in 75 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season. Panik brings a few strong assets to the table here in Washington, namely his forechecking ability, his two-way play, and his shot, which is good but not great.

Panik, in lesser words, should be exactly what Brett Connolly was during his time in Washington: a good third line winger with the ability to move up the lineup in case of injury. I am encouraged by his strong underlying numbers, particularly the way the offense funnels to the net when he is on the ice.

Playing with Eller and Hagelin will give Panik a chance to live in the offensive zone and feast on opposing goalies while in front of the net.

Grade: B+

Capitals sign Garnet Hathaway to a 4-year, $6 million deal

Who? To be honest, I had no idea who this was. I had to google the guy. But if he can live up to his previous performance, this should be a heck of a signing.

Hathaway, the former Calgary Flame, had 19 points last season. His role will certainly be on the fourth line, playing alongside Nic Dowd, but his strength is not in his offensive game. His specialty is defense, specifically on the penalty kill.

He is strong at 5-on-5 defensively, but one look at his PK chart should tell you all that you need to know, that green is all suppressed shots.

Hathaway is an excellent PK’er, amongst the best in the NHL. His addition should provide excellent relief to the Washington PK unit, especially for Tom Wilson, TJ Oshie, and even Nick Backstrom.

Oh, and Hathaway is also a wrecking ball. He ranked inside the top 25 in hits this season, giving Washington four guys that lay the body in Ovechkin, Wilson, Hathaway, and Gudas.

For a contract that does not exceed $1.5 million a year, this signing could solidify Washington’s PK unit for the next four years.

Grade: A

Capitals sign Brendan Leipsic to a 1-year, $700K deal

The latest move by the Capitals front office was the signing of Leipsic, a former Nashville Predators third round pick.

The journeyman forward had 23 points between the Canucks and Kings last year, so the offensive potential is there. He is a defensive forward, who is average offensively, which fits the bill as a fourth line winger, especially within Washington’s organization.

As we can see, Leipsic limits net-front shots and does a decent job of driving the offense towards the net. It should be interesting to see if he can improve offensively in a Capitals offense that creates a lot of opportunities often.

This signing creates a bit more competition within training camp, especially amongst the fourth line forwards. Travis Boyd, Brendan Leipsic, and potentially Chandler Stephenson will all be battling for that final wing spot alongside Hathaway and Dowd come opening night.

Grade: C+

Capitals fans should be excited. This team should be a lot better than the one that lost in Game 7 to the Hurricanes in late April.

While some of the offensive firepower has departed, strong defensive forwards have stepped in to take their place. If key additions like Panik and Gudas can adequately replace some of the production that left in Connolly and Niskanen and Hagelin and Hathaway can stabilize the penalty kill, the Capitals should be in for a very strong year.

The only things remaining for Washington are new contracts for Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, and Christian Djoos.

Hold on, Caps fans. Hockey is less than two months away!

Austen Adcock

Freelance writer, alumni of the University of Mississippi, hockey and baseball connoisseur

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