General manager Brian MacLellan built the team that brought the Cup to DC for the very first time, but what comes next will be even tougher.
I spent most of my Todd Reirden review discussing how complicated it is to critique a coach. The same is true for general managers. We tend to rate them based on their teams’ performances, which are a function of team composition — but not solely so. And as much as we love to grade trades and contracts, much of what a general manager does is outside those bounds. We don’t really know the wretched or tantalizing deals a GM turns down, or the icky personnel reasons that might inform a decision. We just know what we know, and we do our best to accommodate for what we don’t.
So here’s something we know: The Caps won the Cup last season. That actually happened. And in the wake of the championship, Brian MacLellan kept as much of that championship unit together that he could. That was a noble goal with good intentions — maybe lightning would strike twice. It didn’t. Let’s look at why.
Here’s every noteworthy deal Brian MacLellan made since the Cup win. (Let me know in comments if I missed something.)
Aside from the Carlson deal, every move MacLellan made heading into the season was about retooling. The Smith-Pelly deal is probably now regretted by both sides, but it was very low risk. Michal Kempny proved himself up to tougher-than-third-pair minutes and got compensated appropriately. Nic Dowd came in at league minimum to compete for and win the role of fourth-line center.
And then there’s Brooks Orpik. Orpik was 37 years old and earning $5.5 million a year when the Caps dumped his salary to Colorado in a package deal with Philipp Grubauer. That saved space helped the team afford John Carlson while also creating some exciting new opportunities on the defense– for a couple weeks. Washington then signed Orpik to another deal, structured in a curious fashion: as long as Orpik played 40-plus games, he’d earn as much as he would have if he hadn’t been bought out by Colorado. Re-adding Orpik wasn’t a bad move necessarily, but it created a cascade of adjustments Todd Reirden was forced to make to “hide” the veteran defender. That meant low minutes, fast partners, and easy competition. All that burden was shifted onto other blueliners, namely MacLellan’s other big inaugural signing, Matt Niskanen.
Elliotte Friedman reported that the Capitals “softly” explored trading Niskanen earlier in the season, probably around the time it was obvious to everyone that he had taken a step backwards. MacLellan was unable or unwilling to make a deal, so he had to make other defensive improvements.
Just like in 2018, Brian MacLellan again made big-brain moves at the trade deadline that made the Caps genuine Cup contenders. He shipped Madison Bowey out of town to gain Nick Jensen (a move echoing Bowey’s reassignment and the Kempny trade one year earlier) and injected the flagging team with speed via Carl Hagelin. As vulnerable as his initial roster looked between October and February, MacLellan’s Caps in March were probably the best team in the league.
It didn’t last, but a general manager doesn’t bear blame for injuries. No one does (okay, maybe Cedric Pacquette).
The Caps who faced the Canes weren’t the unit Brian MacLellan hoped for, but they were still — mostly — the unit he assembled. His defenders couldn’t clear the defensive zone, his forwards couldn’t enter the offensive zone, and his coach couldn’t stop it. MacLellan is ultimately accountable for that failure, and he knew it.
The inevitable dread you felt in game seven? MacLellan and other keen observers felt that all the way back in November. Every move he made (or reportedly attempted to make) agrees: this team wasn’t quite on the level. Now, with Backstrom and Ovechkin both aging and nearing contract expiration, it’s only going to get more difficult.
Brian MacLellan took over this team in a time of tumult: the nadir of Ovechkin, the exit of McPhee, the end of Oates. MacLellan adjusted course and assembled maybe the best team in franchise history. Then, he sorta blew it in the summer of 2017. But a splashy deadline in 2018 and a bit of magic delivered the Cup to DC just in time for a sobering comedown, which a second splashy deadline couldn’t stave off.
All of that was a preamble to what comes next: the possible end of Alex Ovechkin as a Washington Capital.
Plus Backstrom and Holtby and Niskanen and getting good transition players to complement great finishing talent and getting good backcheckers to keep the puck out of high-danger areas while dealing with some salary-cap overages incurred because of last season’s bonuses.
Jeez. GM is a tough job. But if anyone can do it, BMac can.
Read more: Japers Rink
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