I really like Washington’s trade on Friday of Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Radko Gudas. The trade has every hallmark of an expert-tier Brian MacLellan move: an under-appreciated target player acquired to address a specific team need.
In this case, it was two needs: defensive stability and cap relief.
As succinctly as I can put it, Matt Niskanen might have been the single biggest reason why the Washington Capitals rebounded following the 2014 season (with apologies to Barry Trotz, whose bounce also owed some to the mere removal of Adam Oates as head coach). Niskanen was an understated puck-moving defender with so little flash he was sometimes downright boring. He didn’t have much individual offense, but he masterfully covered up for his then-partner’s lack of alacrity, and he did a specific job superbly: stop the opponent attack and turn the puck back in the right direction. Every season, the Caps were a better team when Niskanen was on the ice compared to when he was on the bench. Until last season.
Matt Niskanen’s drop-off probably began early in 2017, when a wrist injury might have kicked off a decline, as Japers Rink documented last year. The 2017-18 Caps and 2018-19 Caps had profound problems slowing down the offense of their opponents, and that effect was acutely felt when Niskanen was on ice. The graph below shows us the change in Washington’s chance differences per hour when Niskanen steps onto the ice from the bench.
Niskanen hadn’t been spectacular at clearing the crease and limiting chances prior to 2018-19, but all of a sudden he was downright bad. For a 32-year-old defender with two years left on a $5.75 million deal, that’s worrying.
Brian MacLellan knew this. He was rumored to have been considering a Niskanen trade as early as last Christmas. It didn’t happen, but I think it was evidence that MacLellan had both a diagnosis for the problem and a plan to fix it. He had done the same thing before.
When the Caps lacked finishing, he got TJ Oshie. When the Caps needed better two-way play, he got Justin Williams. When the bottom-six forwards needed reinforcements, he got Lars Eller. When defensive depth was sketchy, he got Michal Kempny. When transition play was lacking, he got Nick Jensen. When the team got slow, he got Carl Hagelin.
(And that’s without going into moves that were addition by subtraction.)
There’s a pattern of Brian MacLellan having both a vision for his team and the execution to follow through on it. Gudas-for-Niskanen is more of the same. Here’s that same chances graph from above, but for Gudas.
Gudas’ team takes more of the total scoring chances and high-danger chances when he’s on the ice — specifically by limiting opponents from high-danger areas. Beyond that, Gudas’ game isn’t very deep, but it is reliable. Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz tells that story well in his isolated impact visualization:
Though Gudas certainly plays easier and fewer minutes than Niskanen, he does much much better within that role.
But when people hear Gudas’ name, they don’t think defensive dependability, they think “oh, he’s a total goon.” They’re sorta right. Gudas takes bad penalties too often and gets suspended for too long. He’s a real risk in that sense, and his reputation rightly mystified many people when the news broke. Some folks thought this was purely a salary dump move, especially once we learned that Philadelphia will retain about a million dollars of Gudas’ $3.35 million paycheck. I’m not so sure. I think the on-ice value is clearly in Washington’s favor here.
From Philadelphia’s perspective, I suspect they’re banking on a big rebound season from Matt Niskanen. I hope so; he’s a world-class player and I’ll always root for him. But long-term trends suggest Niskanen’s on a downward career arc.
The bars below show the “wins above replacement”, a catch-all stat from Evolving Hockey to estimate the overall contribution of a player, over the past seven seasons. Niskanen is in red.
After half a decade as a world-class blueliner (and one-time Stanley Cup champion), Niskanen doesn’t seem to be that superstar player anymore. Gudas is nowhere close to being a superstar, but in a slight role and with some better decision-making, he will help the Caps where they need it most. (Plus, he’s bringing the Neuvirth family back into the organization, and I find that delightful.)
After the retained salary, Gudas’ addition effectively costs Washington $2.35 million against the salary cap this season — a drop of nearly $3.5 million when you subtract Niskanen’s 2018 cap hit. That deduction immediately nulls out the $1.15 million of overages from last season’s bonuses and gives the Caps enough room to make an offer to Carl Hagelin. Next season, the saved Niskanen salary will help with the Backstrom negotiations, which we hear may be “sentimental.”
The Gudas deal will help the team on the ice right away, it will help them make deals this summer, and it will help them make better deals next year. It’s a total win.
Farewell, Nisky. Thanks for everything.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.