Last time, we unpacked all of the changes to the Metropolitan Division made so far this offseason, painting a picture of a division that will be much more competitive next season. Two of the Metro’s basement-dwelling teams, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, have had a sudden, massive injection of talent, but one team was conspicuously left out of that conversation: the Washington Capitals.
Now it’s time to unpack the Caps’ summer moves, and how the team who suits up for 2019-20 should be even better than the 2018-19 model.
Before we get into this summer, I think we should look at how the Caps changed during the 2018-19 season. In February, prior to the deadline, the Capitals acquired forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen via trade. Their addition and the removal of depth defender Madison Bowey helped the Caps become a very good team down the stretch.
For reasons we’ll discuss below, these trades and extensions were laser-targeted on specific problems with the team’s defensive and transition play. Jensen and Hagelin are talented players within particular roles, and we will see them within those roles much more next season.
After six months of rumors, the Caps traded restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky to Colorado for draft picks. The return was lower than I had hoped, but knowing now that Burakovsky had requested a trade explains the gap and moves the trade out of Marcus Johansson/Mathieu Perreault fiasco territory.
Burakovsky didn’t live up to his potential for reasons I’ve documented at length, but his departure still leaves a hole where bottom-six scoring should be. While Carl Hagelin will help with zone entries (which Burakovsky was underrated at), he probably will not make up for the loss in goal-scoring. This will become the biggest theme of the offseason, as you’ll see.
Brett Connolly put up 22 goals and 24 assists in bottom-six minutes last season. That player and those points will be missed, but his exit makes sense. Now earning $3.5 million a year in Florida, Connolly effectively priced himself out of Washington’s budget. (Apart from on-ice impact, it feels like it’s our obligation as non-awful fans to be happy for Connolly even as he leaves our preferred team.)
Connolly’s leaving compounds the problem of lowered offense among bottom-six offense, and it does so on two levels. First, pretty straightforwardly, Connolly’s goals will be missed. But also, and maybe more perniciously, Connolly had a talent for scoring more goals than expected — speaking to the quality of his particular shot and selection, plus luck.
Connolly was a part of a team-wide effect of getting more goals than expected over the last few years.
Basically, Washington has scored more than they we think they “should.” Connolly was one part of why, and his exit makes goal-scoring the biggest worry entering 2019-20.
Richard Panik, 28, addresses some but not all of the problems created from Connolly’s departure. Panik shoots as much as Connolly (both around 13 attempts per hour), goes to the net as much (both around 4 high-danger chances per hour), and generates slightly more individual expected goals (0.78 versus 0.68).
But Connolly shot 16.5 percent last season, and Panik shot just 9.2. (His five-year average is 10.4 percent.) Panik will spend a lot of time with Lars Eller next season, where I suspect Panik will get better chances than he got with Derek Stepan in Arizona. Still, it might be too much to ask of Panik to hit twenty goals. That’s okay. With a cap hit of $2.75 million, Panik comes in both cheaper than Connolly and way below his projected salary of $4.8 million. I don’t know how Brian MacLellan pulled that off.
Brian MacLellan and the Caps front office deserve a lot of credit for looking at the evidence and making a hard decision here. It had been clear for a long time that Matt Niskanen was not aging well.
Nick Jensen was acquired basically as a Niskanen replacement, though he was not used that way. Niskanen’s usage hardly budged after the deadline, and Jensen mostly just kept Brooks Orpik company in limited minutes. By removing Niskanen as a player, MacLellan ensures that his big deadline pick-up actually gets used properly next season.
Radko Gudas, meanwhile, is a really interesting player. He has virtually no offensive impact and he has discipline problems, but he’s darn good at shot suppression during five-on-five play and will be crucial on the penalty kill. His well-cultivated reputation as a goon may be part of his appeal for some general managers, but Washington’s analysts saw the real on-ice value here. I don’t know what level of usage he’ll get, but a third pairing with any combination of Djoos, Siegenthaler, and Gudas will beat all 82 combinations we saw last regular season.
The dirty secret about two-time Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik’s final NHL season is that it was actually pretty good. With lowered minutes, good partners, and easier competition, Orpik excelled. This was a pattern for Orpik, who also soared in a specific playing context back in 2016-17. But Orpik’s sheltered usage magnified the stress on the overworked top-four defenders, compounding the defensive problems that have dragged the Caps down in recent seasons.
Orpik, 38, made the decision to retire this summer. While he’ll certainly be missed in the locker room, his retirement gives the team flexibility on defense that it has badly needed over the last two seasons.
The Caps made some smaller changes to their fourth-line forwards that won’t change the world but should add marginal improvements.
RFA Dmitrij Jaskin not getting an offer for a new contract is disappointing but understandable. There was clearly a gulf between management and coaching about the player there, and a new deal would not have fixed it.
While Travis Boyd will be back and Chandler Stephenson will likely be back, it’s not clear if they’ll have roster spots waiting. Garnet Hathaway (four-year deal) and Brandon Leipsic (one-year deal) are comparable players who will at the very least compete for a spot. Hathaway is a penalty killer, and Leipsic has much more offensive potential than Stephenson. Those are both upgrades.
From my perspective, this is close to a flawless offseason. While losing Burakovsky and Jaskin was regrettable, it was necessary. Every other move had both purpose and discipline: Hagelin addresses neutral-zone problems, Panik helps with scoring, Gudas slows down opponents. Problematic players like Niskanen and Stephenson have been removed or mitigated. Mistakes were avoided — especially in free agency, where the Caps stayed below projected market value for Panik and dodged big-number contracts entirely.
It feels like a huge victory, but let’s try to put some numbers on it.
The catch-all statistic Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, helps us understand how many games a team might win with a player compared to a generic call-up player who would slot in for them. Evolving Hockey and Corsica have different calculations for the stat, so I pulled last season’s WAR number from both sites for players who left since February (plus two who will likely have a smaller role next season) and the new players added since the 2019 trade deadline.
While Corsica’s WAR thinks the offseason has been a wash (down 0.1 win above replacement), Evolving Hockey’s reckoning puts the Caps nearly five wins up. That is a profound improvement.
What happens in reality is another matter. Even if their top-six forwards and goalie are unchanged (aside from being one year older), the team we’ll see in October 2019 will be way different from the one we saw in October 2018. I suspect they’ll control play a lot better, limit opponent offense better, kill penalties better (if not lesser), and get better goaltending.
But can they score?
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