On deadline day, the Washington Capitals handed the Detroit Red Wings a monster haul: Two good draft picks, Richard Panik, and Jakub Vrana all for one player: Anthony Mantha, a 26-year-old right winger who has never scored 50 points in a season.
There’s a lot to unpack in this blockbuster trade. But, to me, in hindsight, it now seems like this was inevitable. This trade had to happen.
Before I get into the reasons, I want to say that I saw him first. I’m a long-time fan of Jakub Vrana, and that will not change just because he’s gone to another team. As sad as I am about his exit, I’m excited for his new opportunity.
Now, here’s why this trade happened.
Richard Panik is strong bottom-six forward who had two downfalls. The first was weirdly poor performances by Caps goalies behind him — 87.8 percent during five-on-five this season. No full-time Caps forwards saw worse saving.
The other downfall is that the guy just could not score. That was fine though; we knew that going in. Panik’s lack of finish wasn’t a problem until Conor Sheary (16 points in 39 games) and Daniel Sprong (13 points in 30 games) established themselves as lineup mainstays.
A wealth of good, sub-million depth options at forward — plus a flat salary cap for the immediate future — made Panik’s $2.75 million hit seem excessive all of a sudden. That’s a shame, as Panik is a truly solid player. He’ll do great in Detroit.
Jakub Vrana’s entry-level contract expired in 2019. The team knew at the time that Vrana had a lot of potential — he was already an exceptionally productive player given his ice time — so they had a decision to make.
Rather than purchase some of Vrana’s unrestricted years, when he would otherwise command a higher salary, the team kicked the can. They opted for a short two-year deal, which will still expire in restricted status.
The deal was a bargain for such a talented player, but it came with two costs: one was a lack of term, the other was the mistaken impression to some people that Vrana was not a very special player.
I don’t think I need to make much of an appeal here. The timeline speaks for itself.
On February 23, Vrana and linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov apparently gave up defending against a rush attack from the Penguins that resulted in an overtime game-winner.
On February 27, Vrana was scratched for much of the second period against the Devils before returning to score on a breakaway.
On March 9, Vrana was scratched for nearly a whole period after he and Kuznetsov went for a line change as New Jersey’s Miles Wood scored a rush goal.
Vrana returned to score the overtime game-winner that night. As his teammates celebrated, Vrana’s eyes were fixed on someone, unseen, near the Capitals bench.
Two weeks later, Vrana’s ice time began hitting season lows as he barely crept above ten minutes a night.
Vrana was also removed from the first power-play unit.
Then, in early April, Vrana became a healthy scratch for two games.
Me and Peter [Laviolette] had conversations through the year,” Vrana said on April 6. “There are some things during the game I need to work on. There’s definitely things I agree. Talking about playing harder on pucks and things like that. Making mistakes.”
After returning to active play, Vrana scored his last game as a Washington Capital on April 9, the eventual game-winner over the Buffalo Sabres.
When the Washington Capitals really want to score, they put Alex Ovechkin on the ice in the left wing position. This is for a very good reason (Ovechkin is pretty good at scoring), but it was an unavoidable structural hindrance to Vrana. His opportunities came only when Ovechkin was unavailable.
Vrana’s season highs in ice time came when Ovechkin was unavailable due to COVID, a four-game stretch during which Vrana scored one goal and two assists. Upon Ovechkin’s return, Vrana’s ice time promptly returned to middle-six territory.
None of this is a mistake; it’s just an unfortunate truth. The Washington Capitals are tied to Alex Ovechkin for, um, ever, probably. The stack ranking of left wingers will begin with his name for a long time, which blocks aspiring top-line wingers from ever hitting the big time. Vrana could produce and has produced like a top-line forward, but he’ll never get top-line ice time as long as Ovechkin’s here.
And to that point…
Alex Ovechkin’s landmark 13-year contract will expire this summer. He will need a big new deal in a world with a global pandemic, a team with a flat salary cap, and a sport with disappointing revenue from their existing media partnerships.
Around the same time, Jakub Vrana’s contract will expire in arbitration-eligible status. For a player who was on a 30-goal pace last season, Vrana is certainly due for a big raise. How big that raise would be and how long that contract will last, however, are uncertain, and cost uncertainty is exactly what Brian MacLellan and his front office do not want as they prepare to write what might be the final contract for the greatest scorer in NHL history.
The Caps parted with a 2021 first round pick and 2022 second round pick to make this deal, but the value of at least one of those picks is more murky than we are used to.
In-person amateur scouting practically has not existed since COVID began in early 2020. Some leagues have hardly played since then. Most NHL teams still have muscular scouting and drafting programs, but they’re collecting dust. None are operating at the same level of confidence they would be in a non-COVID year.
That could mean more top picks failing to develop into NHL players as well as more late-round players surprising the league. The difference in relative value between draft order positions will be messier this season, which means that the Washington’s dealt first round pick may not feel as precious to the team as it would have in a normal year.
The Detroit Red Wings appeared to have cooled a bit on Anthony Mantha, but he is still a promising player. He’s a big, fast, shoot-first forward, ranking just outside the league’s top quintile in his individual shot-attempt rate (among forwards with 1000 minutes over last three seasons).
He’s a very similar player to Vrana in a lot of ways, but there are some crucial distinctions.
First, Mantha plays on the right wing, where the Caps are much weaker: Oshie is bait for the expansion draft and Wilson is under league-wide scrutiny. Mantha will not compete for ice time with Ovechkin; he will share it with him.
And lastly, Mantha comes with a lot of term at a reasonable cost, earning $5.7M through 2024. Only Kuznetsov, Carlson, Backstrom, and Oshie have longer terms.
Swapping Vrana for Mantha makes clear Washington’s balance sheet in the immediate and distant futures. The only downsides are these: the possibility that they became a slightly worse hockey team today, plus all these broken hearts.
Photo: Cara Bahniuk
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.