Monday night, while there was a fierce overtime game taking place between the Los Angeles Kings and the Minnesota Wild, the hockey world was glued to their monitors for another reason, desperately trying to determine whether the NHL’s juggernaut had actually added the top prize free agency had to offer to their arsenal.
When it was all said and done, the Washington Capitals had indeed acquired St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Additionally, the Capitals brought goaltender Phoenix Copley—sent to St. Louis in the T.J. Oshie trade—back to Washington at the cost of Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, a first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round pick.
It was the mark of a power move by Capitals’ general manager Brian MacLellan, but it lacked the signature touch of the third-year general manager. Notoriously, MacLellan has called his shots. Prior to the 2014 offseason, MacLellan emphasized the need for defense, and he promptly brought in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. In 2015, MacLellan stated he needed a top wing, and he brought in Oshie. This past offseason, MacLellan addressed the lack of a fast, playmaking center for the third line, and he brought in Lars Eller.
But when MacLellan stood before the throng of media just last week to address his game plan for the upcoming trade deadline, he played coy. At the time, MacLellan danced around his plans, saying that they would simply explore opportunities without shaking up the lines or defensive pairings, maybe adding slight finishing touches here and there.
The acquisition of Shattenkirk is a tad bit more than a touchup.
“I’m not sure what tipped the scales,” MacLellan said of Shattenkirk. “I thought, if there was one guy we were going to pursue that could make our team better, it was him. I wasn’t sure what the cost was going to be, but I think at the time [I spoke last week], I was comfortable where our team was at, but I thought I had to pursue anything that could possibly make our team better and that made sense for the cost of it.”
Two clear factors could have have understandably weighed on MacLellan’s mind. Since he spoke last week, MacLellan has seen two defensemen, Niskanen and Orpik, nurse injuries and miss games. While neither injury seems to be particularly serious, it forced MacLellan to question his depth.
“I think in the back of your mind, we’ve always talked about defensive depth, if a top-four guy goes down, what are we going to do? I think that played a big part in the decision and the timing of Nisky’s injury, where he misses two games, maybe created some urgency on our part to pursue it a little more aggressively.”
But the other factor could have been the outside pressure from beyond his franchise. The divisional rival Pittsburgh Penguins were believed to have a gauging interest in Shattenkirk, especially with injuries to Olli Maata and Trevor Daley. And the New York Rangers, the heavy favorites for New York-native Shattenkirk’s destination this offseason, appeared to have a desire in acquiring the 28-year-old defenseman.
However, that simply never played a factor in MacLellan’s militance in this acquisition. The only concern was how the defenseman would work within his own franchise, not someone else's.
“First of all, we don’t know what was going on the other way,” MacLellan said. “I’m not sure who the teams were or how aggressive [they were] or what was going on the other side. I mean, the most important thing was to focus on ‘does this player fit with us, and does it make our team better?’ Those were the conversations we had. There was very little ‘what if he goes here or there.’ It was ‘what’s best for our team?’”
The fit is obvious when it comes to the Capitals and Shattenkirk. Known as an offensive-minded defenseman that is responsible in his own end, Shattenkirk has an ability to quarterback a power play and facilitate offense. Expect him to be right at the top of the power play, feeding passes to a certain player in a certain spot.
“He’s a good player,” MacLellan said. “He’s one of the top power play guys in the league. He’s an offensive defenseman, a great puck mover. The power play breakout passes, the power play passes for one-timers for Ovi, the shot on the power play, those are his strengths. I think he’s a real good puck mover five-on-five. I think he’s just an opportunity for us to add a quality defenseman to our lineup.”
This addition gives the Capitals a slaughters’ row of defensemen riddled throughout the top-six. Assuming each of the right-handed play along the right side of the pairings, Washington can utilize any combination of Shattenkirk, Niskanen or John Carlson on their third pairing. Each player is comfortably considered, at the very least, a top-four defenseman, if not higher.
Of course, the move didn’t come without a price. While the draft is widely believed to be a bit weaker in nature, the Capitals did surrender a first rounder. But it also came at the cost of Sanford, who, in his first year of professional hockey, managed to crack the Capitals’ opening roster. He ends his Washington tenure with two goals and one assist in 26 games. While they aren’t inspiring numbers, the young forward had the Capitals attention. He was also on St. Louis’ mind.
“They did target him,” MacLellan said of Sanford. “We liked the player, we liked the upside of the player. I mean, we’ve spent a lot of time developing him here. He’s a smart person, a smart player. He’s a good person and he fits in well with what we had going on. It’s tough to give up someone like that, and we tried not to. We tried to steer it in a different direction, but they pretty much insisted from Day 1 that it was him that was involved in the trade.”
MacLellan has said in the past that, when it comes to forward depth, he has full confidence in what he has in Hershey. Sanford was believed to be one of the top extra forwards available to the Capitals come playoffs. While his departure at least puts a dent in the depth, MacLellan said he still has confidence in what he has available. That includes Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Paul Carey and Chandler Stephenson, and it may even include players like Travis Boyd and, assuming he recovers from his hand injury, Nathan Walker.
While the 39 percent retained salary gives him a bit of wiggle room when it comes to adding another player, MacLellan doesn’t initially expect to do so. MacLellan said that he and his team will hold a meeting in the morning to explore every such possibility.
Make no mistake, the 11th trade MacLellan has made since taking over as the Capitals general manager is his most assertive. MacLellan has pushed all of his chips towards the center of the table, daring anyone to challenge him. Because, what represents a successful playoff run? Just ask MacLellan himself.
“Winning a championship.”