Now that we’ve wrapped up the players, it’s time to turn our attention to the big man himself, the architect of the 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Capitals... GM Brian MacLellan.
Q1. So far this offseason, Brian MacLellan has been able to keep the majority of the 2018 Cup-winning squad in tact. Which of the new deals handed out do you think are the most important step towards a possible repeat in 2019? Who do you see as being the biggest potential loss among the players not returning?
J.P.: Locking up John Carlson for the long-term is the obvious biggie here. And while reasonable minds can certainly differ as to whether the deal is too long or too rich, the alternative (in the short term) would have been having to replace an all-situations minute-muncher (a right-hander, no less) with those savings and/or pushing the team’s other defensemen into roles for which they’re potentially ill-suited. So, instead, the Caps return their five (or more) best blueliners and only need to replace their veteran-third pair stay-at-home guy, a much easier task.
As for who’s not coming back, I’m not sure they win the Metro without Philipp Grubauer stepping up when Braden Holtby was struggling, but it’ll be more interesting to see how they replace Jay Beagle. That’s a lot of big defensive-zone draws and penalty-killing minutes that they’ll have to either hope a Chandler Stephenson (or someone else) is ready for, or use Nicklas Backstrom more in a role that will necessarily take away from his opportunities at the other end of the ice. But in just a few years, the Caps went from having a gaping hole at second-line center to having some questions about their fourth-line pivot; those are first-world, championship-calibre problems to have.
Peerless: I’m with J.P. on Carlson being the big deal among the big deals. Carlson had a breakout season offensively, but to me the minutes he consumes would be a big problem in his absence. More than 18 minutes a game at evens, more than three minutes a game on power plays, and more than two minutes a game killing penalties. He was the only Caps defenseman with that profile at different strengths, and no other Capital defenseman was close. Matt Niskanen might be able to assume a heavier power play burden in Carlson’s absence, but whether he could be as effective is a question. And then there is the matter of what would happen if everyone under Carlson on the depth chart moved up a slot. That third pairing could look mighty weak. Carlson might never hit the same numbers he did in 2017-2018, but it would still have been a huge hole to plug had he walked.
As for the departed, I think Grubauer’s departure leaves the Caps with little margin for error at the backup goaltender position. I don’t think it likely Braden Holtby suffers the same mysterious February swoon he did this season, but if he did, or if he missed any significant time, there obviously is no proven commodity back there to fill in.
Rob: Obviously it’s Carlson and that case has been made--there’s simply no way they could have replaced Carlson without blowing up the team. Beagle’s faceoffs will be missed but I think Chandler Stephenson is going to outperform Beagle in all live-action metrics next year. I’m with Peerless, having Grubauer was a luxury that really paid off last year. There’s no realistic way they get the same caliber backup goaltending next year--but it’s also backup goaltending. If they need to find a veteran to take some minutes at some point they’ll be able to do it.
More broadly speaking, the new approach has been a pleasant surprise. The guys that stayed are the guys that needed to stay (Carlson, Kempny) or on no-risk deals (DSP, Orpik). The guys that left have better replacements either immediately (Grubauer, Chiasson), or in the very-near future (Beagle). There was no sentimentality in Mac’s approach, pending Tom Wilson’s deal, and all the moves were made in a way that keeps the success sustainable. All of a sudden the two-year-window-that-closed looks like a Cup win with another several years of contention in the immediate future.
Becca: I’m sticking with the crowd and saying Carlson as well, but I’ll make it a two-fer and say that locking up both Carlson and Kempny was hugely important. Whether Kempny himself was personally responsible for the change in the team or not after the deadline can be debated, but his presence made the whole blueline better - and keeping that duo together for hopefully the next four years is a big deal for a team that really stepped it up defensively towards the end of last year.
Grubauer is definitely a big loss, especially given his body of work during the regular season last year - it’s questionable whether the Caps even make the playoffs if he’s not able to step up and fill in at a high level when Holtby faltered. That said, if #70 is back to being himself, the Caps have a strong pipeline of goaltending prospects more than capable of carrying the weight as a backup (and if it turns out they can’t, there never seems to be a shortage of veteran netminders available by the deadline). So I’ll throw Beagle into the mix - not necessarily for his on-ice work, because I agree with Rob that Stephenson should be an upgrade, but for his all-around work ethic. Fourth-line guys are arguably a dime a dozen, but there was something special about the way Beagle gave it his all every shift, every night, and I think that will be missed.
Jason: Y’all want me to say Carlson. I know y’all want me to say Carlson.
But I ain’t gonna do it.
Sure, Carlson led the Caps in TOI, a career-high. And sure, he basically single-handedly saved the Capitals’ season when Matt Niskanen missed 14 games in October-November.
But that doesn’t mean Carlson is some kind of 8 x $8M icon all of a sudden, just because the market decrees that he is. Yes, it would have been a massive migraine to replace Carlson, and yes, no one currently on the roster appears ready to do it. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t find a replacement on the open market for...hell, less than 64 million dollars. I’m glad they brought him back, but I have major reservations about giving anybody - let alone a guy around whom whispers swirl about his work ethic - that kind of deal as a reward rather than an incentive.
I want to see Tom Wilson re-signed. A genuinely dynamic top-line power forward is a rare and valuable bird in the NHL. The space he helped create this year for Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, through sheer impact of havoc, is a major reason the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. Washington needs number 43 back.
Q2. What’s your take on how MacLellan handled the coaching situation, between the departure of Barry Trotz and the hiring of Todd Rierden?
J.P.: I have no problem with how Mac handled the coaching situation. Sure, it was awkward to let your Cup-winning bench boss walk, and the optics surrounding it weren’t great in terms of the contract “negotiations” details that emerged. But Mac had a plan and stuck to it, not letting a tiny sample of results change that, and I dig the hell out of that. Trotz, Orpik, Beagle… Mac hasn’t let sentimentality change his mind, nor should he - contracts shouldn’t be rewards for jobs well done as much as bets on the future and, frankly, going all-in on Trotz wasn’t a good bet for the future for this team, given what we know about coaching lifecycles and so on.
Todd Rierden will have a really, really tough time repeating what Barry Trotz just did here. But so would Barry Trotz. Rierden may be a good coach, he may be a great coach, he may be a disaster, but it was time to move on from Trotz, given the commitment the alternative would have entailed. I’m good with that, and I think the players will be energized by it.
Oh, and as for Trotz? He is now and forever will be a legend in this town. None of this changes that.
Peerless: I’m fine with the way the coaching situation was handled, because I think the outcome was largely baked into the cake, so to speak, long before the parting of the ways. I just don’t get the sense that MacLellan and Trotz were ever really on the same page. And to the extent there was any conflict or tension, this is not a coach’s league in terms of building tenure. Coaches do not seem to maintain a hold on the locker room for as long as Trotz might have been here had he been re-upped. I just don’t think he would have completed his entire term of contract. Further, it is a general manager’s league, for better or worse, and MacLellan has been transparent and decisive in the moves he has made with this team. He is firmly in charge.
As for Rierden, every coach is an unknown until he isn’t. No one can know if Rierden is going to be a Bruce Boudreau or an Adam Oates, who might be at the ends of the spectrum with this franchise as far as first-time NHL head coaches go. On one hand, Rierden might have been the safe choice, a known among players and management. On the other, Rierden represents continuity with respect to that knowledge among players and management. Either way, his hire seems to fit squarely with what appears to be a status quo approach to transitioning into next season. The Caps seem disinclined to make a lot of changes to a formula that worked (Trotz’ departure being the obvious exception).
Rob: Three thumbs up. He won but the writing had been on the wall and the Cup run couldn’t erase it all. Now he can leave, get paid, and never have to risk his legacy, here or elsewhere--could any result next year really be a failure for him? But he was and will continue to be more old school than the league demands. Listen to the way Rierden and MacLellan talk about the game--emphases on speed and youth--and it’s a far cry from the Heavy Hockey brand Trotz established. It’s not lost on me that a huge key to the Cup run was the emergence of young players--Vrana, Djoos, and Stephenson specifically--and none of them were Trotz’s preference. They all were benched or had their ice time diminished in favor of safer, veteran choices until injuries made their benching untenable, and they stepped up when finally given the chance.
Jason: The worst-kept secret in hockey media was that MacLellan and Trotz had already had an irreconcilable falling out, Trotz knew he was gone, and all that was left was handling it in a PR-friendly way.
MacLellan did that, and locked up the new head coach the franchise has known was next for some time now. Reirden - if the testimony of like, every freaking player is to believed - is the real deal Holyfield. Let’s see what he can do with the ongoing progression of young blueliners like Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and Dmitry Orlov.
Becca: I think it was one of those situations that looked much worse initially and that only now looks “bad” to those not in tune with the situation in DC. As was noted above, a Cup can’t erase everything and as we’ve learned more about how the season progressed, it’s not surprising - and is probably for the best - that the two sides parted the way they did. Barry gets his Cup (and the forever spot in DC’s heart for being the one to bring that Cup here) and a big payday, and the Caps get to maintain some consistency behind the bench with a coach that the whole team not only knows well but seems to really like.
Q3. Sure, the Caps won the Cup last season (not sure if you’d heard), but no team is perfect and launching a Cup defense won’t be easy. What holes/pressing needs do you think MacLellan still needs to address?
J.P.: In Orpik and Beagle, the Caps have (had) lost two players that they leaned heavily on in defensive situations (whether or not that reliance was wise), so even with Orpik coming back, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on who gets those minutes and whether those roles can be filled internally. Do they have to go outside the organization for a penalty-killing forward or a more effective shutdown depth defenseman? They’ll have a few months to figure out the answer to those questions. And if Holtby has another tough stretch, can Pheonix Copley step up, or is there a better solution out there somewhere? But take a minute to realize how deep down the depth chart we’re talking about as potential holes and you realize that this team should be pretty good once again… provided they sober up by October.
Peerless: I think the biggest thing MacLellan still needs to address is replacing Rierden, the assistant. The roles of an assistant and a head coach are very different in terms of management and the face he shows the team. He was credited by Michal Kempny for instilling more confidence in himself and his game. Well, the Caps almost certainly won’t be able to afford the luxury of a head coach bestowing that kind of hands-on/close attention an assistant with defined responsibilities can pay to one player or to a position. Rierden has a more global role, and who fills the role he played last year might be an important consideration in the further development of defensemen such as Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey. That assistant might be an important ingredient in determining whether Rierden’s transition to the head chair is successful.
Rob: Certain members of this team may have already had a reputation for enjoying alcoholic beverages over the summer, and this summer has been a historic run of celebration. They’ve also had well-documented challenges playing from the pole position over the years, and everyone is going to be gunning for them next year. I think the start could be ugly, but this team is still loaded and they just won their division, and then the Cup, after having a pretty tough regular season. If they can keep it together until the New Year they should be fine.
Jason: The Caps are going to need to figure out very quickly if Ilya Samsonov is truly the real deal in net. If not, they’ll need to decide if Pheonix Copley is a serviceable NHL backup. If neither is up to the challenge, it’ll be time to go shopping for Mac.
The backup NHL goalie is a fairly thankless position, devoid of the glory and spoils typical of NHL stardom. But the Capitals flat out don’t win the Metropolitan Division this past year without Philipp Grubauer stepping in for a struggling, fatigued Braden Holtby. There’s no reason to believe that same formula won’t be critical for success this year.
Similarly, the two-headed defensive monster of Madison Bowey/Brooks Orpik remains a gigantic question mark. Up until Washington re-signed Orpik, it was simply assumed that 2018-2019 was to be Bowey’s year to step into a larger role, develop as an NHL defenseman, and inject some youth, energy, and long-term stability into Washington’s blueline.
Now, with Orpik back on a rookie-range deal, it seems the Capitals are poised to roll seven defensemen, which, fine. I hope Bowey is the de facto sixth, and Orpik rotates in and out as fatigue dictates. But if Bowey is not up to the task (or does not get enough ice time to grow into the task), and Orpik’s speed and footwork continue to decline, MacLellan may need to go shopping at the deadline and see if he can’t find himself another Michal Kempny, or at least another Jakub Jerabek.