Tomorrow the Washington Capitals will be jetting home from their annual trip to the west coast — 18 months to the day since winning the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. It might not seem that long ago, but in the world of personnel management, it is a lifetime.
Last season, much was made of the Caps retaining much of that Stanley Cup roster, the only notable departures from the champs being center Jay Beagle and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer. But an odd constant in hockey is that things always change, and roster turnover is a fact of life in a salary cap-strapped league. If anyone needs evidence of that, witness the Capitals trade of Chandler Stephenson to the Vegas Golden Knights for a fifth-round pick late Monday as the most recent example. With Carl Hagelin being activated from long-term injured reserve, the Capitals could not afford to carry what amounted to two “13th forwards” in Stephenson and Travis Boyd — and the club opted to retain Boyd, making Stephenson the casualty.
The Stephenson trade is also an example of the subtle, yet constant churn in the Capitals roster that seeks to swap in and out productive parts around a “core” that keeps the Caps competitive on a year-to-year basis. Since Brian MacLellan took over as general manager of the club in May 2014, one would have to say he has been successful in balancing the need to manage the salary cap, keep the core intact, and make the moves in other parts of the roster to allow the Caps to compete for a title on an annual basis.
If you look at the Capitals, then and now, the players who dressed for at least one game in the 2018 postseason and the players who have dressed for at least one game this season (or are still under contract in the Caps system), the level of churn might be surprising:
The graphic above merits a bit of explanation. Players in unshaded/bold were with the 2018 playoff team and have dressed this season. Unshaded/unbolded players are still in the system. Those in red are departures from the 2018 playoff roster, while those in green are those who replaced departed players on the roster and dressed this season. You might quibble with whether Mike Sgarbossa is really a center (or a winger), or if Jonas Siegenthaler is a replacement for Jakub Jerabek, but the point is the scope of overall change over the last 18 months.
Change from Within
Thirteen players have dressed this season for the Caps who were not with the 2018 playoff squad. Of that group, five are home-grown Capitals draft picks: Beck Malenstyn (2016/5th round), Jonas Siegenthaler (2015/2nd round), Martin Fehervary (2018/2nd round), Tyler Lewington (2013/7th round), and Ilya Samsonov (2015/1st round). What distinguishes this group is the speed with which some rose to the parent club.
At one end, there is Lewington, who spent parts of four seasons in Hershey before this season, dressing for 240 regular season games and 41 playoff games. Siegenthaler played in 122 games for the Bears over four seasons (plus five playoff games) before being called up to the Caps last season for 26 games. Last season was Malenstyn’s first in the AHL, in which he played 74 regular season and nine playoff games at Hershey. Fehervary played in Europe until this season and was a surprise starter in the Opening Night lineup for the Caps, playing in three games before being reassigned to the Bears. Finally, Samsonov, even accounting for his plying three seasons in the KHL after the Caps drafted him in 2015, spent only a short apprenticeship in Hershey, appearing in 37 regular season and five postseason games for the Bears last season before being promoted to the backup role for the Caps this season.
As a group, the results are mixed, which is not a surprise, given their respective states of development. The four skaters have combined for one goal and four assists (all from Siegenthaler) in 40 man-games (28 from Sigenthaler). Samsonov has been a pleasant surprise, his 6-2-1, 2.58, .914 record through Monday being among the best performances by a rookie goaltender so far this season.
It is hard to come from somewhere else and replace a fixture in the lineup, but this is another common theme in hockey as a result of the frequent personnel turnover. The Caps have dressed eight players this season who came from other organizations. Some have come in quietly, afforded a chance to build their own followings almost from scratch. Others came to replace players with a history with this franchise and having to replace those memories with ones of their own.
As to the latter, consider Nic Dowd. He was signed as a free agent by the Capitals on the same day that the player he essentially replaced – Jay Beagle – was signed as a free agent by the Vancouver Canucks. Beagle was one of the “feel good” stories in the history of the Caps, an undrafted player who was signed by the club as a free agent, worked his way up the ladder, dealt with injuries that took chunks of a few seasons, and became a solid reliable fourth-line center with a knack for winning faceoffs and doing the little things that characterize the “grinder” species of player. And he started chipping in offense later in his stay with the Caps, to boot.
Dowd was an unknown, a creature of the Western Conference (Los Angeles, Vancouver) with whom Caps fans had little knowledge or experience. But Dowd has taken the fourth line center role for his own, despite his own occasional absences from the lineup due to injuries, posting 10 goals and 26 points in 81 games as a Capital, a good season’s worth of contributions for mostly fourth line work, and while he will not make anyone forget Beagle’s freakish efficiency in the faceoff circle, his 51.9 percent winning percentage is the best he has had at any of his three NHL stops.
Carl Hagelin presents a different picture. Obtained at last season’s trading deadline, his tenure in Washington overlaps with the player whose spot, if not whose role, he replaces (at least for the most part), Andre Burakovsky. Both could be considered “third line” left wings, although Burakovsky moved up and down the lines and from left to right side far more than Hagelin might be expected to. Further, Burakovsky was all offensive promise, albeit largely unrealized as a Capital.
Hagelin is an example of addition by subtraction, at least on the offensive side of the puck. But Hagelin is a more polished, more versatile two-way player. He has never displayed Burakovsky’s level of skill, and at this stage of his career might be a finished product in that regard. But he is a better defensive player who can be used in penalty killing scenarios Burakovsky was not suited for, and provides an element of speed that the Caps lacked at times in the past.
Then there is the defense. This might be a topic that merits its own deeper analysis, but essentially, the Caps replaced the free agent “Pen-Twins” of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, each of them signed away as unrestricted free agents from Pittsburgh on July 1, 2014, with (eventually) Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas. Both Niskanen and Orpik might have been described as “not elite, but essential” players, Niskanen providing a level of stability as Dmitry Orlov matured into a more reliable defenseman, and Orpik being a stay at home defenseman of whom it might be said he was a “coach on the ice (off it to, in terms of his influence on players).
Jensen might not have been a replacement for Orpik, per se, when he was obtained in trade for prospect defenseman Madison Bowey last February, as he was an effort by the Caps to repeat the success they had with a similar acquisition – Michal Kempny – the previous season. Jensen has had some rocky going at times, trying to find a comfortable role. He is more a puck mover/positional defender than the prototypical stay-at-home defenseman Orpik was, and he does not have the same veteran gravitas that Orpik wore comfortably. Perhaps it is this more nuanced role on the ice for Jensen has played a role in his sluggishness at finding a rhythm, but a third pair assignment might suit him in his own way as it eventually did for Orpik.
Gudas replacing Niskanen, players who were exchanged for one another in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, is a considerable change in role and character. Niskanen spent five seasons in Washington and quietly took up high-rankings in a number of categories among defensemen in team history – 15th in games played (390), 13th in goals (29), 11th in assists (127), 13th in points (156), tied for tenth in game-winning goals (seven), tied for eighth in plus-minus (plus-58), and since the league started recording them, fifth in hits (731), sixth in blocked shots (579), and fourth in takeaways (162). It was evidence of his being a well-rounded defenseman.
But nicks and dents were appearing in NIskanen’s game last season, and he was traded for a defenseman from: a) one of the Caps most bitter rivals, and b) one with a reputation for being a player who plays on the edge of civility. However, while Gudas has not been Niskanen’s equal as an offensive defenseman, he averaged almost 20 points per season in his last four years in Philadelphia and posted a very respectable personal 52.42 percent in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 in his last four years with the Flyers. What the Caps might miss in Niskanen’s offense might be made up for in Gudas’ surprising improvements in other parts of the game and a temperance of his propensity to take penalties, his penalty minutes dropping in each of the last four seasons coming into this one. It also doesn’t hurt that Gudas encumbers a much smaller cap hit than does Niskanen, although he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
This brings us to “Netsy and Brendance” – Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic – who we featured in this space a couple of week ago. These two players bring a consistent level of energy, and more than a ladleful of annoyance factor, that he players they more or less replace – Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly – did not, at least not consistently. Perhaps more than any other moves, the turnover here reflects what the Caps want to be that they were not last season, consistently hard to play against, especially in the play of the bottom six forwards.
Comparing the two pairs of forwards at similar points of the season is helpful. Last year through 28 games, Stephenson and Smith-Pelly appeared in all 28 games and combined for six goals and six assists. The two combined for 42 credited hits, 43 blocked shots, and 13 takeaways. Compare that to Hathaway and Leipsic. Leipsic has appeared in all 28 games, and Hathaway would have but for the unpleasantness against Anaheim that got him a three-game suspension. The two have combined for five goals and ten assists, 93 hits, 23 blocked shots, and 12 takeaways. This is clearly a more ornery pair, if not quite as productive on the offensive side of the puck, but the Caps have not suffered in the change in character.
Richard Panik for Brett Connolly wraps up the skaters in this look at turnover. The considerations here were the salary cap problems that Connolly’s career goal-scoring year presented, making up unaffordable for the Caps, and the larger strategy of improving the consistency and two-way play of the bottom six forwards. In this regard, Panik might be the most disappointing of the replacements from the 2018 Stanley Cup champion squad, especially since Connolly leads his new club, the Florida Panthers, in goals so far (12), and Panik has only two and missed ten games to injury. But Panik has been a player displaying more dimensions than Connolly, even in his limited duty. In 18 games so far he has 17 credited hits (Connolly had 16 in 28 games at this point last season), five blocked shots (Connolly had seven), and five takeaways (Connolly had six).
In goal, the dynamic seems one of the consequences of development. With Braden Holtby firmly established as the number one goalie, and Ilya Samsonov viewed as the number one goalie in waiting, Philipp Grubauer was caught in the no-man’s land of being stuck in a role from which escape would have been difficult with this team, at least until Samsonov was (hopefully) ready to take on the number one role. Grubauer’s performance as Holtby’s backup over the last few seasons allowed the Caps the luxury of being patient with Samsonov’s remaining in the KHL before taking on his apprenticeship in Hershey last season. The process by which Grubauer left Washington after the Stanley Cup win and Samsonov took over his position this season eventually worked out.
Grubauer struggled a bit in his new setting last year, posting his worst goals against average (2.64) and save percentage (.917) of his career since his two-game stint with the Caps in his first year, in 2012-2013. While Samsonov was learning the North American version of his trade in Hershey last season, Pheonix Copley was filling the backup role. He did so adequately (16-7-3, 2.90, .905, one shutout), but it seemed clear that he was not going to be the long-term solution Samsonov would be, and he was swapped for Samsonov between the Bears and Capitals as this season began.
Taken as a whole, particularly among the skaters, the Caps’ front office has done a very good job and swapping parts in and out among the bottom six forwards and the defense, changing the overall personality of the team to an edgier, more balanced club, while not sacrificing performance. In goal, Caps fans are getting a close up look at how the position evolves and how the goalie of tomorrow is groomed today while still getting top-notch production from the man between the pipes on whom much of this season’s success depends. The proof of the skill with which this has been accomplished is in the results, although much work remains this season to make it a success.
Nevertheless, it is a most interesting example of roster management in a league that is in constant roster flux.