When Caps GM Brian MacLellan identifies a need or a weakness, he’s not one for half measures. We’ve seen this on multiple occasions, whether it was deciding the Caps needed defensive help in 2014, offensive talent in 2015, or, um, cap space (?) in 2017.
Already in the 2019 offseason, we’ve seen MacLellan make his first big move in shipping former Stanley Cup Champion Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for…Radko Gudas. And while Radko Gudas sounds like the name of a supervillain from Total Recall, there are some legitimate upsides to this trade.
Let’s go through them, good and ugly style.
Gudas is the rare ‘defensive defensemen’ who actually suppresses shots
When we think of defensive defensemen, the typical archetype involves a plodding, shot blocking defensemen who isn’t actually good at having the puck leave their zone. Though teams sometimes feature defensemen in this vein, the league is increasingly moving towards a speed and skill oriented blue line that suppress shots by being sound positionally and being able to exit the zone effectively.
Now, Radko Gudas isn’t someone who is going to set the world afire via skill or speed. In fact, scouting reports readily admit to his lack of “high-end puck skills.”
Yet, there is more to Gudas than meets the eye. In particular, look at his heat map (borrowed from HockeyViz):
Gudas is actually…good at preventing shots from right in front of the net. In fact, his advanced stats back this up too, as he’s been really good at limiting high danger chances:
All of this results in a defensemen that, as Dom Luszczyszyn said, is perhaps deserving of a larger role next year:
TRADE— dom luszczyszyn (@domluszczyszyn) June 14, 2019
Washington: Radko Gudas
Philadelphia: Matt Niskanen
Niskanen plays tougher minutes, but has declined heavily and is much less effective in them than Gudas who arguably deserves a larger role. pic.twitter.com/GZJLUvYcmY
Niskanen fell off a cliff last year
As Sam did a good job of detailing in the Rink Wraps, Matt Niskanen had a rough 2018-19. His possession stats fell across the board, and the coaching staff openly admitted that Niskanen (and partner Dmitry Orlov) were not having an effective year. Whether it was the hand injury a couple of years ago that has slowed him down or the inevitable progression of time, Niskanen clearly wasn’t the same player this past season as in his first few years in DC.
This is shown in pretty much every metric you can find, but it is particularly pronounced in two areas. First, here is Niskanen’s expected goals over the last 6 years:
Second (and even more concerning), here is Niskanen’s high danger chances for from the last 6 years:
Ultimately, we’re looking at a player who, entering his aged 32 season (right when you’d expect a player to start declining) got worse across the board. In Gudas, the Caps got a defenseman who is three years younger and who hasn’t seen a precipitous drop off his stats (yet).
Trading Niskanen gives the Caps some financial flexibility
Moving Niskanen’s contract gives the Caps an asset that they haven’t had for a long time: cap space. The Capitals are now, according to the ever-valuable CapFriendly, over $13 million under the salary cap.
This $13+ million dollars could be put to use by the Capitals in a number of ways. For one, the Caps, as has been noted, still need to re-sign pending RFAs Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos, and if they are able to get those deals done cheaply there’s room to either retain fellow RFA enigmatic forward Andre Burakovsky or make a run at re-signing Brett Connolly.
And even if the Capitals make all of those moves, they STILL might have some leftover cap space to get a depth forward or two. For instance, Evolving Hockey’s free agent predictor has a number of useful forwards that are projected to make under $3 million next year, including:
- Brandon Tanev (projection: 4 years, $2.7 million)
- Thomas Vanek (projection: 1 year, $2 million)
- Tyler Ennis (projection: 1 year, $1.8 million)
None of these players are superstars, obviously, but as complementary pieces they may be able to help the Caps get some necessary and important secondary scoring - something the team desperately missed in the playoffs.
Radko Gudas has a, um, checkered past when it comes to dirty hits
As alluded above, Gudas is not one to light up the lamp, and instead plays a physical style.
However, this physical style can go pretty terribly wrong when he’s not careful and/or has malice aforethought. Gudas has already been suspended four separate times, and has been declared a repeat offender by the NHL.
Further, some of these hits are pretty nasty. For instance, we have his headshot against Austin Czarnik in 2016, which led to his second career suspension:
Gudas also was suspended in 2017 for 10 games after slashing former Capital Mathieu Perreault in the head, while Perreault was in a prone position on the ice:
Finally, we have Gudas from this year, when he unnecessarily slashed Kucherov in the head, leading to another suspension (this time, for 2 games):
Now, one can perhaps argue the intent for a couple of these might not have been there…but on balance, it’s hard to argue that Gudas isn’t, at minimum, unafraid of going over the edge at times.
Overall, despite Gudas’s history of a lack of discipline (one that is certainly worth keeping an eye on), this trade seems like a no-brainer for the Caps. They got out from underneath a hefty contract, got a useful, younger defensive player for less money and shorter term, and now have the flexibility to go get some more scoring depth.
This is obviously just the first step of a busy offseason for MacLellan, but it certainly appears to be off to a strong start.