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Japers’ Rink Mailbag: The Early Trade Deadline Preview

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NHL: FEB 14 Capitals at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Given the lack of Caps games over the last week, we’re reviving the Japers’ Rink mailbag in place of another addition of What Lies Beneath. This week, we’re answering a question about the Caps trade deadline plans, COVID concerns, and how we’re feeling about the Caps play of late.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s lump these two deadline-specific questions together.

It’s a bit early to talk deadline, which isn’t until April 12th. However, if we’re going to think about the deadline and the moves the Caps should make, we have to first think about the state of the roster, where we think the Caps are on the development curve, and realistic expectations for the Caps this year.

A couple of weeks ago in What Lies Beneath, I talked about how the Caps underlying numbers weren’t keeping with their strong performance and that a regression might be in the cards. Since that article, the Caps have promptly lost 4 games in a row in regulation, which has taken a sledgehammer to the Caps playoff chances. If I’m Caps GM Brian MacLellan, I need to figure out how the Caps look with a full-strength roster and if I have the horses for a deep playoff run this year. I’m on record as being pretty skeptical about the Caps chances for said run, but we’ll see over the next few weeks how a (hopefully) healthy roster performs.

Even if GMBM doesn’t feel like the Caps have the horses, he might not have any choice but to double-down. The Caps currently have the oldest roster in the NHL, and their core players aren’t getting any younger. Although Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin might be past the age where they can key a Stanley Cup run, the Caps aren’t going to move them anytime soon, so a double-down strategy where they try to find them some complementary pieces might make sense.

What would those complementary pieces look like? For one, it’s worth noting that the Caps are at the salary cap limit, so any acquisitions are going to either involve the Caps: 1. shedding salary or 2. getting a team to retain salary. Further, the Caps farm system isn’t exactly replete with attractive talent.

That being said, if Vitek Vanecek keeps struggling and Ilya Samsonov doesn’t look great upon his return, the Caps might look to acquire a veteran goalie. Devan Dubnyk might be a name to watch: he’s been decent for the Sharks this year so far and he’s at an affordable $2.16 million cap hit this year. Antti Raanta is a bit more expensive, but he’s the clear backup to Darcy Kuemper, so the Coyotes might be amenable towards moving him.

Aside from goaltending, the Caps could really use some secondary scoring. The possibilities for getting bottom-six scoring talent are endless, but it seems like Derek Stepan is on the move. Although Stepan’s scoring fell off during a stint with the Coyotes, he might be a decent buy-low candidate if the Senators were willing to retain any salary (unlikely knowing their history, but perhaps not impossible).

This hits at a lot of the complaints I’ve articulated about the NHL’s COVID response. Frankly, the NHL’s response to outbreaks on several teams was already inadequate, and their most recent COVID changes fit into the “I can’t believe they weren’t doing this already” category.

That said, this might have been the most confusing of the NHL changes. Putting my lawyer hat on, the key word here is “recommending,” meaning that this is a suggestion and isn’t binding. The goal of this non-binding suggestion is to utilize already infected players as a buffer between players that haven’t been infected yet. Given that COVID reinfection is very rare, there’s a certain kind of logic here...but one wonders why the NHL didn’t have a policy suggestion like this in place to start the season.

In terms of the creativity level? As a lawyer, I’ve read plenty of more confusing statements (Supreme Court opinions from the 1800’s come to mind), but this certainly was a bit of a mind-bender. I give it a 2/10 for creativity and a 0.5/10 for ease of reading.

I have no idea what you’re talking about! Anyways, you’re not wrong about Zdeno Chara, at least looking at his underlying stats: amongst Caps defensemen, he’s 3rd in expected goals, 2nd in shot attempts for, and the Caps are outscoring teams 12-9 at 5v5 when he’s on the ice.

That said, it’s pretty easy to see the frustration that a lot of Caps fans have had with Chara. First, it’s worth noting that he’s second amongst Caps defensemen in ice time per game, which likely isn’t how Peter Laviolette intended to use him. Second, his utter lack of mobility has hurt the Caps on the penalty kill, which we saw on the first game:

That said, you’d expect a 43-year old defensemen to have mobility issues. More troubling has been some high-profile gaffs, including giving the puck to Mathew Barzal right in front of the goal:

Here at Japers’ Rink, we’ve talked about the importance of coaches not overreacting to The Big Mistake... but it’s understandable why fans are occasionally frustrated by Chara. If the Caps are able to reduce his role and give him the occasional night off, that might help some fans form a more rational opinion of the Big Z.

This is an excellent question, and I was curious about this too! Helpfully, former Caps beat writer Isabelle Khurshudyan had this same question a couple of years ago.

What she found was that NHL teams limit injury information as a way of protecting players from opponents targeting their injuries:

The practice of imprecise, binary injury designations was adopted decades earlier by coaches who believed they were protecting their players by being vague. They theorized that opponents aware of injury specifics would target the ailing body parts or otherwise exploit the injured players. But Hitchcock does not buy that logic.

Also, unlike other sports, the NHL does not require teams to release injury details publicly. That said, some coaches are convinced that withholding injury details doesn’t provide any competitive advantage, and Ken Hitchcock has released more detailed injury information in the past.

More troubling here is the ramifications that the lack of reporting has on the understanding and treatment of concussions:

The “upper body”/”lower body” convention has been allowed to persist because, unlike the NFL, the NHL does not have a policy requiring teams to release the details of injury information publicly. But the practice is under increased scrutiny in an age of distrust for corporate communication and of increased concern around the treatment of concussions — an injury commonly lumped into the “upper body” category.

“By hiding the final diagnosis, they avoid public scrutiny on their decisions to allow players to continue playing despite showing concussion signs on the ice,” said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and chief executive of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “Hiding the injury is also confusing to their audience, which includes youth hockey players and parents. Every properly managed concussion in a professional game is an educational opportunity, and by hiding the diagnosis, the NHL is promoting confusion around concussion signs in NHL players.”

Anton Thun, an NHL agent for almost 35 years, feels so strongly about this campaign of secrecy that he calls it “a travesty” and said there is no reason teams can’t be honest with the public.

“It’s an attempt to confuse,” Thun said. “It creates a veil around what the injuries truly are. And it encourages players to hide the injury.”

About the journalist part: I reached out to The Washington Post Capitals beat writer Samantha Pell to ask that question. She noted that there isn’t a policy amongst beat writers to limit the injury information, but unless they can get someone to confirm the details of the injury, they won’t report it. Further, because the Caps limit players availability until they are cleared to be on the ice, beat writers are often limited by the information the team provides.

There’s not really a hockey answer to this question, but this does remind me of a quote from the legendary (but very long) book, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. In one of the essays, Burton contextualizes the frailty of the human condition in the following way:

No go and brag of thy present happiness, whosoever thou art, brag of thy temperature, of thy good parts, insult, triumph, and boast; thou seest in what a brittle state thou art, how soon thou mayest be dejected, how many several ways, by bad diet, bad air, a small loss, a little sorrow or discontent, an ague, etc.; how many sudden accidents may procure thy ruin, what a small tenure of happiness thou has in this life, how weak and silly a creature thou art.

Bringing this to the Washington Capitals, I suppose many of the players are aware that they’re careers are near their end, and they have a desire to bring back the glory and triumph of their past successes. Ultimately, the Caps winning the Stanley Cup is trivial in the course of human history...but this shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the jubilation of certain moments:

And if we’re going to watch the Evgeny Kuznetsov goal, we might as well watch another important goal too: