After a wild trade deadline and arguably the biggest blockbuster of the day, Brian MacLellan was calm and collected as he reflected on his team’s moves.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to shake the team up,” MacLellan said, adding, “Things lined up and this is what we ended up doing.”
It was somewhat quiet to start. Rumors and speculation rose that the Caps were in on Taylor Hall, who eventually landed in Boston. Then came the report of Michael Raffl heading to D.C. before a bombshell dropped around 3:45 p.m.
The Capitals acquired RW Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and 2022 second-round pick.
“We really liked Anthony for quite a while now. We liked a lot of the attributes, the size, the skill, the shot the scoring ability. He’s a really good skater for his size,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s a player that we’ve liked and talked about a lot in our room.
While the deal is poised to bolster Washington’s forecheck and add size and skill to the top-6, the team had to pay a huge price in Vrana. The 25-year-old was not only a fan favorite but had started to find his footing over the last couple of campaigns.
After hitting the 20-goal plateau in 2018-19, he followed up with an even stronger showing in 2019-20, where he picked up 25 goals and 52 points in 69 regular season games before the pandemic put an early end to the regular season.
However, things took a turn under Peter Laviolette’s reign. The Czech saw his numbers decline and inconsistency start to plague his game. He had 11 goals and 25 points through the first 39 games of the season, while also experiencing a 13-game goal drought that led to a shortage in ice time and ultimately, two games as a healthy scratch.
“Jakub’s a little frustrated with where he’s at here within the organization; probably wants a little more ice time, little more responsibility,” MacLellan said of Vrana. “There was a tug-of-war between coaching staff and staffs that have had him and the way he was playing.”
MacLellan added that Vrana didn’t request a trade or openly vocalize any concerns, and that salary cap also played a factor with Vrana set to become a restricted free agent — and likely earning a raise.
“I see a frustrated player. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't, but the body language is frustrated. We gave it some time to see if we could work it out, and we moved on,” MacLellan added.
Not only is Vrana getting a fresh start, but Panik also has the opportunity to hit the reset button. The 30-year-old provided depth on the bottom-six, but was also plagued by inconsistency and limited opportunities.
He had 22 points in 59 games in his first season with Washington, but had just three goals and nine points in 36 games, along with a plus-minus of minus-9. He averaged 11:36 TOI/game, and also found himself in the press box and ultimately waived and sent down to the taxi squad.
“I think [Panik] played well. He was a little frustrated with his role, ice time... it never seemed to click for him here,” MacLellan said. “He’s had periods where he’s played really well for us and then other periods where I don’t think he got, in his mind, enough ice time and enough opportunity.”
Ultimately, the Capitals did make a point to fill the void left by both players and provide a bit more depth.
Towering at 6-foot-5, Mantha is a goal-scorer who obviously brings size, but strong skating, hand-eye coordination and versatility to the forecheck. He can play on either side of center and has hit the 20-goal mark twice in his young career. Mantha also racked up 16 goals in 43 games last season, which would have had him on pace for 30 goals in a regular 82-game campaign.
“I think the physicality he brings is strength... the size factor translates more to skill than a physical running over people,” MacLellan noted. “He’s a big, strong guy that plays a big game and uses his size and strength and length to his advantage.”
The current plan is for Mantha to slot in on the top-six and even get some time on the man advantage, and MacLellan also pointed out he can be a strong third-line player as well. He’ll be available for Washington’s Tuesday tilt with Philly.
“He’s going to learn from the veterans. We got a good leadership group,” MacLellan said, adding, “For him to come in and fit in and play well and relax, I think everything will work out.”
The Caps also added insurance down the middle with Raffl, a player who MacLellan believed was a “needed” asset.
“We like our center ice position, but we wanted a guy to player there if we had an injury or someone was out a few games. He fits the bill there,” MacLellan said.
Mantha and Raffl were D.C.’s only two additions on deadline day. While MacLellan said the team took a look at its goaltending depth, they’re ultimately confident with the tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, as well as the team’s organizational depth.
“Vitek [Vanecek’s] been solid. [Ilya] Samsonov’s improving and coming along, so it’s tough to bring in a guy and throw him in front of them,” MacLellan explained. “We have [Craig] Anderson on the taxi squad and [Pheonix] Copley in Hershey. We have confidence in our goaltending depth and our two young guys right now.”
In the end, MacLellan said he is confident with the current group and believes it’ll be enough to help the Caps remain a top competitor with the East Division race tightening and the playoffs looming.
“In the long run, we’re going to benefit,” MacLellan said.