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The Trade Deadline: Reading the Tea Leaves

Where we look at the past to see what might lie in the Caps’ future as the April 12 trading deadline approaches.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There are three days on the hockey calendar that fans circle that have nothing to do with games – Draft Day, opening of the free agent signing period, and the annual trading deadline. As the NHL approaches this year’s trading deadline, fans across North America are wondering what their favorite team will do – who they are targeting and what it will cost to get that player.

It is no different for Capitals Nation, wondering what rabbit General Manager Brian MacLellan will pull out of his hat to give the Caps a better chance for a deep playoff run. There is the usual salary cap consideration, made more complicated with the Caps being as close to the cap ceiling as they are. And this year, COVID issues make trading with Canadian teams a bit more problematic given Canada’s quarantine requirements.

Nevertheless, the Caps have a history of making deals during the days leading up to the deadline, and that history might provide a hint at what might be in store for the club. The first thing to consider, as an outsider looking at the Caps’ history of trades at this time of year, is that Brian MacLellan always seems to have a plan, a strategy to fill specific holes and roles with the club.

Second, MacLellan might not be averse to making a splash, and in fact has done so in the past, but his history is more one of acquiring finishing pieces to supplement the solid core that is in place, as the history of trade deadline deals below indicates:

There does seem to be a pattern here. As noted, MacLellan does not have a history of making the blockbuster deal at this time of year. For those with dreams of Jack Eichel becoming a Capital, even with salary cap considerations aside, that is a long shot. The only deal in this list that qualifies would be the February 2017 deal that brought defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Caps with goalie Pheonix Copley for a prospect, a depth player, and draft picks. Shattenkirk did not provide the production the Caps might have expected, the Caps failing once more to advance past the second round of the playoffs and once more falling victim to the Pittsburgh Penguins in doing so. The following July, Shattenkirk moved on, signing as a free agent with the New York Rangers.

There are six forwards on this list. The common thread here is that they generally fit the profile of a bottom-six forward. Even the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk, once one of the most feared goal scorers in the NHL but by 2020 a shadow of that player, was an effort to bolster the bottom six in terms of offensive production. But even this is a broad characterization. There is quite a range of styles here, ranging from primarily a defensive forward (Carl Hagelin) at one end to an almost entirely offensive forward at the other (Kovalchuk, Daniel Sprong). In that respect, the acquisitions had a situational aspect to them. As MacLellan noted at the time of the trade for each:

On Glencross: “We felt we needed to get deeper and more experienced at the forward position…Curtis plays important minutes and his presence on and off the ice will benefit our young forwards.”

On Bourque: “[we were looking for] “a depth guy that’s done it a little bit, that has some experience doing it. They can come up and play six or seven minutes and not hurt you.”

On Winnik: “Daniel is a versatile player who plays with grit and can be used in all situations…This move enables us to add some depth to our forward group and balances our lineup.”

On Hagelin: “We felt this trade enables us to add depth up front and provides us with a veteran player with a tremendous amount of speed to help us on the penalty kill.”

On Kovalchuk: “The good thing about the acquisition is we can move him around…We can play him in different spots. He’s a power play player. Probably a second power play player for us unless something’s going on and we want to change it up. We can start him in our bottom six. We can move him up for shifts. It gives our coaching staff a lot of flexibility to use the player.”

Experience, influencing younger forwards, versatility, speed, penalty killing skill, a player who can fill a variety of offense-based roles. It speaks to the variety of roles a bottom six player might play, not to mention MacLellan’s focus on addressing the need at hand.

The six defensemen on the list have an evolutionary character to them. The early acquisitions – Tim Gleason and Mike Weber – were defense-end specialists with a bit of an edge to their games. Gleason was a player the Caps felt to be needed with a glut of rising offensive defensemen (Cameron Schilling and Nate Schmidt). In Weber, the Caps were getting insurance, flexibility, and contrast to Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt.

The middle acquisitions – Tom Gilbert and Kevin Shattenkirk – had more of an offensive lean, Shattenkirk being far more accomplished in that regard than Gilbert, who never played a game for the Caps. Shattenkirk was a bit of an outlier in one respect, that being a combination of factors that put the Caps in play to acquire him. The team was concerned about an injury to top defensemen John Carlson or Matt Niskanen (who was already nursing a lower-body injury), plus the fact that those two were the only right-handed shooters. Then, on the St. Louis side, there was the matter of the Blues trying to negotiate a sign-and-trade deal for Shattenkirk, but that never materialized, and the Caps entered the mix of potential landing sites.

With the next wave of defensemen – Michal Kempny, Jakub Jerabek, and Nick Jensen – the Caps went for the general characterization of “puck moving” defenseman. Kempny was a tremendous success, fairly described as the long-sought after “final piece” that the Caps took on to stabilize the defensive pairs on its way to the Stanley Cup in 2018, even though at the time of the trade, there seemed to be less emphasis on the player than what other deals MacLellan might have “under his sleeve.” Jerabek, obtained two days after Kempny and who even at the time was something of a mystery about just how he would fit, even with Taylor Chorney leaving the Caps as a waiver claim by Columbus, dressed for only 11 regular season and two postseason games for the Caps before moving on to the St. Louis Blues in 2018-2019. Jensen was seen as an attempt to create a “Kempny 2.0” situation, but he struggled in his early games as a Capital and has not come into his own with the club until Peter Laviolette took as head coach over this season.

With the last trading season acquisition – Brenden Dillon – the Caps went back to the stay-at-home type of defenseman, which was not much of a surprise, given the puck movers (Kempny, Jensen) and defensemen with more of an offensive bent the Caps had (John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov), plus the disappointing late season play of Radko Gudas, who would have filled the role that Dillon would occupy.

But even here, situation and need determined focus. As MacLellan commented at the time of the trades:

On Gleason: “Tim is a veteran, physical defenseman and we feel his experience, toughness and skill set further strengthens our blueline.”

On Weber: “Mike is a stay-at-home defenseman, who plays a physical game and is respected by his teammates. We felt it was important to add depth to our blueline by adding another quality veteran defenseman.”

On Shattenkirk: “We felt it was important to acquire another defenseman to strengthen and add depth to our blue line...Kevin is a skilled, puck moving defenseman who we think will help our team at even strength and on the power play.”

On Jensen: “Nick is a reliable modern-day defenseman who we feel can defend well and log valuable minutes for our club. At 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime.”

On Dillon: ”He’s got playoff experience, he’s a veteran player, physicality, the ability to play with top-end guys, a good character guy…I think he’ll add a lot of energy in our room and on the ice. He’s a physical presence. He checked a lot of boxes for everything we thought we needed…I think we move him around a little bit. He could play with [John Carlson], could play with [Dmitry Orlov]. He’s played with two good guys in San Jose. I anticipate the coaches trying him at both spots and see what works best for us.”

A few things are noteworthy here. First, there is the fact that the Caps have not traded for a goalie at the deadline under MacLellan (unless one counts Pheonix Copley in the Shattenkirk trade). That is due in no small part to the Caps’ good fortune at the position, both in terms of talent and depth, and in lack of injuries. This year could change that with the Caps relying so heavily on two goalies with so little experience, none of it in the postseason at the NHL level.

Next, the trading deadline acquisitions often reflect the “short game” – addressing the here and now – more than the long game that is more appropriate for the draft and the free agency signing period. In that regard, there might be a plan that reflects the team’s need identified over the course of a season, but it also means being alert to opportunities when recent circumstances dictate action (the Shattenkirk trade might be the best example of this).

Finally, and perhaps most important, MacLellan follows his own drummer. He seems, at least from the outside looking in, impervious to what fans want or what media outlets speculate with respect to need. In this respect, he has the look of supreme self-confidence in his ability to identify need, focus on players who can fill that need (even if the potential deal is not flashy), and assemble the resources to consummate the deal. That might reflect a uniquely “MacLellan” style of personnel management, but it requires buy-in, and talent in scouting and other front office roles to be able to pull it off successfully.

For Caps fans, what does it mean?

  • Don’t expect a blockbuster deal.
  • Don’t be surprised if the Caps add a defenseman; they have done it at the trade deadline in each of the last six seasons.
  • If the Caps add a forward, it is likely to be a bottom-six player that fills a particular role.
  • Given the circumstances, the Caps might add a goalie, but don’t bank on it. They have not done so for the purpose of addressing an immediate need at the trading deadline in any of Brian MacLellan’s seasons as general manager.
  • The salary cap situation, plus the Canadian COVID quarantine situation, will make any trade a challenge. Don’t be surprised if the Caps just sit this one out.