Now that we’ve wrapped up the players, it’s time to turn our attention to the big man himself, the architect of the 2020-21 Washington Capitals... GM Brian MacLellan.
Q1: What do you think was Brian MacLellan’s best move - or perhaps the best move he didn’t make - last season?
Luke: The easy answer might be acquiring Anthony Mantha, but I’ll go with something different. I think what WOULD have been considered the best move, if he stayed healthy, was the signing of Henrik Lundqvist. With Ilya Samsonov getting COVID twice, the King would have had ample chance to prove he still has gas in the tank. Instead rookie Vitek Vanecek had to step in, and though he did perfectly fine overall, it would have been nice to get a more consistent presence in net. Then the playoffs came along and when Vanecek was hurt just minutes into the first game, the Caps had to go to Samsonov, who was just coming back from his second round of protocols. That signing by MacLellan had a great chance of being considered one of his best.
Alex: As much as it pains me to say it, GMBM’s best move (other than signing a then-healthy Henrik Lundqvist, like Luke said) was letting Braden Holtby walk. It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t at least some pressure to keep Holts around, between his tenure with the organization, absolute adoration from the fanbase, and rookie goaltender Samsonov coming up to the big league. I think it would have been easy to look for a way to re-sign him, but he just didn’t make sense for the team anymore in a logistical sense.
J.P.: Does shit-canning Todd Reirden count? Because that.
Otherwise, signing Conor Sheary last December for one year at $735k and getting 14 goals out of him was a really strong move to bolster the middle-six forwards on the cheap. Sheary fit in wherever Laviolette played him and looks to be a solid depth guy for the club going forward (provided he’s not scooped up by Seattle). Granted, Sheary was noticeably bad in the playoffs, but small samples, etc., Sheary would’ve been a bargain at twice the price… which is what he’ll cost over the next two seasons.
Becca: Given the salary cap constraints and other nuances of the shortened season, MacLellan did a great job with small deals that ended up having a much bigger impact. Guys like Sprong, Sheary, and even Trevor van Riemsdyk (despite more limited playing time overall) all bolstered the team’s depth. Bringing in future hall-of-famers Chara and Lundqvist on what were basically League-minimum deals was a smart way to shore up veteran leadership (even if the latter ultimately never dressed) - and even taking a chance on Craig Anderson once the Lundqvist situation happened ended up being a smart move, and the long-time netminder stepped up when needed.
Q2: What do you think the biggest priority should be for MacLellan this offseason?
Luke: Everyone will say getting Alexander Ovechkin signed but it’s all but confirmed the contract has been signed, and they are just waiting for after the expansion draft. The biggest priority is getting younger and faster, or at the very least, leaving spots open for Capitals youth to push for playing time. Caps overall age will drop a lot just by losing Craig Anderson, Zdeno Chara, or maybe Henrik Lundqvist. BMac shouldn’t go out and look for more veteran experience, the Capitals have a slew that. Time to let youth start to inject it’s way into the roster over the next handful of seasons.
Alex: Definitely managing the Seattle expansion draft, although potentially dealing with Evgeny Kuznetsov might be high on the list as well. If the team is looking to trade Kuzy, GMBM has to be sure the team reaches a deal that works well for Washington. I know that sounds obvious, but if there is any frustration surrounding a player, a rash decision in terms of a trade deal is always a risk.
J.P.: Yeah, I think it’s figuring out what the path forward is with his five biggest contracts. Assuming Ovechkin signs, the Caps will have him, Backstrom ($9.2 million per year), Kuznetsov ($7.8M), Carlson ($8M) and Oshie ($5.75M) all signed through at least 2024-25 and all at least 29 years old. Those guys aren’t getting any better, and it’s hard to see how the Caps, as a team, improve much around them when they’ve got around half of the cap going to that quintet of aging stars. A move (or two… or three) is probably in order.
Becca: Offseason moves are always linked in some way but this year feels particularly knotted up and potentially complicated. MacLellan and his team have their hands full with lots of moving pieces, an aging core, a flat salary cap and the pending expansion draft. So it’s hard to pinpoint one that stands out above the rest for me as the biggest priority - it’s a Gordian knot of potential contracts and pending free agents and the like.
That said, I think a lot of it hinges on what they decide to do with Kuznetsov, as Alex noted above. Whatever the next move is - keep him, trade him, convince Seattle to grab him - it needs to be made as quickly and cleanly as possible, for morale reasons as much as monetary.
Q3: How would you grade MacLellan’s overall moves in 2020-21?
Luke: I’d probably give him an B+. He made some good, cheap signings like Lundqvist and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Getting Connor Sheary, a very good top nine player, locked in for two years at just $1.5M per season was great as well. You can argue all you want about the Mantha trade but it was very good for the Capitals. Mantha just fits the team’s style more than Jakub Vrana did. It’s just a shame that the cap got stalled by the pandemic because if not he wouldn’t have had to pay the first round pick for Detroit to take on Richard Panik to make the money work. He didn’t do anything fantastic but didn’t do anything terrible either, and his good outweighs any bad he might have done.
Alex: I’m also giving GMBM a B+. The Mantha trade was a blockbuster that absolutely worked well for the Capitals, even if parting ways with Jakub Vrana was a bitter pill to swallow. A lot of his offseason acquisitions made a big impact at a relatively low price point, which was particularly important considering how cap-strapped the team was. Bringing Laviolette in as the bench boss was also an ace move, especially when considering the number of qualified coaching options that were available last offseason.
J.P.: The Caps made some shrewd depth moves that Luke noted (and I’d add Daniel Sprong to the list, albeit a move made in the previous season), and there are a couple of interesting prospects on the horizon, but the Caps have deluded themselves a bit into thinking that “the window” is open and anything can happen if you just make the playoffs… and who could blame, given that they won a Cup after the window had supposedly shut? But that honeymoon is over and the team needs a refresh. Mac didn’t do a whole lot to that end last year, but rather tweaked around the fringes. It’ll take more than that going forward. For what he was trying to do, I’ll give Mac a B.
Becca: I think I’ll agree with J.P. for a change (don’t get used to it, friend) and say Mac’s work earned him a solid B this year. Lots of picking around the edges with moves that paid off but there are still some burning questions to answer about whether this core still has a shot. Of course, to return to my natural state of disagreeing with him, I’m not as negative about the Caps’ proverbial window still being open - I think the last decade-plus (hell, just the last few weeks) has shown us that yes, anything is possible if you just make the playoffs. With a strong coach in place and all-world, albeit aging, talent at the core, this team does still have the pieces. Inject a little more youth and get a full training camp and regular season into the mix and see what happens next year.