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The Caps Get Defensive at the Deadline

A look at how the Caps are gearing up for a first round fight

Washington Capitals v Anaheim Ducks

As of Tuesday morning, there was a fifty-fifty chance that the Caps would be opening the playoffs next month against one of the top-two offenses in the League in terms of expected goal rate:

via HockeyViz

No one in the League has scored more goals than the Florida Panthers this year, and the Kitties and Carolina Hurricanes rank first and second, respectively, in all-situation expected goals rate (xGF/60), with Florida posting the highest rate on record (3.53), and Carolina’s pace (3.34) sandwiching their 2018-19 team to round out the top-three since 2007-08. Oh, and the longshot alternatives - Pittsburgh, Toronto and Tampa Bay - can all fill the net as well.

With that clearly in mind, Caps GM Brian MacLellan got defensive at the trade deadline.

Specifically, MacLellan went out and acquired a pair of defensively responsible forwards in Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson, and shipped out an underused defensive liability in Daniel Sprong. Low risk, probably low reward. But reasonable, given the team he’s got.

“We were looking for versatile guys, guys that can play against good players,” MacLellan said in his post-deadline media scrum. “We’ve got the [Nic] Dowd line that can match up against anybody and we’re trying to create another line that can play good two-way hockey against good players.”

That’s not a direct shot at Daniel Sprong by any means, but it’s clear that Sprong didn’t fit in a lineup that is looking to only accommodate two defensive non-entities and cycle three defensively conscientious trios behind them.

5v5 per60 rates of Caps forwards, minimum 30 games played
via MoneyPuck

Peter Laviolette never seemed convinced that Sprong’s offensive upside outweighed the holes in his defensive game - and it’s nearly impossible to imagine that would have changed with the Caps set to face an offensive powerhouse in Round 1 - and so they moved him.

What they got in return with Johansson and later added to with Larsson is a pair of, well, versatile guys, guys that can play against good players:

via JFresh

These are two very responsible (and veteran) defensive forwards that Laviolette will have no problems throwing over the boards no matter where a faceoff is or who the other coach has put out on the ice.

Of course, that doesn’t make them “good.” And if we assume that Connor McMichael is the odd man out in the unlikely event that this team is ever fully healthy, there will be real questions as to why him.

But the Caps have 18 games left to figure out how the hell they’re going to slow down Carolina (who, not for nothing, they shutout earlier this month and have beaten in all three meetings so far this year). Or Florida (who they’ve actually managed to drop three goals on in each of their three meetings, only one of which they won). Or maybe Pittsburgh, Toronto or Tampa. And it’s hard to imagine that the answer to that question was ever going to be “We’ll get in a track meet with them and see who can score more.” It’s not 2009 any more.

With no glaring holes in his aging and over-committed roster - but room for improvement everywhere - and a date with one of the East’s most ferocious beasts looming, Brian MacLellan pushed barely any chips into the pot but improved what he sees as his best chance at pulling off an upset: play good defense and hope that the offense shows up.

Hey, it’s happened before...