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Grading the Trading on Brian MacLellan’s Deals

Ranking the major trades the Caps’ GM has made

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Washington Capitals v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Ah, the lead-up to the NHL trade deadline. It’s a time when fans have dreams of onloading their team’s deadweight for help in the future (be it sooner or later) and/or fear of their general manager doing something deeply regrettable (be it sooner or later... or both).

Since being promoted to Caps general manager in May of 2014, Brian MacLellan has made 39 trades (per Pro Sports Transactions, which was a huge help in compiling this post), some of which contributed directly or indirectly to the team’s Stanley Cup win in 2018... and some of which have contributed directly or indirectly to some of the issues the team is facing currently.

But how has Trader Mac fared overall? With the hindsight that he didn’t have and the lack of specific foresight that he did, let’s take a look back at every trade he’s made and sort ‘em out.

No Ranking

Okay, so we’re not actually going to rank every trade MacLellan’s made, just those involving regular NHLers (at the time or the future), significant prospects and/or picks. That means we’re skipping the following moves (sorry, Tyler Graovac), but feel free to rank them in your head canon:

via Pro Sports Transactions

Too Early to Tell

While in reality it’s “too early to tell” on some of the trades that warranted our consideration, there are a handful that are a little green (though a couple of these look promising, and touch on a trend we’ll talk about in a bit), at least a couple of which probably could’ve made that first list:

via Pro Sports Transactions

With that out of the way, let’s dig in. [Ed. Note: Somehow we missed the Matt Niskanen-for-Radko Gudas and Christian Djoos-for-Daniel Sprong trades. Feel free to slot those wherever you want on this list - we’d have them around the midpoint and a little higher, respectively.]

25. Capitals trade Jonas Siegenthaler to the Devils in exchange for a 2021 third round pick (#74-Ryder Korczak), April 11, 2021.

Who the heck is Ryder Korczak? The Caps flipped the pick to move down five spots and took Brent Johnson and Dru Krebs (see above), who are longshots at best to become NHL regulars (as is Korczak, for that matter). But the reason this might be Mac’s worst trade is that he gave up a good, young, cost-controlled player, essentially so they could play ancient wonder of the world Zdeno Chara.

via JFresh Hockey

Think the Caps could use a $1.1 million left-handed shutdown defender right about now?

24. Capitals trade Andre Burakovsky to the Avalanche in exchange for Scott Kosmachuk, a 2020 second round pick (#55-Tristen Robins) and a 2020 third round pick (#79-Jake Boltmann), June 28, 2019.

The Caps were in a cap crunch, so they gave away Burakovsky, a restricted free agent, who signed a one-year deal with Colorado before signing his current two-year pact and is about to shatter all of his career highs at 26 years old.

via JFresh Hockey

Friends, don’t do this. Find a way to keep and nurture your elite young talent, or at least get value back in return.

23. Capitals acquire Mike Weber from the Sabres in exchange for a 2017 third round pick (#89-Oskari Laaksonen), February 23, 2016.

For a couple of years there, the Caps’ big trade deadline move was to pick up a lumbering blueliner because playoff hockey or whatever. This one wasn’t good, and Barry Trotz’s decision to play him over Nate Schmidt in the playoffs may well have cost a very good team their second-round series with Pittsburgh. Weber retired after that season.

22. Capitals acquire Curtis Glencross from the Flames in exchange for a 2015 second round pick (#52-Jeremy Lauzon) and a 2015 third round pick (#83-Jens Looke), March 1, 2015.

Like Weber, Glencross’s tenure in Washington will be best remembered for a brutal play in playoff overtime in a series the Caps would go on to lose, with the winger’s neutral zone turnover leading to a Rangers goal in a game in which the Caps could have advanced. Lauzon is a replacement-level defenseman, and Looke is a nothing, but giving up those picks in trade, you’d hope to get more than Curtis Glencross, and certainly more than they got from him.

21. and 20. Capitals acquire Ilya Kovalchuk from the Canadiens in exchange for a 2020 third round pick (#85-Dylan Peterson), February 23, 2020; Capitals acquire Michael Raffl from the Flyers in exchange for a 2021 fifth round pick (#157-Ty Murchison), April 12, 2021.

Not much risked on these moves, but they were really just Hail Marys - Kovalchuk was on his third team of the season and had 25 goals in 103 games since returning from a few years in Russia, and Raffl was years removed from his most recent double-digit goal-scoring campaign. Neither did much of anything for the Caps, though Raffl did score one incredible goal and it was cool to see the ghost of Ilya Kovalchuk skate in a Caps uniform alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Sometimes (most of the time) those lottery tickets don’t hit.

19. Capitals acquire Tim Gleason from the Hurricanes in exchange for Jack Hillen and a 2015 fourth round pick (#93-Callum Booth), February 28, 2015.

Gleason was Weber before Weber was Weber. They even wore the same number (one that must be the designated “trade deadline pick-up number,” as we’ll see another guy with it much higher on the list). And, like Weber, Gleason... wasn’t great. Barry Trotz had a type.

via Evolving-Hockey

18. Capitals acquire a 2014 third round pick (#89-Nathan Walker) from the Rangers in exchange for two 2014 fourth round picks (#104-Ryan Mantha, no relation, and #118-Igor Shesterkin), June 28, 2014.

Oof. The Caps saw a guy they wanted, so they spent the 118th pick to move up 15 spots to get him. That guy didn’t quite panned out (34 NHL games and one Stanley Cup over the last five seasons), but this team’s amateur scouting group has probably earned the benefit of the doubt to go and get a dude that stands out them, especially late in the third round and beyond. As for the guy the Rangers took at #118, don’t give them too much credit - he wasn’t even the first goalie they took in that draft.

17. Capitals acquire Jakub Jerabek from the Canadiens in exchange for a 2019 fifth round pick (#149-Matvey Guskov), February 21, 2018.

Other than Philipp Grubauer, do you know who else started the first two games of the 2018 playoffs before getting sat down the rest of the way? That’s right, Jakub Jerabek. The Caps moved a virtually worthless pick for a guy that the eventual Stanley Cup champions had in their top-six when their run began. That’s a tidy piece of work... even if Jerabek was less impressive than all of that sounds.

16. Capitals acquire Carl Hagelin from the Kings in exchange for a 2019 third round pick (#87-Lukas Parik), a 2020 conditional sixth round pick (exercised if the the Caps had advance to the 2019 Eastern Conference finals and Hagelin played in at least 50% of games... so not exercised), February 21, 2019.

Hagelin had tormented the Caps as a Ranger and a Penguin, so they were plenty familiar with the two-time Cup winner. But he’s been a pretty one-dimensional fourth-liner since arriving in D.C., and has tallied nary a goal and just a single assist in each of his three playoff seasons with the Caps. Despite his lack of offensive contribution, Hagelin has been a fine penalty killer and a key member of one of the best fourth lines in hockey... but probably not a great value on the contract extension the Caps gave him (which is beyond the scope of this exercise). Hopefully he gets better and can reflect on a heck of an NHL career.

15. Capitals acquire Kevin Shattenkirk and Pheonix Copley in exchange for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, a 2017 first round pick (#27-Morgan Frost), a 2019 conditional second round pick (if the Caps had re-signed Shattenkirk for 2017-18 or if they’d advanced to the third round of 2017 playoffs with Shattenkirk playing in at least half of the playoff games... so not exercised) and a conditional pick (the Caps’ next available seventh round pick if the Caps had traded Shattenkirk on or before July 1, 2017; however if Caps had received a draft pick in such trade that was fourth round or earlier, the Blues would’ve received the Caps’ own next available pick two rounds later than the most favorable pick received by Capitals... so not exercised), February 27, 2017.

This was a “shoot your shot” trade for the runaway Presidents’ Trophy winners. You love to see it. Zach Sanford is... fine? That late first-round pick (Frost) is... okay? Fans fall in love with their team’s prospects and picks. Don’t be those fans. Always make the trade if you’ve got a good chance and the trade improves those odds. Shattenkirk did. Things just didn’t work out. C’est la vie. Maybe this trade should be higher on the list - the reasoning behind it was sound.

14. Capitals acquire Brenden Dillon from the Sharks in exchange for a 2020 second round pick (#55-Tristen Robins) and a conditional third round pick (a 2020 third rounder if Capitals won 2020 Stanley Cup, otherwise a 2021 third round, which ended up being #86-Dmitri Kostenko), February 18, 2020.

The Caps have spent the better part of a decade trying to find (and/or keep) an ideal top-pair defenseman to play alongside John Carlson, and they thought they had it in Dillon. It’s basically the same price they paid for Glencross (yikes), and the Caps ended up re-signing Dillon, so that’s fine value, even before you consider what they got when they traded him (which we’ll get to). And, to be honest, this is worth at least that third-round pick on its own:

13. Capitals acquire Anthony Mantha from the Red Wings in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first round pick (#22-Wyatt Johnston), and a 2022 second round pick (?-?), April 12, 2021.

This will no doubt be the most controversial trade on the list, with opinions running the full gamut from “one of Mac’s best moves” to “one of his worst,” so we’re sticking it right in the middle. And it’s another one that could fairly be considered “too early to tell,” especially given the sidelining shoulder injuries the principles have dealt with over the past year. But we’re not here to equivocate, we’re here to pass judgment. And if you look at this as two separate deals - Mantha for Vrana and the first round pick, and the second as a dowry for taking Panik - it’s hard to see it as anything other than a lot to give up for maybe a small upgrade at forward and getting out from under the remainder of a bad contract that, of course, was the team’s own doing. It seems likely that the team comes out in the red on this one, though it did give them some flexibility and cost certainty, and a player who is a better fit for the current head coach. Yeah, too early to tell.

via Evolving-Hockey

12. Capitals trade their 2016 first round pick (#26-Tage Thompson) to the Blues in exchange for a 2016 first round pick (#28-Lucas Johansen) and a 2016 third round pick (#87-Garrett Pilon), June 24, 2016.

There’s nothing wrong with trading back and adding picks if you’re not crazy about your options where you are. But with Thompson (23 goals and 42 points for Buffalo this year) going #26 and Brett Howden (a 23-year-old bottom-six forward who already has 220 NHL games under his belt) going before the Caps selected Lucas Johansen (not to mention guys like Jordan Kyrou, Alex DeBrincat and Sam Girard going soon thereafter), it’s a tough look. But, really, this was a rare miss in scouting, not trading - if the Caps stood pat at #26, they’d probably have taken Johansen there. Moving down two spots late in the first round to add a late-third is actually a pretty good trade, value-wise.

11. Capitals trade Marcus Johansson to the Devils in exchange for a 2018 second round pick (#46-Martin Fehervary) and 2018 third round pick (#87-Linus Karlsson), July 2, 2017.

Another cap clearing move that netted them the pick that turned into a guy who looks like a future mainstay on the blueline in Fehervary and a pick they used later in the upcoming season... stay tuned. As for Johansson, he’s been on five team in five seasons since the trade, hasn’t topped 30 points once in that span, and has the third-worst plus-minus of any forward in the League. The Caps got out of the MoJo business at the right time.

10. Capitals trade Brooks Orpik, Philipp Grubauer to the Avalanche for a 2018 second round pick (#47-Kody Clark), June 22, 2018.

It’s sad when you’re having a great party and someone has to leave, but that’s where the Caps were at the 2018 Draft. Philipp Grubauer needed a new contract and a new role, neither of which were in Washington’s plans with Braden Holtby - and the Cup he’d just won - still in the fold. The Caps had been asking for a first-round pick for Grubauer, but ended up moving Grubauer and Orpik - who still had one year at $5.5 million left on his contract - for a mid-second round pick. Colorado promptly bought Orpik out, and the veteran blueliner re-signed with the Caps at a team-friendly fraction of his former deal. That sort of creativity (from both sides) should be applauded... or outlawed.

9. Capitals trade Brenden Dillon to the Jets for a 2022 second round pick (?-?) and a 2023 second round pick (?-?), July 26, 2021.

Did the Caps trade Brenden Dillon for more than the cost of acquiring him? Indeed. Go, [insert whoever’s playing Winnipeg], Go!

8. Capitals acquire Daniel Winnik and a 2016 fifth round pick (#145-Beck Malenstyn) from the Maple Leafs in exchange for Brooks Laich, Connor Carrick and a 2016 second round pick (#57-Carl Grundstrom), February 28, 2016.

By February, 2016, Brooks Laich was beyond cooked (he’d play 33 more NHL games and score one goal), but had another year remaining on his contract with a $4.5 million cap hit. Connor Carrick wasn’t in the Caps’ plans, so they moved the duo along with a late second-round pick (remember, in most of these years, the Caps were picking very late in each round) for a lottery ticket and Daniel Winnik (who, it’s worth noting, had another year left on his deal, so wasn’t a rental), who was pretty good for the Caps in the fourth-line center role, sort of a proto-Nic Dowd.

7. Capitals acquire a 2015 second round pick (#57-Jonas Siegenthaler) from the Rangers in exchange for a 2015 third round pick (#62-Robin Kovacs) and a 2015 fourth round pick (#113-Brad Morrison), June 27, 2015.

Again, when you’ve got Your Guy in your sights, you go get him. If the cost is a late fourth-round pick, who really cares? Snagging Siegenthaler there was a slick move (even if trading him was not).

6. and 5. Capitals acquire a 2014 second round pick (#39-Vitek Vanecek) from the Sabres in exchange for a 2014 second round pick (#44-Eric Cornel) and a 2014 third round pick (#74-Brycen Martin), June 28, 2014; Capitals acquire Vitek Vanecek from the Kraken in exchange for a 2023 second round pick (?-?), July 28, 2021.

The Caps’ best goalie over the last two years (and maybe their future in net?) cost them a mid-second round pick and a mid-third and came at a cap hit under $717k per season. You’ll take that every day. Oh, and after losing him in the expansion draft, they flipped one of the picks they got in the Dillon deal to bring him back. Each of those deals, individually, is a good one for the Caps.

4. Capitals acquire Nick Jensen and a 2019 fifth round pick (#129-Arseny Gritsyuk) from the Red Wings in exchange for Madison Bowey and a 2020 second round pick (#54-Cross Hanas) February 22, 2019.

Jensen has really come into his own after a bit of a rocky start to his Caps career, and has arguably been the Caps’ best defenseman over the last two season:

via Evolving-Hockey

Dependable, durable and versatile, all the time the Caps spent looking for the Mike Webers and Tim Gleasons of the world, they seem to have (finally) realized that it’s guys like Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk - guys who can skate - who are the real shutdown types.

Madison Bowey turned out to be a bust, and the Caps were able to turn him into a top-four defender in his late prime. Not bad.

3. Capitals acquire Michal Kempny from the Blackhawks in exchange for a 2018 third round pick (the higher of the Caps’ and Maple Leafs’ picks, which turned out to be #87-Linus Karlsson), February 19, 2018.

These last three trades all beg the same question: “Do the Caps win the Cup if this trade doesn’t happen?” (Spoiler: the answer is “no,” which is why they’re at the top of the list.) In the case of the Kempny trade, his arrival solidified a D-corps that was a mess and, partnered with Carlson, played the toughest minutes in the toughest tournament, and played them well:

via NatStatTrick

Those top line numbers aren’t going to knock anyone’s socks off, but they were good enough... and damn good for a player that cost a late third round pick.

2. Capitals acquire Lars Eller from the Canadiens in exchange for a 2017 second round pick (#58-Joni Ikonen) and a 2018 second round pick (#62-Olivier Rodrigue), June 24, 2016.

Halfway through Barry Trotz’s tenure in Washington, the Caps found one of the final pieces of the puzzle. It was no secret that center depth was a key to post-season success (the Caps had just been bounced by a Penguins team that once again flexed theirs), and, as we wrote last week, Eller immediately solidified the third line, scored 30 goals in his first two regular seasons, filled in admirably for Backstrom or Kuznetsov when needed, and did this to cap off his second playoff run as a Cap:

Trade the picks. Get the players. Every time.

1. Capitals acquire T.J. Oshie from St. Louis in exchange for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley, and a 2016 third round pick (#87-Garrett Pilon), July 2, 2015.

We’ve said it before, but if Nicklas Backstrom is the brains of the Caps and Alex Ovechkin their brawn, T.J. Oshie is their heart. Since the trade, Oshie is second on the team in goals (in both the regular season and playoffs), and tied for first in playoff game-winners. More than that, he’s been a versatile workhorse, a honeybadger, and just about any other positive animal metaphor you can come up with - during Brian MacLellan’s tenure, no Cap has provided more Goals Above Replacement (a measure of all-around play) than Oshie and he didn’t even arrive in D.C. until Year 2:

via Evolving-Hockey

This trade is not only the best of the Brian MacLellan Era, but one of the best in team history.