This is the first trade between current Vegas president George McPhee and the Capitals since McPhee joined the expansion Golden Knights in 2016. He was Washington’s general manager from 1997 to 2014 before he was let go and replaced by current general manager Brian MacLellan, his longtime assistant.
Stephenson carries a $1.05 million cap hit this season and is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Stephenson was a valuable piece in the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, playing in all 24 playoff games and finishing with two goals and five assists in more than 15 minutes per game. He struggled at times last season, recording five goals and six assists in 64 games. He had four points (three goals, one assist) in 24 games this season.
Stephenson was drafted by Washington in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft. The 25-year-old forward made his NHL debut in 2015 and has 33 career NHL points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 168 games. Stephenson also played 180 games with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, tallying 87 points (30 goals, 57 assists).
The stakes were high for Stephenson since the start of training camp. A restricted free agent last summer, too, he was the last player Washington was able to get under contract, narrowly avoiding an arbitration hearing by signing a one-year deal in July. Around the same time, the Capitals signed forwards Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic in free agency, signaling to Stephenson he was getting pushed out. But he impressed coaches in training camp, earned his way onto the opening night roster and managed to stick, receiving just four healthy scratches to this point in the season.
And while Stephenson did enough to make it onto the roster past training camp, the upward trajectory of Travis Boyd put the Capitals in a tight position. Boyd only carries a $800,000 cap hit and has tallied seven points (one goal, six assists) in 13 NHL games.
Both Stephenson and Boyd would have had to clear waivers if the team chose to send them down to Hershey. In mid-November, with so many injuries ailing the Capitals, Boyd was called up and Coach Todd Reirden said he was “absolutely” fighting for a long-term roster spot.
“The message has been clear to him … he’s doing everything he can with his game to prove every night that he deserves an elevated role or to be here,” Reirden said Nov. 18. “Certainly with the low cap hit, the offense he’s been able to generate makes it an intriguing situation for sure. He’s been good for us when called upon for sure.”
To start the year, Stephenson was trading places with Nic Dowd, moving in and out of the lineup as the fourth-line center. When Richard Panik was injured and placed on injured reserve in mid-October, Reirden used Dowd as his fourth-line center, with Stephenson or Boyd flanking him on the right side. Recently, with Nicklas Backstrom out with an upper-body injury — he has missed the past five games but was medically cleared to return to full-contact practice Monday — Stephenson was centering the third line.
Barring any additional injuries, with Stephenson gone and a healthy Backstrom, Boyd would be the Capitals’ extra skater moving forward. Boyd took third-line-center rushes during practice Monday with Backstrom still questionable for Tuesday’s game against San Jose.
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