ANAHEIM, Calif. — Craig Smith was taking a pregame nap in his Seattle hotel room last week when he heard a knock on his door. It was Boston Bruins Coach Jim Montgomery, who told Smith that he wouldn’t be playing that night against the Kraken. Smith had been traded to the Washington Capitals. After watching countless teammates get moved over his 12 years in the NHL, it had finally happened to him, for the first time.
“A weird feeling,” said the 33-year-old Smith, who didn’t know what else to do but pull up Washington’s schedule online and see where the team was playing. He would have less than 48 hours to fly across the country, learn Washington’s defensive system and play in a home game against the New York Rangers.
By the time he flew back across the country for a three-game West Coast trip this week, Smith was fatigued. “You don’t sleep very well. It’s been a tired couple of days,” he said.
He watched as some of his new Washington teammates — Erik Gustafsson, Marcus Johansson and Lars Eller — were shipped out as the Capitals continued to revamp their roster ahead of Friday’s trade deadline. For Smith and Rasmus Sandin, a 22-year-old Swedish defenseman the Capitals acquired in a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, being traded for the first time in the NHL has been an emotionally draining process filled with logistical challenges.
For Smith, it has meant leaving the league’s best team to join one that wants to get younger — and one that could deal him again before Friday’s deadline or let him go after he becomes a free agent this summer. For Sandin, it has meant leaving a playoff contender that drafted him and proving he was worth the 2023 first-round pick the Capitals gave up, along with Gustafsson, to get him.
“I was a little surprised. Obviously, wasn’t something I was expecting. Sad to leave the teammates … but at the same time, really excited for the opportunity to come here,” said Sandin, who first has to work out his immigration status. He was unable to play in Wednesday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks while his visa issues were still being sorted out, and it wasn’t immediately clear when he would be available.
“I’m not taking care of that. We’ll see how long it takes. I’m not going to the embassy right now, not what I know at least,” Sandin said Wednesday. “This is very new to me as well.”
Sandin was also in Seattle when he learned that he had been dealt. He was in the middle of practice when he was told to head back to the dressing room with a Maple Leafs staffer. By that evening, he had arrived at the Capitals’ team hotel, and the next morning, his blue Maple Leafs bag was loaded onto a cart with red Capitals bags as Washington made its way to Honda Center in Anaheim for practice.
He barely knew anyone on the team, introducing himself to most of the Capitals players and staffers for the first time. He was one of two players who skated extra after the team’s optional practice before their game against the Ducks but was a forced to sit out the game later Wednesday night as his immigration paperwork was still being processed.
“It’s obviously a quick turnaround,” Sandin said. “Not playing, I mean it’s going to be good for me to watch … and try to learn as much I can sitting up top.”
If there are any advantages on the ice for both Smith and Sandin, it is that there is familiarity with Washington Coach Peter Laviolette’s system. Smith earned high marks playing for Laviolette when both were with the Nashville Predators. And Sandin could point out parallels in Washington and Toronto’s defensive systems, which would help shorten his transition.
With Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan focused on rebooting the roster for a quick turnaround by flipping the expiring contracts of a handful of veterans for future draft capital and young players — Sandin, who will turn 23 next week, is a perfect fit.
“I’m a pretty creative player. I try to do what I see out there — try to read the game,” Sandin said. “That’s one of my strengths. I’m trying to be a two-way player. But also, I’m still very young. I want to improve on everything — both offensively, defensively but most of all just defensive play.”
Smith’s future is less clear. An unrestricted free agent after this season, he said this week that one of his questions after being dealt to Washington was whether he might be on the block again as the trade deadline nears.
“I thought about it for sure,” he said. “Let things settle where they may.”
He has vowed to reinvent himself and squeeze more hockey out of a career that has already spanned 834 games. He wasn’t able to get back home to his wife last week before joining the Capitals, he said, but he leaned on the few relationships on his new team that he already had. That includes with defenseman Matt Irwin, who played with Smith in Nashville and picked him up from the hotel when he first arrived in Washington.
“Going through it all, you always might expect something might happen around deadline. I guess a little hair goes up on the back of your neck,” Smith said. “It might happen; it might not. That’s just the way it goes.”