Brian MacLellan has read the assessments of his work, mulled over the notion that the Washington Capitals had the worst offseason in the entire National Hockey League, and wonders how the tale got away from him. The general manager is analytical by training and by nature, thinks through problems in an orderly, if-this-then-that manner. And so he is rankled — ticked off, really — at the following idea: Brian MacLellan didn’t have a plan.
“People are reverse-engineering stuff,” MacLellan said this week. “They’re saying, ‘Well, why didn’t they expose Johansson in the expansion draft?’ Why would we do that when we don’t know if we could sign Oshie or Kuzy? It doesn’t make any sense.
“People make it sound like we’re a lottery team. I’m shocked by that. We’ve got good players. I want people to know: We’ve got a good team.”
Okay, okay, let’s take a deep breath and consider a few things before we get into the specifics of Marcus Johansson’s trade and Nate Schmidt’s exposure in said expansion draft and the massive contracts for T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams’s departure and on and on.
First, let’s be realistic about where we are. For all the 364 straight sellouts at Verizon Center and the “Rock the Red” culture that’s been created and sustained for the better part of a decade, when it comes to hockey discourse, D.C. ain’t Detroit. It isn’t Toronto or Boston or even Philly, either.
So when the Capitals’ offseason unfolded, the in-town reaction was, essentially: What are the Nats going to do about their bullpen, and will the Redskins and Kirk Cousins come to a long-term deal?
Which is our fault. My fault, really. In a real hockey town, the Caps’ moves — their plan — would have been picked apart in real time by the kind of cognoscenti that make Montreal and Toronto cities that hum with hockey talk in both July and January.
My apologies. I was at a Nats game.
So here we are, with training camp opening for football and the trade deadline approaching in baseball, just getting around to this hockey stuff.
But let’s also be realistic about the (partial) dismantling of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps of 2016-17: We could see it coming. In trying to win the Stanley Cup, MacLellan not only pushed in all his chips (take a note, Nats), but he sent a courier to borrow some from the next table over. That’s exactly what a team in the Caps’ position six months ago should do. That it didn’t work out — and that it has an impact on the franchise going forward — doesn’t make it the wrong strategy now.
And yet: Sportsnet in Canada is rating the Caps’ offseason 31st out of the 31 NHL teams. And the passionate, thorough Caps-centric blogs have treated MacLellan like a carcass on the road, picking the last bit of flesh off the bones. What we have is a general manager feeling a bit beleaguered.
“The whole thing is moving in different directions,” MacLellan said. “So to plan it out that everything’s going to work out perfectly is virtually impossible.”
So let’s re-engineer this, with the general manager on the stand to defend himself.
Start with the expansion draft, which occurred just three days after the league found out the salary cap would be $75 million and not, say, $77 million (“which makes a difference in everything you do,” MacLellan said). The two Capitals left unprotected that figured to be most attractive to Las Vegas GM George McPhee — MacLellan’s former boss in Washington — were defenseman Schmidt and goalie Philipp Grubauer.
The Caps lost Schmidt. The fan base freaked out. Veteran Karl Alzner and rental Kevin Shattenkirk were sure to leave via free agency, and Brooks Orpik was old and getting slower, and the Caps needed Schmidt’s speed, plus he’s such a good-natured guy and he would move up to the top four and OhmygodwhatisMacLellandoing?!!!!
“We like Schmidt,” MacLellan said. “But it’s not as huge a deal as people are making it out to be.”
Here’s the reality: When McPhee got the lists of unprotected players, other teams could call him and discuss available players they liked, guys they might turn around and trade for. What Las Vegas found: Taking Grubauer wouldn’t make much sense, because there happened to be a glut of goaltenders available, so his value might not be as high. The Caps and Golden Knights couldn’t come to terms on compensation that would steer Las Vegas toward a player other than Schmidt.
So, then, goodbye, Nate.
Wait. What does that leave us with on defense?
“I really like Lucas Johansen, and whether it’s now or six months from now or a year from now, I think he’s going to be a factor,” MacLellan said. “Christian Djoos got 58 points at the American League level last year. I guess the knock on him is size (6-feet, 162 pounds), but I don’t think Schmidt (6-1, 194 pounds) is a big guy.”
Johansen is the Caps’ first-round pick in 2016, and he doesn’t turn 20 till November. Djoos, 22, excelled for Hershey, the team’s top affiliate. MacLellan went down a list: Madison Bowey, Jonas Siegenthaler, Tyler Lewington — they’re all defensemen, and he believes they’ll all play, and soon.
“This is an organizational strength,” he said.
Okay, fine. So Schmidt — who averaged 15½ minutes a night, was benched when Shattenkirk arrived in a midseason trade and wasn’t in the lineup to start the playoffs — is gone. But good lord you traded Johansson — who scored the series-clinching goal against Toronto — for two measly draft picks.
“We had tested the market out,” MacLellan said, “and we had a sense of what teams were willing to pay.”
Uh, Mac. If you were going to dump Johansson, why not do it before the expansion draft, because then you could have protected the three-time Norris Trophy winner speedy Schmidt?
But MacLellan not only argues that he couldn’t trade Johansson before he knew whether he could retain unrestricted free agent Oshie and restricted free agents Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, but that the size of those contracts, driven by the market, would dictate whether they had to deal Johansson at all.
“Depending on how much money we spend there, they’re going to affect how much money we need to get rid of,” MacLellan said. “You have certain levers that you can push as far as the trade route, and we had laid out the options. If we need this much money [in salary cap space], we’ll trade Johansson. If we need this much, we’ll trade these two guys.”
Fine, fine. But Oshie’s contract, man, it’s so long. At the end of eight years (for $46 million), he’ll be 39. Couldn’t we have signed 35-year-old Williams for two years, like Carolina did?
“The decision becomes: Do we want Oshie or not?” MacLellan said. “I don’t know what the stink is. Oshie, he’s a big part of our culture. He drives the team. We felt it was necessary. People like Williams at 36, but they don’t like Oshie at 36?”
Plus, MacLellan argues, the salary cap will be up in five or six years. “It better be, or the league’s in trouble,” he said. So that means Oshie’s $5.75 million annual cap hit will be less of a problem going forward, not more of it.
Speaking of contracts, whoo, boy, that Kuznetsov deal — eight years, $62.4 million — is a doozy. Couple that with Orlov’s six-year, $30.6 million pact, and isn’t the team somewhat hamstrung financially going forward?
“We sat there and said, ‘Kuzy’s 25 years old,’” MacLellan said. “He’s going to be a No. 1 center. It’s the way the league’s going — speed, youth. We’ve got two good centers [along with Nicklas Backstrom]. We spent forever trying to find the 1-2 punch. How can we not do it?’”
Plus, with both Kuznetsov and Orlov, the Capitals were dealing not just with traditional questions (like, will the New York Rangers, needing a center and with plenty of cap space, sign Kuznetsov to an offer sheet?), but also with whether either was a flight risk, likely to head back to their native Russia.
So, then, here we are: In July, in Washington, picking apart the Capitals. The guy who puts together the team has heard the assessment of his work. And he’s here to defend himself.
“It’s a good team, I think,” MacLellan said. “We have good goaltending. We have skilled players. We’re going to have to see how Djoos plays, how Johansen plays. We might take a little while to get up to speed in that area. I guess there’s a little uncertainty. But I feel good.”
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