Washington Capitals: A look at Brian MacLellan’s outstanding offseason

ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 3: Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan ,left, talks to Alex Ovechkin,, right, during a team photo shoot at their practice facility in Arlington, VA on April 3, 2019 . (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 3: Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan ,left, talks to Alex Ovechkin,, right, during a team photo shoot at their practice facility in Arlington, VA on April 3, 2019 . (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images) /

Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan entered the 2019 offseason with a tricky job to accomplish.

The Washington Capitals were less than a calendar year removed from a Stanley Cup championship, but were also fresh off a first round defeat at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. Paired in with that was a salary cap that was tighter than it appeared and a team with some clear contracts that could be shed, MacLellan was in for an offseason that could’ve gone off the rails.

Yet, he passed with flying colors. And the Capitals are a better team for it.

To start, there were a few clear issues with the 2018-19 iteration of the Capitals. Notably, they weren’t a very strong possession team for a majority of the season — though they improved after the trade deadline.

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Now, the Capitals have shown a consistent ability to make up for that with strong shooting percentages, special teams play and goaltending.

But still, the Capitals showed an inability to get the puck out of their own zone and prevent high-danger scoring chances against the Hurricanes.

While it was known the Hurricanes were one of the league’s possession darlings, the Capitals were out-attempted 376-257 (40.60 Corsi For percentage) and had a high-danger percentage of 43.09. That’s simply no way to win a series.

So, MacLellan took some serious steps to help with that.

First, he shipped Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million dollar contract to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas. Upon first glance, the acquisition of Gudas wasn’t one to get excited over. But a closer examination indicates Gudas will add nothing offensively, but is excellent at shot suppression.

The Flyers will retain on Gudas’ contract, too, meaning the Capitals may have gotten the better player for a cheaper price. With Nick Jensen set to take Niskanen’s place on the second pairing, Gudas and Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos will make a third pairing worth having for the Capitals.

Keeping the theme of the defensive players on the ice, the Capitals added Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway to compete for roles on the fourth line. Leipsic signed a one-year deal, while Hathaway signed a four year deal.

Leipsic is an excellent defensive forward and paired with Nic Dowd and Hathaway, should make for a fourth line that will be able to prevent scoring chances unlike last year’s team.

Hathaway’s contract, while for a risky term, appears to be for a player on the upswing. He scored 11 goals and had 19 points last year and is excellent on the penalty kill.

Which brings this around to all three of these signings and the general theme of shot suppression. Leipsic and Hathaway will provide much more defensive and offensive ability on the fourth line than Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson did, which will give the Capitals a shutdown line, should need be.

Stephenson was recently given a 1.05 million dollar deal, but he’ll have to beat out some fourth line wingers which are noticeably more defensively responsible than he was to earn a roster spot. After a down year, Stephenson will have to especially prove his worth, seeing that he’s more expensive than other options for the Capitals on that line.

Above the fourth line, MacLellan re-worked the third line and re-signed Carl Hagelin (also a possession dynamo) and brought in Richard Panik.

Hagelin helped turn around the Capitals possession metrics after the deadline, and Panik was brought in to replace Brett Connolly as third line right wing. Panik scored 14 goals and 19 assists for the Arizona Coyotes last season.

While Panik and Hagelin won’t have the offensive upside of a third line with Connolly and the since traded Andre Burakovsky, they should be more defensively responsible and possession-oriented than last year’s unit was.

Traded for a second and third round pick, Burakovsky’s trade was a tough, but necessary one to pull off. After requesting a trade, the Capitals didn’t have a ton of leverage and had to ship him off up against the cap.

And most recently, Christian Djoos, Jakub Vrana, and Chandler Stephenson were locked in (Vrana for two years at $3.35 million per year, Djoos for one year at $1.25 million and Stephenson for one year at $1.05 million). That leaves the Capitals above the salary cap by 1.36 million — so there’s still work to be done.

Meaning, the Capitals could be forced to trade Djoos before training camp starts. Or send Siegenthaler to Hershey since he’s waiver exempt. They could also carry just 19 skaters, a dangerous proposition if there’s an injury.

Whatever the case, MacLellan traded Burakovsky, Connolly, Boyd, Niskanen and Orpik for Panik, Hathaway, Leipsic and increased roles for Djoos and Jensen.

The 2019-20 Capitals might not have the complete offensive firepower they’re used to, but they should be able to post better possession battles, prevent high-danger chances and kill penalties better than last season.

Next. Capitals re-sign Chandler Stephenson. dark

It’s clear that MacLellan has a grasp on what this team needs, what it’s weaknesses are and how to fix them. And this past offseason was just more evidence of that.