LIVES CHANGE IN A BLINK
AT TRADE DEADLINE

BY BRIAN MCNALLY | FEB. 25, 2018

KETTLER CAPITALS ICEPLEX — The players arrived in Binghamton, N.Y. after a long bus ride and were checking into their hotel when cell phones began chirping.

First one Hershey Bears player received a message, then another. Within hours, six of Jay Beagles’ minor-league teammates were gone. The NHL trade deadline had quickly reshaped the roster of the Washington Capitals’ AHL affiliate.  

That extreme example might explain Beagle’s unique approach when the trade deadline approaches – as it does again on Monday at 3 p.m. He doesn’t pay attention at all.   

“I don’t really focus on it too much,” Beagle said. “I’ll all of the sudden see a new guy on a team when we play them and be like ‘Oh — all right. He must have got traded.’ I don’t really check or pay too much attention to it.”

That’s not normal. Lives and careers can change in an instant at this time of year so many NHL players are eyeing their televisions, computers or phones. Less so if you’re a veteran on a good team or a star player, more so if you’re a pending free agent or a struggling young pro.

Last year at the trade deadline, Washington made a splashy move by acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is more limited this time around with about $677,000 in salary-cap space available. That’s not much to work with without shipping salary or draft picks or top young talent out and MacLellan claims he’s reluctant to do that.

“I’m fairly happy with the way we’re evolving,” MacLellan said Feb. 10. “The team changes, you know? The young guys are improving. There’s maybe a little inconsistency there, but I think it’s for us to balance between continuing to develop our young guys and winning — that’s the trick for us.”

In the lead up to the deadline, Washington added depth to its blueline by trading for Michal Kempny (Chicago Blackhawks) and Jakub Jerabek (Montreal Canadiens). That addressed a need, but doesn’t exactly move the needle. It might be all the Capitals are capable of doing this time.

The hole was obvious. Washington’s blueline lost Karl Alzner in free agency (Canadiens) and Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft (Vegas Golden Knights). Rookies Christian Djoos, 23, and Madison Bowey, 22, have combined to play 104 games. It’s been years since the Capitals have been this inexperienced on defense. Djoos has actually put together solid possession numbers playing with John Carlson, Bowey less so with veteran Brooks Orpik to his left.

Washington has been fortunate to stay healthy since Matt Niskanen missed 13 games with a left hand injury in October and November. But a couple of injuries could test the Capitals and Kempny and Jerabek should help.

MacLellan would prefer to keep his draft picks for once. He gave up two second-round picks to Montreal in 2017 and 2018 for center Lars Eller. He traded last year’s first-round pick to St. Louis for Shattenkirk.

In AHL Hershey, Washington has limited options. Aaron Ness has played eight NHL games this season. Otherwise, Connor Hobbs, 21, Jonas Siegenthaler, 20, and 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen, 20, are all in their first year as professionals.

Kempny played in games against the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres last week. Jerabek has yet to play with Washington and won’t on Monday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Jerabek’s parents were on the way to visit him in Montreal from the Czech Republic last Wednesday and quickly needed a new plan to get into the United States.

“It was a big surprise for them,” Jerabek cracked.

It made for a volatile few days. Kempny was traded shortly after a Blackhawks practice last Monday, gathered his sticks and other equipment, returned home to pack and was in Washington by midnight.  

“I need everything to settle down a bit,” Kempny said after his first practice with the Capitals. “New teammates, new people around here.”

Kempny’s head was understandably spinning. He’d been wrenched from familiar surroundings, dropped on a team expected to make the Stanley Cup playoffs and spent his first game playing on the right side of the ice next to Orpik, who he’d never met before last Tuesday. Kempny played on the left side in Chicago.

The Shattenkirk deal could leave Washington’s management skeptical of pursuing a big deal even if it had the cap space and prospects. The Capitals gave up a first-round pick, promising winger Zach Sanford, prospect Brad Malone and another conditional draft pick. It wasn’t a huge giveaway, and Washington also got back former goalie Pheonix Copley, but Shattenkirk also wasn’t quite the player Washington thought it was getting.

He helped on the power play, which was already one of the league’s best units, and had 14 points in 19 regular-season games. Some in the organization questioned his fitness and Shattenkirk struggled in the first-round playoff series against Toronto. But he also had six postseason points and a game-winning overtime goal in the second-round series against Pittsburgh.

If Shattenkirk wasn’t a No. 1 or 2 defenseman, he was close enough and Washington was better with him, but it fell short again versus the Penguins and that will always color that particular deal.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to believe and trust in the people upstairs,” Orpik said. “That’s their job to figure out that stuff and I think at times as a player you’ve just got to play and trust those people to make the right decisions.”

Orpik doesn’t think there’s a right or wrong answer when considering adding top talent to a team already destined for the postseason. Chemistry has to be a consideration. Roles could lesson for some players. That happened to John Carlson’s power-play ice time when Shattenkirk arrived. But every situation is different.

“Sometimes people underestimate the impact that has on a room when you lose guys that are well liked,” Orpik said. “In terms of adding guys, I know as a player we always took that as an indication that management really believes in the group they have. It was kind of an endorsement. They’re trying to provide you with everything you need.”   

Orpik recalled 2009 when he played for Pittsburgh. The Penguins dealt popular forward Ryan Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks at the deadline. Players grumbled. The return was winger Chris Kunitz, at that point 29 years old, in his fourth NHL season and a proven 20-goal scorer who had been a role player on the Anaheim Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup championship team.

Whitney was then 26, a fine offensive defenseman with seasons of 40 and 59 points already under his belt and four more years on his contract. Whitney was considered enough of a prize that the Ducks had to throw in a top prospect, Eric Tangradi, into the deal.

But Kunitz had 14 points during Pittsburgh’s run to a Stanley Cup that season. He proved a good teammate in his own right, played for the Penguins for nine years and helped them win two more Cups. In the end, the deal worked. The deadline remains more art than science.

“I’ve been in other places and it can affect certain guys because their names are spread all over the place,” Trotz said. “They’re human, too. They pretend not to hear. But they do.”

Photo of Brooks Orpik courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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