cost for a marquee defenseman too high


The NHL trade deadline passed on Monday at 3 p.m. without another move from the Capitals.

Some will be frustrated by that. This is a fragile first-place team, too reliant on production from its stars and papering over holes with rookies and young players to fill the gaps left by departed veterans.

It’s possible the Capitals are the sixth- or seventh-best team in the Eastern Conference. They could be in third place in the Metropolitan Division by Tuesday night. Or they could regain their footing and rebuild the small cushion of a lead they nursed in January.

General manager Brian MacLellan added two defensemen, Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek, last week. Kempny, for now, is a left-side defenseman playing in an unfamiliar spot on the right. Jerabek is waiting on paperwork to get into the United States. MacLellan believes that happened Monday, but wasn’t 100 percent sure since he was stuck inside a trade room all day exploring options.

In the end, the Capitals decided that the high cost for a top-tier defenseman – Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh were being openly shopped, among others – just wasn’t worth it.

“There’s a couple of players that we’d have liked to have had. But the cost of acquiring those players was pretty high,” MacLellan said in a conference call. “Are we willing to give up some of our young forwards and more first-round picks to possibly be a little deeper? At some point the trade off was not worth it for us.”

The plan is to spend the final 20 games of the regular season figuring out the optimal blueline. MacLellan offered praise for rookie Christian Djoos and noted he’s played especially well the past four or five games. Madison Bowey’s game has been a little more ragged. Advanced stats aren’t kind to veteran Brooks Orpik, but it’s unclear if the coaching staff would actually move away from him.

It’s clear the front office thinks the team is good enough at center with Nick Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle and in goal with Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer to compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Scoring depth is a concern if the stars go cold. But ultimately, the play of the defensemen will determine if the Caps can hang with the better teams in the Eastern Conference and they just haven’t been good enough in that area.  

They can’t get too comfortable, either. The Capitals entered the game Monday night at Columbus with 77 points – just one ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers (76) and Pittsburgh Penguins (76). There is a five-point gap with the fourth-place New Jersey Devils (72), who made several trades to bolster their playoff chances by adding wingers Pat Maroon (Edmonton) and Michael Grabner (Rangers).

Several teams in the Metro made moves. The Blue Jackets added veteran defenseman Ian Cole, center Mark Letestu and winger Thomas Vanek, who always feasted on the Caps during his Buffalo Sabres days. The Penguins traded for center Derick Brassard (Ottawa). MacLellan brushed those deals aside though. None are game-changers and his team has its strengths, too.   

But the top priority is finding out if Kempny and Jerabek are solutions. If that costs the Capitals first or second place, they don’t seem too concerned. Division titles and home ice haven’t helped them advance deep in the playoffs yet. Worrying about it now isn’t a priority.

This is who the Caps are now. There was no big trade like last February when defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk arrived just before the deadline for a first-round draft pick and forwards Zach Sanford and Brad Malone. For the first time since 2014, the Capitals will have picks in the first three rounds of the NHL draft.   

“Last year we did it and you get into your asset pool, it depletes it a little bit,” MacLellan said. “I don’t think it makes sense to do it year after year. You’ve got to balance your short and long-term goals here. It would have been great to add another defenseman, a higher-end defenseman. But the cost was too high in our estimation.”

Photo by Keith Allison, Flickr

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