Whether it’s Capitol Hill or Capital One Arena, change is slow in D.C. Although players often move between franchises, the Washington Capitals’ roster hasn’t changed that much recently. Still, players have come and gone, and while some former Capitals have hit new heights, others have struggled to make their mark in a new city. As the 2021-22 season enters the second half, now is the perfect time to reflect on how six recent Washington departees are performing this season.
A Good Season: Andre Burakovsky (Colorado Avalanche)
In exchange for forward Scott Kosmachuk, a second-round and a third-round draft pick, the Capitals traded Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche on June 28, 2019. The Austrian-born Swede made 328 regular-season appearances for Washington -who drafted him 23rd overall in 2013 – and registered 145 (62 goals, 83 assists) regular-season points and won a Stanley Cup.
After moving to Denver, Burakovsky has produced offense at an impressive rate. He’s notched 13 goals and 14 assists in 31 games this season, despite playing on a team that struggled early on. However, the season hasn’t been plain sailing for him. Burakovsky went seven games without a goal in December and spent time on COVID Protocol. But he is a key piece of the puzzle for the Cup-contending Avalanche.
A Good Season: Brenden Dillon (Winnipeg Jets)
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan traded defenceman Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets on July 26, 2021 for two second-round draft picks, split between 2022 and 2023. Dillon made 66 regular-season appearances for the Caps, notching two goals and 17 assists over 18 months.
The 31-year-old, dealt to Winnipeg to free up cap space, has enjoyed a solid start to his Jets career, with nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 33 appearances, using his 6-foot-4 frame to full effect.
He has excelled playing alongside Neal Pionk on Winnipeg’s second pairing for a plus-6 rating. As Dillon takes the lion’s share of defensive responsibilities, his presence has allowed Pionk to play a more prominent role offensively – which has gotten the best out of both players.
Struggling: Philipp Grubauer (Seattle Kraken)
Kraken general manager Ron Francis, in a bid to replicate the Vegas Golden Knights’ early success, set exorbitant prices for side deals at the expansion draft. However, unlike Vegas, Seattle had no takers and were forced to flesh out their inaugural roster through free agency.
German netminder Philipp Grubauer, who made 101 regular-season appearances for the Capitals between 2013 and 2018, was one of Seattle’s splashier signings. He arrived at Climate Pledge Arena fresh off a six-year, $5.9 million contract, but it hasn’t worked out. Through 27 games, the 30-year-old’s goals-against average (GAA) is 3.37, while his save percentage (SV%) has dipped to .880. His win-loss record is 7-15-4, and Seattle’s goaltending is ranked amongst the worst in the league.
He was, however, greeted warmly on his return to Colorado. “Denver is always a special place in my heart, especially the fans, too. It feels amazing for sure,” Grubauer said following Seattle’s 4-3 loss to the Avs on Jan. 11. Thankfully, he has plenty of time to make up for his poor start in Seattle.
A Good Season: Chandler Stephenson (Vegas Golden Knights)
Vegas also acquired Chandler Stephenson in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft in Dec. 2019. The left-shot center has since registered 93 points (32 goals, 61 assists) in 130 regular-season games for the Golden Knights, including a successful 2021-22 campaign so far.
Before the trade, Stephenson notched 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 168 regular-season outings for the Caps, but his career has taken off recently. Now 27, the former third-round pick is playing an important role in Vegas, earning the most ice time of his career as the team battles through an injury crisis.
He has taken significant strides by improving his play around the net, including this neat finish versus the Anaheim Ducks in October. If Vegas is successful in the playoffs this season, Stephenson will likely play a significant role.
A Good Season: Braden Holtby (Dallas Stars)
Since swapping D.C. for B.C. through free agency in 2020, Braden Holtby’s game has swung from one extreme to the other. After a dismal season with the Vancouver Canucks – which ended in a buy-out – the 6-foot-2 goalie has excelled in Dallas with the Stars this season.
The 32-year-old seems to be enjoying life with his new team; his SV% has rebounded to .920, and his GAA has dipped to 2.56. Moreover, the confidence he lacked in Vancouver has returned, evidenced by the quality saves he’s making this season.
However, Holtby, a Cup-winner with the Capitals, may not end the season in the Stars’ net. He’s the subject of growing interest from around the NHL ahead of the trade deadline and, if Dallas falls out of contention, he will make an intriguing rental option, given his strong play.
Struggling: Zdeno Chara (New York Islanders)
Although Zdeno Chara spent just one season at Capital One Area, he might have returned in 2021-22, so it’s worth evaluating his performance. The 6-foot-9 defenceman averaged 18:31 over 55 appearances in Washington and received mixed reviews.
This season, Chara’s form has slipped further, although the New York Islanders’ general malaise hasn’t helped in that regard. That said, it’s a feat that the 44-year-old is still a steady hand in his 24th season in the NHL.
Who Will Leave the Capitals Next?
The Caps have several pending restricted free agents (RFA) to deal with this summer. Principal among them is forward Daniel Sprong, who will be looking for an improved deal. Goaltenders Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov are also RFAs, presenting MacLellan with an opportunity to switch things up between the pipes. No matter how 2021-22 ends for the Capitals, players will come and go, and we’ll revisit former Capitals again in the future.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.