The Washington Capitals got into the trade mix on Tuesday, Feb. 18, picking up defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a pair of draft picks. Deadline rentals rarely come cheap and this move was no exception for Washington. Once again, the Caps dipped into their pool of future assets to improve the team in the short-term. This time the cost was a 2020 second-round pick and a conditional third-round pick in 2021.
It was a necessary move when you look around the division and see the Pittsburgh Penguins bolstering their offense in the Jason Zucker trade and the New York Islanders upgrading their blue line with the acquisition of Andy Greene. The race is on in a loaded Eastern Conference and Washington may not be done upgrading a roster that has lost its edge in recent weeks.
Addressing a Need
In Dillon, Washington is adding stability on the back end. The veteran of almost 600 NHL games is not known for his offensive game, scoring just 22 goals and 114 points in his career. Rather, Dillon has carved out a nice NHL career thanks to a willingness to compete physically and do the dirty work in his own zone.
Dillon went undrafted after playing his junior career with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds. He signed with the Dallas Stars in 2011 and spent parts of four seasons with the organization before being dealt to the Sharks in 2014. Dillon came into his own in San Jose, establishing himself as a top-four defenseman on a deep Sharks blue line. He has also proven to be a very durable player, missing just 12 games over his eight-year career.
Dillon will look to complement a Capitals defensive core that has been burned in recent weeks and needed an upgrade. He could slot into a role as a defensive supplement to either John Carlson or Dmitry Orlov. Perhaps head coach Todd Reirden will elect to put him in a shutdown role alongside Michal Kempny or Radko Gudas. Either way, the addition should help balance out a struggling unit that was in need of some restructuring.
Keeping up in the East
The question plaguing Capitals fans today will be whether or not this move is enough to keep up in the Eastern Conference. For the first time in 122 days, the Capitals woke up on Feb. 19 looking up in the Metropolitan Division standings. Pittsburgh’s win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday moved the Pens one point above Washington for the division lead and the Penguins still have a game in hand. Beyond that, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are the two hottest teams in the league and have begun to pull away from the pack at the top of the NHL standings.
With 23 games to go, now is not the time to be playing your worst hockey of the season, but the Capitals are. Washington still has the fourth-best record in the league but the three teams ahead of them are all conference rivals with their sights set on the Stanley Cup. It may take more than a stay-at-home defenseman to keep up with an elite group like that in April and May.
Up Against the Cap
Even with San Jose retaining half of Dillon’s salary in the deal, the Capitals still find themselves right up against the salary cap less than a week before the deadline. Any subsequent deals would require a contract being shipped out the other way or someone being sent down to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears to clear space. With that in mind, it seems very unlikely that Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan will be able to add another impact player to the roster. A minor move or two for depth seems more likely.
Internally, a decision will need to be made on who comes out of the lineup. With the exception of an early-season injury to Michal Kempny, the Capitals have largely run out the same group of six defenders all year long. John Carlson has arguably been the team’s MVP this season, while Dmitry Orlov is the next best option offensively.
MacLellan’s previous two deadline acquisitions Kempny and Nick Jensen continue to log top-four minutes but have both been targets of criticism from the fanbase this season. A move to the third pair could be in store for Jensen, which would then push either Radko Gudas or Jonas Siegenthaler to the press box. Look for Reirden to experiment with the group in the coming weeks in hopes of landing on a winning formula in time for the postseason.
It was clear that an extra body was needed for the Capitals blue line as we enter the stretch drive and Dillon is as good a bet as any among the players that were rumoured to be available. His acquisition should help stabilize a group that has been leaking goals since the all-star break. Whether or not it’s enough to keep up with the other elite clubs in the Eastern Conference is another question entirely.
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