As the trade deadline passed on Monday, the Washington Capitals elected to just add depth at forward for the stretch drive, acquiring Marcus Johansson from the Seattle Kraken and Johan Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes.
Washington enters the last month of the season sitting in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, trailing the New York Rangers by five points to get out of the wild card spot. But, the Capitals are also 13 points ahead of the fifth-place Columbus Blue Jackets and 17 ahead of the sixth-place New York Islanders, keeping them virtually assured of a playoff berth.
Barring a major change, the Caps are likely to draw whichever teams finishes atop the Metro – the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins or the Rangers – or could also crossover and play the Atlantic Division champ – which seems to be the Florida Panthers’ to lose at the moment. Any of those opponents offer the Capitals a very tough test to try and win their first playoff series since 2018, and there certainly won’t be any easy outs across the board.
By reacquiring Johansson, who was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2009 and played 501 games for them before being traded to the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 2017 in order to help create salary cap space for Evgeny Kuznetsov’s eight-year, $62.4 million contract, they hope his addition will bolster the power play depth and add some skill to the lineup as well.
Certainly, Johansson’s familiarity with the Capitals is also a plus for Washington.
“I played with Kuzy the last two years I was here, and it was great,” Johansson said following his first game back in Washington Tuesday “I think we had a lot of chemistry, and obviously played with Ovi a lot, too, before that. With those two guys, you just carry on and play and do your best and work hard and I think things will come by itself.” (from “As the sprint to the playoffs begins, the Capitals stumble badly in a 5-2 loss to the Blues,” The Washington Post, 3/22/22).
Larsson, who originally was a Minnesota Wild second-round pick in 2010, played a single game with them before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Jason Pominville in 2013, signed as a free agent with the Coyotes in 2020, and is a checking forward who could be called upon to help neutralize the opposition in the postseason.
Related: Washington Capitals’ Trade Deadline History
“It’s always different coming to a new team, but so far it’s been good, and I feel like this group has been together for a while so it is pretty easy to come in here,” Larsson told the media on Wednesday “They are a confident group. They know they can do it, so it is fun to come here.” (from “Johan Larsson, a deadline day acquisition for the Capitals, joins a ‘confident group’,” The Washington Post, 3/23/22).
Where Both Forwards Fit in the Lineup
Johansson is the more versatile of the two acquisitions, as he carries skill to play with the top six forwards but also capable of being a fit with the depth players as well. His best performance after leaving Washington was during the Boston Bruins’ playoff run in 2019, where he recorded four goals and seven assists in 22 games as the B’s finished a win shy of a Stanley Cup title. In his other six playoff contests with the Devils and Wild, he was held pointless.
With T.J. Oshie injured again, the Capitals envision him as a player able to slide into that top-six role and carry the skills to play with the top lines, but also able to help the third line.
While Johansson skill is his biggest asset, his biggest flaw during his tenure in Washington was seen as being more of a perimeter forward who didn’t always drive to the net, and with the physical nature of the Metropolitan Division, he will need to not play that way to be more of a key for him in his return. He was effective doing so during the Bruins’ playoff run by crashing the net more, and will need to do that come the playoffs for the Capitals this time around if he’s going to have success.
Larsson effectively fills in a defensive role with Carl Hagelin’s absence, but the forward has been injured with a sports hernia himself, appearing in just 29 games for Arizona this season.
When Larsson comes into the lineup, his role will be to contribute some offense from the fourth line, but otherwise be an effective depth player. He only has one season where he’s hit double digits in goals, which came back in 2015-16, but has played effectively with some skilled forwards as well, particularly with Kyle Okposo in Buffalo.
The Move the Capitals Didn’t Make
Washington’s gamble to roll the dice last season and use two young goaltenders in the playoffs came up snake eyes. Vitek Vanecek got hurt in the first period of Game 1 of their first-round series against the Bruins, and Ilya Samsonov was decent but couldn’t record a win against them in the last three games of that series. Now, after not finding a fit in the trade market, the Capitals are taking another chance with the two inexperienced netminders, all while harboring hopes of a long Stanley Cup run.
Certainly, Vanecek’s play in the past month since returning from injury was a factor in allowing him the chance to be Washington’s starter in the playoffs. He has posted a 6-2-0 mark with a .920 save percentage (SV%) in March, and was a big factor in Washington’s much-improved play this month, as the Caps have gone 7-2-1 since his return.
Durability has been the major issue with Vanecek in the past, as overuse hampered his play last season and caused him to appear fatigued after playing a long stretch of games. Injuries have also limited his availability at times, as while he is a solid goaltender when healthy, he hasn’t always been available.
Samsonov certainly has shown the ability to play at a high level, but really has struggled overall the last few months, with just a 4-4-1 mark since the All-Star break, and a .895 SV%. On the positive side, he has been effective against one of the Capitals’ possible playoff opponents in the Hurricanes, with a 2-0 mark this season including a win in Raleigh just last week, but he also is just 1-2 against the Penguins and Rangers.
With both goaltenders reaching restricted free agent status this summer, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan opted not to acquire an insurance policy in goal or explore a longer-term solution either and elected to roll the dice again with a pair of inexperienced netminders.
Where the Capitals Stack Up
Certainly, Washington’s hopes for a second Stanley Cup in five seasons will be tested by a tough draw. The Metropolitan Division’s top four teams all are in the top-10 in points league-wide, and the Capitals’ six most likely playoff opponents are second to seventh overall in the NHL.
Washington’s biggest question, as it has been for the last two seasons, will be how the goaltending holds up. Certainly, when healthy and at their best, the Capitals have a good tandem, but without a fallback option should injury or subpar play strike, it could be another short stay in the postseason should things go awry.
Defensively, Washington stood pat, and certainly didn’t look great in their first post-deadline game against the St. Louis Blues, allowing numerous odd-man breaks in an ugly 5-2 loss. Dressing seven defensemen didn’t even help the cause, allowing 38 shots despite facing a depleted attack. Part of the reason goaltending has been an important part of Washington’s success was the need to erase some of the mistakes from the blue line, and clearly the first test after the deadline wasn’t a good display.
Offensively, while the Capitals got some good results from Anthony Mantha’s return, Oshie’s latest injury is cause for concern. Johansson and Larsson will add some depth, but Washington certainly will be relying on its top guns in Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov to have any shot of a long playoff run.
Are the Capitals a better team after the deadline than before? Yes, the offensive depth was improved, but despite that, the potential Achilles’ heel of goaltending still looms as an issue this spring.
Washington certainly is comfortable in a playoff spot, but the question is if this roster will be able to compete in a very tough Metropolitan Division bracket. Any playoff run needs an element of luck, favorable draw and strong play, and the Capitals will certainly need all of those to really have a chance at a long run.