Since the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup title in 2018, the franchise has underachieved greatly in the postseason. Though changes happen every year for every NHL team, questionable player moves have become more than innocent mistakes by management. They’ve become a trend.
Ex-Capitals Succeeding With New Teams
For Capitals fans, it’s disheartening to consider how management has approached trades and free agency the last three seasons. After finally achieving glory after 44 seasons and over a decade straight of playoff disappointment, momentum seemed to unconventionally shift toward a franchise decline instead of a dynasty. There have been five notable moves by Washington management to mention — especially considering four of the five players are still skating and contributing in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Colorado Avalanche have taken advantage of the Capitals in recent years, and the moves have helped create one of the most dominant teams in the league. Burakovsky did somewhat underachieve in Washington, but without his timely play in the 2018 playoffs, the Capitals may not have won the title.
The Capitals traded Burakovsky to the Avalanche in June 2019 in exchange for winger Scott Kosmachuk and a 2020 third-round pick. For Colorado, the 26-year-old Burakovsky has totaled 89 regular-season points. That’s more than his last three years with Washington combined. His highest point total with Washington was 38 in 2015-16, but he has eclipsed 40 points in each of his first two years with Colorado — both coming in pandemic-shortened seasons.
Kosmachuk didn’t play or remain in the Capitals’ system, and the team traded away that 2020 pick.
In hindsight, trading Grubauer to the Avalanche became an enormously bad move by the Capitals, especially considering their goalie issues this season. Oh, and Grubauer is a Vezina finalist this year. During the 2020-21 regular season, the 29-year-old netminder posted a 1.95 goals against average with a .922 save percentage and recorded seven shutouts, perhaps making him the frontrunner for the award.
Grubauer, along with Brooks Orpik (who returned to the Capitals a month later), went to Colorado in 2018 for a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The Capitals selected winger Kody Clark with that pick. Clark has played 50 games over two seasons with Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and has accumulated a total of 18 points.
Stephenson, like Burakovsky, wasn’t playing his best hockey with Washington when the Capitals decided to move the forward. He was traded by the organization during the 2019-20 season to the Vegas Golden Knights after only recording four points over the course of 24 games. Fittingly, Stephenson scored in his debut with the Golden Knights and has since earned a four-year, $11 million extension.
In his year and a half with Vegas, Stephenson, 27, has recorded 57 regular-season points in 92 games and has a plus-41 rating. From 2015-2020 with Washington, he achieved just 33 points in 164 games with a plus-2 rating. One could see why he was traded, but it still stings Capitals fans.
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In exchange for Stephenson, Vegas sent a 2021 fifth-round pick to Washington. The Capitals then passed that pick along to the Philadelphia Flyers this year in a trade for Michael Raffl on April 12. In 10 games with Washington, Raffl had three points and was also scoreless with a minus-2 rating during the team’s first-round series with the Boston Bruins. Raffl is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Though Trotz isn’t a player, not retaining him as head coach after winning the Stanley Cup cannot be overlooked. Eleven days after the Capitals hoisted the trophy, Trotz resigned from his head coaching role due to a contract dispute with management. Three days after that, he became the head coach of the New York Islanders. In the past three postseasons, Trotz has led the Islanders to four series wins — the Capitals have won five total playoff games in that same span.
Something that will really twist the thorn deeper into the Capitals’ side is that either the Avalanche or Golden Knights will be in the 2021 Stanley Cup semifinal, and the Islanders are one win away from doing the same.
The impact of the Vrana trade for Anthony Mantha and draft stock is yet to be determined, but statistics show the trend will continue. Vrana, 25, scored eight goals and had 11 points in 11 games with the Detroit Red Wings this season after the transaction. Mantha, 26, recorded four goals and eight points in 14 games with Washington. In addition (or lack thereof), the Bruins held him to just one assist during the entire first-round series.
The Red Wings also received Richard Panik, a first-round pick in 2021, and a second-round pick in 2022. Washington has one of the worst farm systems in the entire NHL, and with just 11 picks over the next two drafts, which don’t include the two high-round slots they graciously gave Detroit, things definitely appear unsettling for the future of the franchise.
An Aggressive Summer
To sum up, in exchange for two forwards in their mid-20s, a Vezina-caliber goaltender, and a Stanley Cup-winning coach, the Capitals have received Kody Clark and are now on their second coach in just three seasons since the Trotz move.
The Capitals’ general manager, Brian MacLellan, is in a very tough spot this offseason. First, he needs to redeem himself in the most significant of ways. Second, he needs to be aggressive in acquiring youth and draft picks.
Third, he needs to accept the fact that this team is incapable of winning a Cup unless they sacrifice big names. If he doesn’t do one, or possibly all three, of these options, perhaps it’s time for owner Ted Leonsis to make his own offseason moves.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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