Washington Capitals Deadline Deals Improve the Team Immediately


Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

On Fat Tuesday, your Washington Capitals added some meat. Just in case you missed it, we acquired Dustin Penner for just about nothing via trade with the Anaheim Ducks, and then sent Martin Erat to the Phoenix Coyotes for Rostislav Klesla. In addition to those two huge transactions, Jack Hillen is finally back from the broken leg he suffered in the home opener against Calgary, and our best prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov, said his goodbyes in Russia early yesterday morning and may be working out his entry-level contract with the Capitals as I type this.

These four key additions–Penner, Klesla, Hillen, and Kuznetsov–make for a promising stretch of hockey. We will look at each player in turn and address his anticipated contributions, followed by a quick look at the whole picture and how it has changed.

Dustin Penner

Here’s what you need to know about number 17 in Red, the Caps’

shiny, new

gritty veteran left wing, Dustin Penner:

  • His stats are a good fit for a team that’s trying to get tougher en route to a playoff run. He’s a big fella at 6’4”, 245 lbs., and he averages over 2/3 of a point and 1.5 hits per game. The term “power forward” may be thrown around too much, but it fits here.
  • He’s transitioning from being the left wing on one of the most productive lines in hockey to being the left wing on one of the most productive lines in hockey.
  • He has serious injury concerns (as does any living creature of his size), and has missed time in each of the past 3 seasons.
  • He’s from the same tiny town in Manitoba as Eric Fehr, where they played hockey together as high schoolers.
  • Penner is an absolute sweetheart. Within a few hours of learning he had been traded, he tweeted the President of the United States of America and asked to bunk up with him, did a call with the DC media while walking through a terminal and/or “bunker” at LAX (audio here), and then tweeted an inspirational-yet-mildly-NSFW YouTube clip. I couldn’t be more tickled that we were able to parlay the pick we got a few months ago in a trade for Mathieu Perrault for another guy who’s sure to end up a fan favorite.

Make no mistake, Penner is the most important of the four. If you asked me on Monday our greatest area of need, I would have said left-handed top-4 defenseman, but LW would have been in second place, and there’s no better fit for this team than him. Also, we got him for almost nothing. Anaheim needed to free up cap space for some other deals they were working, and the Caps benefited. I’d love to see a contract extension between now and free agency, but his $2 million is deflated, and we will have significant needs this offseason. Even as a rental, this deal is a winner.

Rostislav Klesla

Update – 7:15 PM: Ignore my analysis on Klesla, because we traded him (along with Michael Neuvirth) to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak and a 2015 3rd-round pick.

Klesla is not a surefire solution to our problems on defense, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Here’s why:

  • He has been a steady force on the bluelines of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Phoenix Coyotes since the ’01-’02 season.
  • His stay-at-home skill set is exactly what the Caps need right now on defense. Our top defensive pairing of Carlson-Alzner is strong because it links complementary skills; Carlson’s offensive prowess leads to opportunities while Alzner’s defensive skill keeps the team from getting burned while they’re on the ice. Mike Green has been good while paired with Dmitry Orlov–sometimes. Pairing each of them with a more defensively responsible mate may mean fewer goals against. Defensive lapses have been this team’s major problem throughout the season, and this move may start to address that issue.
  • Klesla knows the game well enough to make a difference, and with over 650 games of NHL experience, he may be able to be where he needs to be despite losing a step.
  • He has been up and down this season between the AHL and the NHL, and nobody claimed him off of waivers. We don’t know why he has struggled this season. Sometimes players struggle under a particular coaching regime, or get into a rut in a system and can’t get out of it (like Erat?).

We took his few months of salary off of Phoenix’s hands in much the same way that they took Erat’s (although that was longer and more expensive), but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute. Klesla is not a silver bullet, but he adds depth–maybe even quality depth–at a position of great need.

Jack Hillen

Speaking of that position of great need, the protracted absence of Jack Hillen is one of the reasons we have been so desperately thin on defense. Here’s a refresher:

  • Hillen is in his second season with the Caps, but we’ve only seen him play 25 games. He missed over half of last season with a shoulder injury, and then badly broke his leg in just the second game of this season.
  • He fills two areas of major need for us: 1) he is a left-handed defenseman, and 2) he is the only player on the team who looks like James Van Der Beek.
  • Jack may be a little bit rough in his first few games back. He was laid up for several months, and had to work himself back into professional athlete shape.
  • Coach Oates likes the way Hillen plays, and he had been earning increased responsibility toward the end of last season. He hasn’t been an NHL mainstay in his career, but appears to be a fit for this system.

Jack Hillen is probably going to compete with Klesla (and maybe Orlov, when he returns from suspension) for the spot next to Greenie on the second pairing. I think each of these guys has a shot, and that’s a whole lot better than where we’ve been for most of this season.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Now, finally, let’s talk about the Caps’ most talented and touted prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov. After we drafted him with our first round pick in 2010, Kuzya played in the KHL and made a huge impression at the juniors tournament. Just as Caps fans started to get excited, he signed a 2-year extension with his hometown team, Traktor Chelyabinsk. That contract technically lasts until late April, but his team was eliminated from playoff contention early Tuesday morning, and several weeks of tweets suggest that he’s on his way–or already here. (Many thanks to Russian Machine Never Breaks for their tireless coverage.)

  • He’s a left-shooting forward who may be able to play center, and he’s a dynamic goal scorer by nature.
  • Kuzya will turn 22 this year, so his entry-level contract will be for 2 years at a base salary of $900,000. (Check out capgeek to see how these deals work.)
  • Not coincidentally, the deals made today freed up almost exactly $900K.
  • Kuznetsov has had injury problems in the KHL that led to a serious decline in production.
  • He has never played on North American ice (it’s a little bit smaller than international and KHL ice, which can lead to tough transitions for European players).

I am excited to see Kuzya come over and play in a Caps’ sweater, but it may not be realistic to expect him to work magic in his first few months in the NHL. The sooner he signs a contract and starts playing in the NHL, or even the AHL, the sooner we can expect him to contribute as a top-6 forward. He will score us goals, lots of them, hopefully for years and years. And all of that may begin within days.

The New Washington Capitals

Let’s assume (as everyone has) that Penner will play on the top line w/ Ovi and Backstrom. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, and Erat have all spent some time in the 1LW spot this season, with none claiming the spot decisively. Laich looked great in limited action on the top line, but he can’t seem to stay in the lineup. Jojo racked up a ton of assists, but he is more a playmaker than a finisher, and the whole line’s production dried up when Ovi hit a bad run of puck luck. Erat, of course, is gone. I’m not sure what the lines will look like in practice on Wednesday morning, but here’s a guess:

Penner – Backstrom – Ovechkin
Fehr/Laich – Johansson – Brouwer
Chimera – Fehr/Laich – Ward
Beagle – Wellman – Wilson

Now add Mikhail Grabovski back into the mix at 2C (the fact that we didn’t drop him to LTIR to free up cap room today suggests that his ankle injury is not that serious), move Jojo to 2LW, and drop either Fehr or Laich to 4LW. Then throw in Kuznetsov–let’s say at 3C, to be nurtured by the big boys, and drop either Fehr or Laich to 4C. Suddenly, the whole lineup is full of guys who belong in the NHL, and each line is a threat to score.

The defense is still less sure, but this looks better than what we have seen lately:

Alzner – Carlson
Hillen – Green
Klesla – Carrick?/Erskine?

Wait 2 games, throw in Orlov on that bottom pairing, and the defense looks competent, too.

Last year at the trade deadline, a deal happened that looked bad at first. And then, after we gave it some time, it looked worse. This year, in addition to cleaning up some of last year’s mess, the deadline transactions have put us in a better position to make a run. On top of that, they open the door to a prospect for whom we’ve been waiting. This week’s Capitals are better than last week’s.