A win-now team like Washington can’t soldier on missing four of its top six blueliners from last spring. It’s time to mortgage some futures for help.
The highlight reels haven’t been kind to Madison Bowey through his first two NHL games. You’ve probably seen the Jakub Voracek dangle from Bowey Game No. 1, in which Voracek twisted him around like a balloon animal before setting up Wayne Simmonds for an easy Flyers goal. With Bowey on the ice in that game, the Capitals allowed more than twice as many even-strength shot attempts as they generated.
Game No. 2 was a bit better for Bowey, paired with Brooks Orpik instead of Dmitry Orlov, but there were still a few standout mistakes – namely, a bad Bowey pinch that led to a breakway for the Leafs’ Nazem Kadri.
The point here isn’t to pick on Bowey. He’s long been one of the Capitals’ best couple defense prospects. He’s a right-handed shot with good size and physicality. There’s good reason to get excited about him. The point is Bowey was shoehorned into a top-four role in Tuesday’s defeat to the Maple Leafs, and his inexperienced showed at times. That’s what happens when a contending team loses Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner to free agency, Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft and Matt Niskanen to injury. Guys get forced into responsibility they may or may not be ready for. It’s a good thing that Bowey, 22, finally gets an extended look in the NHL, but ideally coach Barry Trotz would be insulating him. Instead, Bowey has to deliver, as does fellow rookie Christian Djoos. In the ideal scenario, those two and journeyman Taylor Chorney would push each other competing for one spot on a deep blueline, with the winner of the duel emerging as the most confident, ready-to-contribute player.
Niskanen, the Caps’ best shutdown defenseman, has been placed on long-term injured reserve with an upper body injury. Per LTIR rules, the best-case scenario has him missing 10 games or 24 days. The Caps have lost both games since Niskanen exited the lineup. This D-corps is absolutely decimated. There’s a ton of pressure on Orlov and John Carlson to be perfect.
So how about GM Brian MacLellan dons his trading hat? He’s even hinted already to the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan that it’s time. It’s not too early, especially considering this team’s long-term outlook. The Capitals are very much a win-now squad, with most of their best players between 28 and 32 years old. Alex Ovechkin has exploded for nine goals in his first seven games, so if we’re truly seeing a resurgent season from No. 8, Washington can’t waste it. The Caps also don’t have an elite farm system right now, the product of consistently finishing high in the standings and rarely picking high in the draft. Washington’s last top-10 pick was Alzner in 2007. That arguably makes their prospect pool somewhat expendable. It’s acceptable to mortgage away some B-plus pieces in the name of securing immediate help. And the Caps do also have an A-plus piece in Ilya Samsonov, the best goaltending prospect in hockey. He’s still playing in the KHL and has no chance to pass Braden Holtby on the depth chart once he does come to North America, so Samsonov is worth far more to MacLellan as a trading chip. Don’t get too spooked by the Filip Forsberg debacle, Caps fans. It was one of the worst trades in NHL history, but it was an anomaly. Samsonov would likely yield the Caps something that really helps them. It wouldn’t be Martin Erat 2.0.
And who might that helpful piece be? The natural thought is a Mike Green reunion, as he’s a pending UFA in Detroit, but the Red Wings are playing too well so far to adopt a seller’s mentality. Instead, consider these options:
1. Chris Tanev. He’s constantly the subject of trade rumors, and his simple, well-rounded game actually resembles Niskanen’s a lot. Acquiring Tanev would be like cloning Niskanen, and the Canucks might be receptive to the idea considering they’re in a stone-cold rebuild at the moment.
2. Anyone from the Vegas Golden Knights. We know George McPhee is shopping pretty much all his veteran defensemen. Might the Caps swing a deal to bring Schmidt back? The cheaper pieces to acquire would be the likes of Luca Sbisa, but it’s debatable if D-men of that caliber would be upgrades over what Washington has already.
3. Niklas Hjalmarsson. Sorry. I realize it’s offensively early to imply the Arizona Coyotes packing it in. But, hey, Hjalmarsson has one year left on his contract after this one, making him a deluxe rental for a contending team. What if, say, the Coyotes end up losing nine of their first 10 games and MacLellan approaches Coyotes GM John Chayka with an offer built around Samsonov? You have to consider that if you’re Chayka, don’t you? And an experienced, gritty shot blocker like Hjalmarsson would seriously stabilize the Caps’ blueline.