The Washington Capitals haven’t just fooled us once, not even twice, into thinking they’re legitimate alpha-dog Stanley Cup contenders. Since the Alex Ovechkin era started in 2005-06, this team has tantalized us with multiple Presidents’ Trophies, one of the two best players of this generation, some of the most exciting offensive teams of all-time and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltending. And no matter how much buzz the Caps could generate, no matter how much THIS year was the year, it never was. They still haven’t advanced past the second round of the Stanley cup playoffs since 1998, when they reached the final with an underdog group coached by Ron Wilson.
Kudos to GM Brian MacLellan, then, for taking a stand Monday night. He took a team already looking like the NHL’s best on paper, already loaded with talent, already on track for another Presidents’ Trophy, and augmented it with arguably the best player available on the 2016-17 trade market. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is now a Capital, acquired from the St. Louis Blues for the very reasonable price of a first-round pick in 2017, a conditional 2018 second-rounder and Zach Sanford, per ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. The Blues will also retain some salary in the deal, LeBrun reports. At a price that reasonable, renting Shattenkirk, a pending unrestricted free agent, is just fine. Re-signing him in the summer would be gravy (and likely not financially feasible for Washington).
The Caps have a top-three offense in the league. They allow easily the fewest goals per game. They rank second in save percentage. They boast the league’s No. 5 power play and No. 7 penalty kill. They still have Ovechkin playing high-end hockey even if his prime is over. They have arguably the best goaltender in the game right now in Braden Holtby. They call Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller their top three centers. Their top five defensemen are John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov
[Trade tracker 2017: Analysis on all the deals so far]
They are S-T-A-C-K-E-D. But MacLellan realized (a) they’ve never been stacked enough over the past decade and (b) that, despite such a talent-rich roster, they did lack mobility and true offensive creativity after Carlson on the back end. Shattenkirk is an absolute luxury, but that’s what the Caps evidently need to get over the playoff choke hump. Doing so, conquering the Pittsburgh Penguins, requires overkill.
Shattenkirk obviously enhances an already deadly power play, can play 20-plus minutes a game and increases the fleet-footedness on Washington’s blueline. But he’s also an underrated defensive player, a driver of possession with a career 5-on-5 Corsi mark of 53.3 percent and an average rating 2.2 percent higher than his teammates. He fits the modern definition of what it means to be effective in your own end. He is the anti Brooks Orpik, really. As a bonus, Shattenkirk blocks the New York Rangers, the Caps’ Metro Division competition, from landing him. The Blueshirts were one of the teams most commonly linked to him.
So will the Caps ultimately make every prognosticator look silly yet again and flop with an early playoff exit? Hey, it’s entirely possible. But they deserve credit for recognizing they’re in an elite contention window and for refusing to stand pat. They’re making the boldest mid-season move they’ve made during the Ovechkin era. The Capitals can also finally say they have good possession numbers, something that correlates directly with the past seven Stanley Cup champions. They rank third in the NHL in 5-on-5 score- zone- and venue-adjusted Corsi. The last five champions have ranked top-five in that category.
The Shattenkirk acquisition solidifies Washington as the NHL’s team to beat right now. No matter how skeptical we may feel about them, no matter how many times this team has fallen short of expectations, they’ve decided to do something different this time. We have to view them through a new lens.