For general managers in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, this year’s trade deadline represents quite a dilemma. The situation on that side of the league seems virtually designed to inspire half-measures, with no clear leaders and more than half a dozen teams with a legitimate shot at a run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Perhaps that’s why Brian MacLellan, the rookie general manager of the Washington Capitals, is buying up rental players in such a seemingly halfhearted manner.
Before we look at what he and his staff have done, we should consider his team’s situation. As of this writing, there are seven teams in the East separated by only 11 points. Goal differential tells a similar story. The Rangers and the Lightning are the best teams in the East at plus-40, Detroit sits seventh at plus-21 and Washington is one of four other teams in the middle.
Any of these teams could plausibly beat any of the other six in a seven-game series, and that’s before we get to the Boston Bruins, who have struggled this year but look likely to claim the No. 8 spot and shouldn’t be regarded as a soft touch by any of their opponents.
When MacLellan looks into the future, it has to be easy to imagine the Capitals knocking off comparable team after comparable team and advancing to the finals. As a legitimate contender in the East, there’s significant motive to buy up quality players for a long run.
At the same time, it’s awfully easy to imagine Washington going one-and-done in the postseason. If that happens, all those picks and prospects spent on rental players will be entirely wasted.
MacLellan has so far opted to take a middle road, spending second-tier assets in exchange for second-tier names. In a pair of weekend moves now officially confirmed by NHL.com, the Capitals made modest upgrades up front and on defence without sacrificing high-end futures:
- Feb. 28: Washington acquired defenceman Tim Gleason from Carolina in exchange for defenceman Jack Hillen and a 2015 fourth-round draft pick.
- Mar. 1: Washington acquired winger Curtis Glencross from Calgary in exchange for a 2015 second-round draft pick and a 2015 third-round draft pick
When we turn to Pro Sports Transactions to see which picks the Capitals had to work with, we find that Washington had previously acquired a third-round pick from Buffalo and a fourth-round pick from Arizona.
As it stands right now, the team will enter the 2015 draft with an improved third-round selection (ESPN’s Craig Custance reports that Washington dealt its own third-rounder to Calgary, keeping the higher Sabres pick) and no second-round choice, which is a pretty small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things.
The problem is that the potential rewards are seen as pretty small, too, as has been noted by several observers who follow Washington closely:
Gleason has spent most of the year playing third-pairing even-strength minutes for a bad Carolina team, as well as contributing to the penalty kill. He replaces Hillen, who played fewer minutes at evens for a better Caps team and wasn’t on the penalty kill.
Gleason is bigger, meaner and has a significant edge in experience, but on balance, this is just Washington replacing one No. 6/7 defenceman with a better No. 6 defenceman; this is tinkering on the margins, not dramatically improving the team.
Glencross is a more significant addition, as he's easily a top-nine forward who plays a physical brand of hockey and has long had solid underlying numbers.
He was a favourite of Capitals analytics consultant Tim Barnes back when Barnes was making his name as a stats blogger, and while he has declined a little over the years, he’s still outperforming his team’s Corsi average despite playing tough opposition and starting far more than his share of shifts in the defensive zone.
The primary question with Glencross is scoring. He has just 28 points on the season and just two in 14 games since January 1. Offensively, he is at best a complementary player, but with Washington currently ranked eighth overall in NHL scoring and with an obvious slot on Alex Ovechkin’s line open for the taking, that is perhaps all he needs to be.
The Glencross deal is a good one, and it's an easy move to underrate.
Is it enough? That’s debatable, but there are a few things worth noting. Washington opted for substance over style with the Glencross acquisition. Gleason is decidedly less impressive, but the Capitals’ top five on defence are pretty close to set in stone anyway, so it’s arguable whether they really should have been expected to do anything more.
Normally, I’m very much in favour of contending teams being aggressive at the deadline, and in MacLellan’s shoes, I’d be tempted to add another forward to bolster the group. But for the most part, I think he’s managed to have his cake and eat it too, taking a low-cost approach to the deadline while adding players who are good fits for Washington’s needs.
It is an approach that is not sexy and is not splashy, but it’s also awfully hard to fault.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.