It would be a tremendous understatement to say that the Washington Capitals have been aching for a Stanley Cup run.
Washington has made the playoffs in eight of the past nine years but hasn’t advanced to an Eastern Conference Final, despite assembling a heavily-armed roster that has dominated the regular season and collected two President’s Trophies during that span.
The Caps’ last trip to the Conference Final-and the Cup Final, for that matter-was in 1998, when they beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games and were then swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
To the organization’s credit, it has not blown up the core – though it did recently move in a different direction behind the bench and in the front office – and has, for the most part, stayed the course. Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Braden Holtby have remained the collective backbone of the Capitals.
In the interest of following suit and breaking their own bitter vendetta with unrealized expectations, the Capitals made a splash on Monday, days before the March 1 trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues. Washington also received goalie Pheonix Copley, while the Blues got back a 2017 first round pick, forwards Zach Sanford and Brad Malone and conditional picks in exchange for their star defenseman.
“We felt it was important to acquire another defenseman to strengthen and add depth to our blue line,” said Capitals GM Brian McLellan. “Kevin is a skilled, puck moving defenseman who we think will help our team at even strength and on the power play.”
Last week, McLellan indicated he wouldn’t make any splashes, and acquiring defenseman Tom Gilbert from the Kings for future considerations certainly spoke to that. However, now that Shattenkirk is aboard, the Caps’ plan to limit their activity to minor tweaks was either discarded or was only meant to be a rhetorical smokescreen. Either way, it’s sent a strong message to the players.
“This is an ‘all-in’ thing,” said Backstrom. “[McLellan] is really trying to make this team better so we can have better success in the playoffs.”
“This is a pretty big statement to make,” Carlson said. “It’s a commitment to this team, and we’ve gotta make the most out of it.”
Shattenkirk, 28, had been the subject of an innumerable amount of speculation over the past few seasons and is widely-considered to be the crème de la crème of the 2017 trade deadline watch list. The New Rochelle, NY-native has 42 points (11 goals, 31 assists) in 62 games this season, and has usurped that total in five of his past six campaigns. The only exception to that was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, in which he racked up 23 points in 48 games; a 39-point pace over 82 contests. He’s poised to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
He’s an upgrade to a Washington defense that’s already deep and versatile, joining Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik on a blueline that, like the rest of the team, is poised to do lots of damage. It also allows the Caps to have one of Shattenkirk, Carlson or Niskanen–all right-handed shots–on the ice at any given time.
“It’s a luxury we have that doesn’t come very often in this league,” said Holtby. “It’ll be fun to get that chemistry going right away. If we work hard to build that, we’ll be really good.”
Capitals head coach Barry Trotz also noted the added bonus to his defense corps that Shattenkirk represents.
“I like the fact that you’ve got some veteran players out there, but you also get some balance in the lefty-righty,” said Trotz. “I think that’s becoming more and more important in the league now, when you get that balance, that you’re not getting a guy on his wrong side. It’s hard to play on the off-side sometimes. Back in the day, when you could hook and hold, it was a big advantage, you could protect the inside and let the guy go wide and then latch on. You can’t do that anymore, so it’s a little more difficult that way.”
There’s a lot of familiarity on the Washington roster, as Shattenkirk played with T.J. Oshie in St. Louis and on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, where he also played with Carlson and Orpik. He’s also got some fond memories of D.C. where he won an NCAA title with Boston University at Verizon Center in 2009.
He admits, however, it will take time to get fully-acclimated.
“There’s a lot of new terminology, a lot of new systems, and I don’t think they’re expecting me to get it all done in 12 hours,” he said. “It’s gonna be a process, it’s gonna be a couple of games for me to figure this out, but already I’ve noticed how great these guys are in the locker room and how helpful they are. I’m looking forward to being able to bounce some ideas off some guys and make sure that I can get this down as quickly as possible.”
The optics are good, but the Capitals know that nothing is ensured. In fact, they know that better than most teams, having made a plethora of trade deadline deals in years past, only to come up short.
“We have an even better team than we did last year, but it’s how we respond to it,” said veteran forward Justin Williams. “You have to embrace the pressure on yourself because, after this, we’ve still gotta go out and play. It’s not just on paper what one of the best teams is. It’s how we come together, it’s how we play and it’s how we respond to it.”
Shattenkirk embraced the challenge on Tuesday night, jumping onto the team’s top power play unit against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and there was a noticeable excitement at the chance to set up Ovechkin’s patented one-timers.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve had a couple of good weapons in St. Louis for a long time, but [Ovechkin] is one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. I’ve just gotta learn how to make that pass and I think I’ll be alright.”
The Capitals know they have a talented cast, but they also know that there are several teams within the Metropolitan Division that can make the same claim. If they’re going to clear the field, they’ll need to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, something they aim to do with the Shattenkirk trade.
“You look at the rest of the teams in our division, they’re deep and they’re good,” said Trotz. “Everybody’s trying to tweak their roster to make it better. The Rangers just made a deal to make them deeper and better [acquiring defenseman Brendan Smith from Detroit)], so everybody’s doing it. When you get into these situations when you’re matching up with deep teams like the Rangers and Pittsburgh and Columbus, and those types of teams just in your own division, you’re gonna need every bullet in your arsenal.”
As for Shattenkirk, he’s more than happy to be one of those bullets, though he knows he’s not the only one in the magazine.
“They didn’t bring me in to save anything; they’re the best team in the NHL right now. I just have to make sure that I’m doing what I do best for our hockey team.”