- The Washington Times
Monday, April 12, 2021

When it comes to trades, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has never been afraid to bet big in pursuit of a championship. On Monday, MacLellan and the Capitals went all in, pushing practically every chip the team had into the pot.  

The Capitals traded winger Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a first-round and second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for winger Anthony Mantha — a blockbuster trade that signifies Washington is serious about another Stanley Cup. The team also acquired winger Michael Raffl from the Philadelphia Flyers for a fifth-round pick, adding forward depth. 

Mantha, the 20th overall pick from the 2013 draft, is an imposing presence at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. In Detroit, he was one of the Red Wings’ most reliable playmakers, posting back-to-back 40-point seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19. This season, Mantha led a rebuilding Detroit team with 11 goals and was second in points (21, 10 assists). 

The deal was one of the biggest in a busy day for the NHL. This year’s deadline saw a flurry of activity, which included a series of deals from Washington’s division rivals. The Boston Bruins acquired the most notable name of the afternoon — Buffalo’s Taylor Hall — and also added Curtis Lazar and Mike Reilly. Last week, the New York Islanders also made a splash by trading for Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Braydon Coburn. The Pittsburgh Penguins added forward Jeff Carter on Sunday. 

But Washington’s aggressiveness stood out. In his eight years as general manager, MacLellan has typically used the deadline as a way to upgrade the Capitals’ roster. He isn’t shy in taking big swings — like when Washington acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017, a move that ultimately did not pay off in a championship. 

Monday’s trade is now the latest example. MacLellan is essentially betting that Mantha can help the Capitals get over the top. Washington is 27-11-4 this season and is tied atop the East Division with the Islanders at 58 points. The Capitals are three years removed from winning the Cup in 2018, but this season, they’ve arguably played their best hockey since that run.

“We’ve really liked Anthony for quite a while now,” MacLellan said. “I like a lot of the attributes: The size. The skill. The shot. The scoring ability. He’s a really good skater for his size. It’s a player that we’ve liked and talked about in our room. We had a chance to acquire him, so we went out and got him.” 

Mantha didn’t come cheap. By including Vrana, Washington gave up a fast talented scorer who tallied 49 goals across the last two seasons. That alone was a significant piece — and then factor in the Capitals gave up multiple draft picks and a veteran, as well. 

Mantha, though, was deemed worth the cost. The 26-year-old’s contract is also favorable as he’s signed through 2023-24 at $5.7 million per season. That’s a hefty price, but Vrana is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason — meaning Washington cut ties with the 25-year-old before having to bid for him. 

MacLellan said Vrana’s contract situation factored into the team’s decision to move on. Beyond that, MacLellan added he saw the 2014 first-rounder become frustrated this season over his role. Despite a strong start, Vrana fell out of favor with coach Peter Laviolette — leading the winger to become a healthy scratch for two games last week. Laviolette said Vrana needed a bit of a reset, though MacLellan indicated Vrana was unhappy.

“I’m not saying he asked for a trade, I just see a frustrated player,” MacLellan said. “Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but the body language is he’s frustrated. We gave it some time to see if we could work it out and we moved on from it.”  

With Detroit, Mantha also went through inconsistent stretches. But MacLellan was optimistic that the 26-year-old would fit in, suggesting there would be less pressure on him to produce. “We are going to put him in offensive situations and he is a smart player that can play with smart players,” MacLellan said. 

In recent days, it became clear that Washington had potentially something in the works. The Capitals off-loaded defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler to the New Jersey Devils and demoted Panik to free up salary-cap space. 

Washington was in the market for forward depth as the team has dealt with injuries this season. The Capitals were without centers Lars Eller and Evgeny Kuznetsov for stretches due to injury and illness.

MacLellan said the Capitals see Raffl, listed as a left winger, as a versatile forward who can even play center. Raffl, a 32-year-old who spent his last seven years with the Flyers, appeared in 34 games for Philadelphia this season, tallying eight points (three goals, five assists). 

The Capitals, meanwhile, weren’t the only contender to load up. Even outside the division, the Colorado Avalanche reacquired winger Carl Soderberg and added goaltender Devan Dubnyk. The Florida Panthers traded for forward Sam Bennett. 

MacLellan said he didn’t feel pressure to make a move based on the activity around the league. But MacLellan said Monday’s moves made the Capitals better. 

“We’re going to have four good lines,” MacLellan said. “I think we’re going to have size, I think we’re going to have enough speed. I think we have good defensive depth. I think we’re set up well to compete in the playoffs, and I’m kind of excited to see what it looks like.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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