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Breaking down the Johansson trade: MacLellan explains why a top-six player netted such a low return

Breaking down the Johansson trade: MacLellan explains why a top-six player netted such a low return

Marcus Johansson is a top-six forward who set career highs with 24 goals and 58 points last season. He is only 26 years old and over the past four seasons averaged over 48 points. What was he worth on the trade market? Apparently only a second and a third round draft pick.

The Johansson trade has come under some scrutiny for its return and it’s not hard to understand why.

Why was the team only able to get a second and a third round pick for him? Why not trade him earlier in the offseason when the team could get a higher return? If he was expendable, why not expose him in the expansion draft or offer him to Vegas in exchange for staying away from Nate Schmidt?

All of these are fair questions which general manager Brian MacLellan tried to explain.

RELATED: Caps re-sign Grubauer to one-year deal

When the eight-year, $62.4 million deal for Evgeny Kuznetsov was announced on Sunday, a trade became unavoidable. The team had to shed salary and MacLellan’s options were limited.

“You have to find a team that has a roster spot, cap spot and draft picks and we had contacted a few of the teams that were in that situation,” MacLellan said to reporters in a conference call Monday. “We weren't in the ability or in the area where we could have the ability to take a player back for trading Marcus so we tried to do the best we could with the picks that were presented to us.”

Washington needed to shed salary so they could not take a player in return. That means they had to find a trade partner with draft picks to spare and enough cap space to add Johansson without sending a player back to Washington. Already, that limited the team’s options.

But a second and a third round pick? That’s hard to swallow considering the trade frenzy that happened in June around the expansion draft and entry draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins had to give up a first round pick and a prospect for enforcer Ryan Reaves – a player whose career high is 13 points – and a second rounder from St. Louis.

The problem ultimately was leverage. The Caps had none. Everyone knows the Caps had a salary crunch this offseason, including the other teams in the NHL. No one was going to do Washington any favors. The difference between the Reaves and Johansson situation is that Pittsburgh wanted an enforcer. They wanted Reaves. That gave the upper hand to St. Louis. Washington needed to shed salary so they had to take the best deal available from the limited number of teams that could afford to add his nearly $4.6 million cap hit.

Teams are allowed to go up to 10-percent over the salary cap until the season starts so perhaps MacLellan could have waited for a better deal, but how much better would that deal have gotten? The Caps are the team with the need here. They had to shed salary. To think their leverage would somehow go up as the deadline to get under the cap drew nearer is wishful thinking.

If the Caps had to get rid of Johansson, then why not do it earlier in the summer? There certainly would have been more of a market for a player like Johansson. They even could have exposed him to Vegas or perhaps worked out a deal to send him to the Golden Knights in order to keep Schmidt, a player whose loss has seemingly thrown Washington’s offseason into disarray.

The reason MacLellan did not seek to move Johansson, as he explains, is because he did not know he would need to.

“[Johansson] was making the money that we needed to shed in order to sign Kuznetsov,” MacLellan said. “I think the decision at the end was do we let Kuznetsov go off to Russia and become a UFA in two years or do we trade Marcus?”

The biggest priority for MacLellan heading into the offseason was to re-sign the team’s restricted free agents. The coast of signing those players as well as the re-signing of T.J. Oshie seems to have caught MacLellan off guard, Kuznetsov’s especially. The Johansson move did not happen when he would have yielded the highest return because that option was not on the table for MacLellan until the salary cap necessitated it.

Should he have anticipated the high price tag for players like Kuznetsov and Oshie? Should he have anticipated the team needing to tighten the belt more this summer and made a proactive move to shed salary? Those are fair questions.

MORE CAPITALS: Why MacLellan felt he had no leverage with Kuznetsov

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Did Barry Trotz show us what his fourth line will be to start the season?

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Did Barry Trotz show us what his fourth line will be to start the season?

Barry Trotz likes to play his cards close to the vest. With roster battles and lineup holes surrounding the team, there are plenty of questions for the Caps that need answering this preseason. If you look at how Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes ended, however, he may have given us at least one answer.

At the start of the game, Jay Beagle centered a line with Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simpson on his wings. By the end of the game, Nathan Walker was playing on the left with Beagle at center and Smith-Pelly on the right.

"Walker was giving us some energy, he was giving us some speed and I just made that flip," Trotz told reporters after the game. "I just thought Walks was starting to make things happen. His speed was noticeable, his will on the puck if you will was really good. I thought that'd be a good fit. I just moved him over there and I thought he had an effect on the game."

Could that have been a preview of the team's fourth line?

RELATED: CHIASSON, WALKER MAKE THEIR CASE TO MAKE THE TEAM

Walker turned in another tremendous performance showing great energy, speed and grit. Despite being 5-foot-8, he still remains a feisty player who could be found at the center of every scrum. He exchanged hits and jabs with the 6-foot-3 Klas Dahlbeck multiple times throughout the game and even drew a penalty on the Carolina defenseman as he drove the net after managing to slip away from a hit along the boards.

"He's one of those hard guys to play against because ... they're on you all the time," Trotz said. "When you can affect the opposition and take them out of their game because the way you play, then you're pretty effective."

That brings us back to the lines. The Caps have not one, but two openings on the fourth line to play alongside Beagle. The fact that Trotz put Walker and Smith-Pelly on that line, two players fighting for a spot in the lineup, could be a preview of what the fourth line may ultimately look like to start the season.

That would be just fine with Beagle.

"It's fun to play with a guy who brings that much energy," Beagle said of Walker. "He's always had that energy and he's always been a little guy who grinds it out and isn't afraid to get in there and get in the corners and wins a lot of battles. He's awesome to play with. He's a lot of fun."

At this point, given how he has played in his two preseason games, it is hard to see how Walker does not make the roster. His energy and style are a perfect fit for what the Caps need on their fourth line. He would be an excellent compliment to Beagle and that has not escaped Trotz's notice.

"I think they might enjoy playing together, but they're effective together," Trotz said. "They get on the puck, they work you over and they tire you out. I'll tell you that."

With other players such as Alex Chiasson, Riley Barber and Anthony Peluso still vying to make the team, it is still too early to tell if this is definitively what the fourth line will look like, but the trio certainly made their case.

MORE CAPITALS: TOM WILSON SUSPENDED 2 PRESEASON GAMES

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Chiasson, Walker make their case for the roster

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Chiasson, Walker make their case for the roster

The Caps dropped another preseason game on home ice as they fell to the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. Here is who stood out for Washington.

Thumbs up

Alex Chiasson: Chiasson, who is playing this preseason on a PTO, was in good shape before this game, but he may sealed the deal on getting a contract with his first period goal. While it did come on the power play and he is not likely to see much time with the extra man this season, the fact that he was playing on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov in the first place should tell you something. With another solid performance on Saturday, it looks like Chiasson will be in Washington for the long haul.

Nathan Walker: This kid is not afraid of anything. Not only will he fight for the puck in all the dirty areas, he is not afraid to mix things up with anyone. In the second period, he caught got in a scrum exchanging jabs with defenseman Klas Dahlbeck. Dahlbeck is 6-foot-3. Walker is 5-foot-8. Later in the period, Dahlbeck rid him into the boards, but Walker would not give up on the play and eventually broke free, drawing a penalty from Dahlbeck as he fought for room in front of the net. He looked like everything a team would want in a fourth line, energy player and I cannot see at this point how he does not make the Caps roster.

Jakub Vrana: Good speed, good eyes and he added an assist on Chiasson's goal. Vrana has clearly established himself as the best player not already on the Caps' roster. Whatever questions there may be surrounding Vrana, there should be none about his talent on the ice. He's got it.

Thumbs down

Riley Barber: Like Chiasson and Walker, Barber was also competing for a spot on the roster, only no one seemingly told him that because he was invisible. Actually, scratch that, he did get called for a slash early in the first period. Let's not overstate it, it was not as if Barber was horrible, but when his teammates were making their case to make the team, Barber was nowhere to be found. With another round of cuts looming, it would not be surprising to see him headed to Hershey very soon.