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.
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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