Winning a Stanley Cup championship is a glorious achievement for an NHL team, as the Caps found out first hand just over a year ago. Perhaps the only downside of winning a championship is seeing that group of players gradually dismantled over the ensuing years, but it's the nature of sport and the business of the game.
A day after their reign as champs ended, the Caps bade farewell to another key cog from their 2018 Cup championship club when they dealt defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for blueliner Radko Gudas. Philadelphia is retaining 30 percent of Gudas' contract, which expires at the close of the 2019-20 season. Niskanen has two years remaining on as seven-year pact he inked with Washington as a free agent on July 1, 2014.
For the Caps, the main feature of this trade is the clearing of salary cap space for each of the next two seasons. That's important for Washington as it endeavors to sign restricted free agents Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky to new deals while also trying to retain unrestricted free agent wingers Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin, Dmitrij Jaskin and/or Devante Smith-Pelly this summer. It's also important for next summer, when Caps stalwarts Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby can become unrestricted free agents.
Gudas' deal carries a cap hit of $3.35 million, of which Washington will responsible for $2.345 million. That represents a salary cap savings of $3.405 million for the Caps in 2019-20, and saves them the entirety of Niskanen's $5.75 million annual hit against the cap in 2020-21.
Niskanen averaged 21:56 per night in ice time for the Caps last season, the lowest figure of his five seasons in the District. He has skated an average of 20 or more minutes per game in each of the last seven seasons. The 32-year-old native of Virginia, MN has also racked up 25 or more points in each of the last six seasons. He led Washington defensemen with an average of 2:46 in shorthanded ice time per game.
Like Niskanen, the 29-year-old Gudas is a right-handed blueliner. A native of Prague, Gudas has skated in 416 NHL games for Tampa Bay and Philadelphia over the course of his seven-year NHL career to date. He was originally Tampa Bay's third-round choice (66th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft. A rugged defenseman who plays with an edge, Gudas gives the Caps a blueliner with some bite to his game in the event that 38-year-old Brooks Orpik opts for retirement this summer.
Gudas skated 17:53 per night last season with the Flyers, and he figures to slot in on the right side of Washington's third pairing, behind John Carlson and Nick Jensen. Gudas finished last season with four goals and 20 points in 77 games; he has 24 goals and 105 points over the course of his career in the league.
The twin additions of ex-Penguins Niskanen and Orpik on July 1, 2014 helped transform the Caps from a team that missed the playoffs in 2013-14 to one that won the Cup just under four years later. With Niskanen and Orpik in the Caps' recast top four, Washington went from 21st in the NHL in goals against to seventh in '14-15. Over the last five seasons, no Washington defenseman skated in more regular season games (390) than Niskanen, and only one (Carlson, by just 15 minutes) has logged more aggregate ice time. Niskanen played in all 24 playoff games for the Caps as they won the Cup last spring, averaging 25:23 per game and contributing a goal and nine points to the cause.
Partnered with Karl Alzner upon his arrival in the District in 2014, Niskanen was a rock for the Caps on the right side for five seasons, later partnering with Dmitry Orlov. The Niskanen-Orlov duo had an up-and-down season in 2018-19, but finished the regular season on a strong note. Niskanen instantly becomes the dean of the Philadelphia blueline in terms of NHL experience.
Niskanen was a first-round pick (28th overall) of the Dallas Stars in the 2005 NHL draft, and he broke in with the Stars in 2007-08. He has played 881 games in 13 seasons in the league, totaling 64 goals and 323 points. He will soon own the distinction of playing for Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia, a trio of Metropolitan Division teams with no love lost among them.