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Impactful Moves

As the Capitals approach the trade deadline, a look at some of the highlights during Brian MacLellan's tenure as general manager

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 /

Brian MacLellan is still a few months shy of his fifth anniversary as Capitals general manager, but he's already the fourth longest-tenured GM in the Eastern Conference.

The longtime Capitals executive was named the sixth GM in franchise history in May 2014 and MacLellan immediately went to work in reconstructing the roster in his vision. Through free agency, trades and the draft, MacLellan spent the next four years adding the appropriate pieces to push the Capitals to heights never before reached.

With NHL trade deadline coming up on Feb.25, below are some of the most impactful moves MacLellan has made in his five seasons as Capitals GM (listed in chronological order).


With the first pick in his first draft as GM, MacLellan went off the board and selected forward Jakub Vrana 13th overall. Vrana was projected to go in the mid-20s, but MacLellan and the Capitals scouting staff saw a higher ceiling.

"Our scouts did a great job," MacLellan recalled last month. "Ross Mahoney and Steve Bowman, there's a high level of trust. They're not always going with the crowd on how their list is. They sometimes have guys that are a little higher than the normal crew would have them and it's worked out for us."

MacLellan recently revealed that the Capitals were debating over two forwards when their pick came up at No.13. While MacLellan wouldn't say who the other prospect was, it's safe to say that Vrana has developed just fine in Washington.

After working his way up the depth chart last postseason, Vrana, 22, is on pace for a 20-goal, 40-point campaign this season.

"Since we drafted him, he's been a big priority," MacLellan said. "He's an offensive skilled guy that we're just starting to see what he can do in the NHL. We want him around for a long time."


When MacLellan interviewed for the vacant GM position in 2014, he told owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick that solidifying the Capitals blueline would be his top priority. The Capitals dressed a League-high 14 defensemen in 2013-14.

"We needed to shore up our defense," MacLellan said, "give us some depth, give us some experience, and give us some leadership."

That's why MacLellan attacked the first day of free agency with the high-profile signings of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik for a combined $67.75 million.

"There are defining moments for a GM," said goaltender Braden Holtby, "and you have to put things on the line and take risks. Signing those two, basically right after he got hired, sent a clear message through our team that he was serious and the he knew what we needed and he knew what the players wanted."

The signings also represented a new way of doing business in Washington, where, up until then, the biggest free agent defenseman signing during the Alex Ovechkin era was a two-year $7 million for a 37-year-old Roman Hamrlik in 2011.

"Bringing those two in changed the whole dynamic of our team," said Holtby. "For a first-time GM, that was a bold move and one that changed the shape of our team and the direction that we were going."


Although the Capitals came within a game of reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2015, the team lacked stability with the top-line right wing position. During the 2014-15 season, nine different players skated alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the No.1 line. At season's end, MacLellan acknowledged that he was in the market for a top-line winger to put an end to the constant rotation.

"It's on the shopping list," he said in May 2015. "I think it would be a priority for us to find a guy that can play there. I don't know that the [free agent] market will provide that for us, so we'll see what happens in the trade market. It is a priority. You'd like more stability."

Just as MacLellan predicted, the stability came via trade. On July 2, 2015, the Capitals acquired T.J. Oshie in a deal with the St. Louis Blues. Oshie would quickly establish himself as a fixture in Washington's top six and on the No.1 power play. He also proved to be a terrific complimentary piece to Ovechkin and Backstrom as he set career highs across the board in 2016-17 with 33 goals and 56 points.

In June 2017, Oshie signed an eight-year extension to remain with the Capitals long-term. Twelve months later, he was a Stanley Cup champion.


For years, it seemed, the Capitals went through centermen like reporters go through notebooks. While Nicklas Backstrom emerged as the long-term No.1, a revolving door of pivots made their way to D.C. as the Capitals tried to solidify their depth chart at one of the game's most critical positions.

From free agents Brendan Morrison, Mikhail Grabovski and Mike Richards to trade acquisitions Eric Belanger, Jason Arnott and Mike Ribeiro, center depth had frequently topped the Capitals' shopping list.

Adding a center was again a priority in June 2016, when MacLellan sent a pair of second-round draft picks to the Montreal Canadiens for Lars Eller.

The match has worked tremendously well in Washington with Eller emerging as a reliable third-line center while helping round out a formidable depth chart which also includes Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Eller reached personal bests in 2017-18 with 18 goals and 38 points in 81 regular-season games. Along the way, he was rewarded with a five-year contract extension last February. Eller then scored some of the biggest goals in Capitals playoff history including the eventual series-clinching goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against Vegas.


Few could have predicted it at the time, but MacLellan's acquisition of defenseman Michal Kempny last February may go down as one of the shrewdest trade deadline deals in NHL history. 

A year removed from acquiring a headliner in Kevin Shattenkirk before the 2017 trade deadline, the Capitals went with a more modest approach last season, sending a conditional third-round pick to Chicago for a depth defenseman in Kempny.

While Kempny had shuffled in and out of the Blackhawks lineup, the Capitals saw elements in his game they liked and he became their No.1 target before the deadline. The move worked wonders both for Kempny personally and for the Capitals as a whole as he emerged as a key cog on the backend during the Stanley Cup run.

"It was a good risk for us with that draft pick," said head coach Todd Reirden. "Certainly, it turned out to be a real defining trade in our success of winning the Cup last year."

Paired primarily with John Carlson, Kempny skated in all 24 postseason games last spring and provided stability to the defensive tandems. He then signed a four-year extension to remain in Washington through 2022.

HONORABLE MENTION: MacLellan has also successfully identified a number of castoffs from other organizations that proceeded to revive their careers in Washington. Brett Connolly, Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly are all examples.

With the Capitals up against the salary cap in 2017, MacLellan landed a tremendous bargain when he signed Smith-Pelly to a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum of $650,000. Smith-Pelly signed with Washington shortly after having his contract bought out by New Jersey. Smith-Pelly would emerge as an unsung hero in the postseason with seven goals in 24 games, including three goals in the Cup Final.

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