Let’s turn back the clock to April 12, 2021. Around 3:30 p.m. ET, the Washington Capitals opened the flood doors for a major blockbuster. Washington acquired Anthony Mantha from Detroit for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-rounder and 2022 second-rounder.
The move was a major gamble; MacLellan gave a locker-room and fan favorite in Vrana, and two high draft picks. Still, it was a surefire way to shed cap space and add a promising top-6 forward. So, MacLellan chose to roll the dice and bolster the top-6 as the team sought a deep postseason run.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to shake the team up… things lined up, and this is what we ended up doing,” MacLellan ultimately said of the move, adding, “[Mantha’s] a player we’ve liked and talked about a lot in our room, and we had a chance to acquire him, so we went out and got him.”
Looking back, it’s still an ongoing debate as to whether or not the Capitals made the right move. Just take a look at this recent poll from yours truly.
#ALLCAPS Twitter: If you could play the role of GM and go back in time, would you still go through with the Mantha-Vrana trade?
— Sammi Silber (@sammisilber) June 15, 2021
However, if we did have the power to time travel and went back to the trade deadline, the team would — and should — make this deal again. Here’s why:
Mantha is a player who fits well with Washington’s identity. The 26-year-old has a heavy shot and continues to improve his skating and two-way play over time. His 6-foot-5 frame serves him well as he can use his size and reach to win puck battles.
“I’ve played with him a long time. He’s got, like, the complete package going on,” Nick Jensen, who also played with Mantha in Motor City, said. “Most people think big, strong, it’s more of a physical game, but you can’t underestimate the amount of skill he has.”
He closed out the regular season with eight points in 14 games with Washington, and he shifted into another gear for the playoffs. He went hard to the net, threw his weight around, and skated hard to generate scoring chances. Mantha also didn’t shy away from taking matters into his own hands and often called his own number.
He finished second on the team in shots (15) and led with a whopping 88 total shot attempts through five games against Boston.
The Capitals need more of that physical, net-front play to return to their 2018 form and make a deep run, especially when it comes to secondary scoring.
No doubt, it is hard to ignore Vrana’s success with Detroit. Following the trade to Detroit, Vrana dazzled with highlight-reel plays, tape-to-tape passing, and lethal scoring ability. His speed and confidence served him well, and he scored eight goals and 11 points in his final 11 games with Detroit.
Vrana’s success elsewhere doesn’t change the reality of the Washington situation, though.
The cap situation was getting too close for comfort, and Vrana, a pending RFA, was due a major pay raise. Beyond Vrana’s paycheck, Panik’s $2.75 million cap hit over the next three seasons further complicated the cap math. The Capitals dumped both contracts and cleared up some space, which has recently become like cigarettes in prison.
And the Capitals get cost-certainty with Anthony Mantha, whose deal carries a $5.7 million AAV through 2024.
Don’t overlook the tension, which appeared to rise between Vrana and the Capitals organization. He wanted more ice time, but coaches saw inconsistency in his play. He struggled to adjust to Peter Laviolette‘s systems.
Laviolette ultimately cut the forward’s ice time and benched him amid a 13-game goal drought near the end of his tenure in D.C.
MacLellan clarified that the Czech forward did not request a trade or openly express a desire to leave. However, he saw a “frustrated” player and couldn’t continue to ignore the situation.
“He’s a good young player. We won a Cup, and he was a part of it. He’s a nice person. Highly skilled, great speed. Part of it was Jakub’s a little frustrated with where he’s at here within the organization,” MacLellan had said following the deal. “Probably wants a little more ice time, little more responsibility. There was a tug and war between the coaching staff and the way he was playing. I think we had a frustrated player, so we tried to move on from that.”
In regards to the draft, Washington finds itself without a first-rounder. They originally did not have a third-rounder but picked one up in the Jonas Siegenthaler trade with New Jersey. Missing out on the first round does hurt, but it shouldn’t be too big a concern. They also gave up a seventh-rounder when they traded it to Pittsburgh for a 2020 seventh-rounder and selected Oskar Magnusson.
The Capitals have built tremendous depth over time and have several up-in-comers in Hershey, including 2019 first-rounder Connor McMichael and blueliner Martin Fehervary. They also just made a handful of depth re-signings with Shane Gersich, Garrett Pilon, Bobby Nardella, and Michael Sgarbossa.
So, at the end of the day, Washington made the right move and the logical one. Mantha’s still a young player who has yet to hit his prime, and in many ways, so is Vrana. But the truth is that sometimes, a change of scenery just works, and that appears to be the case here.
Mantha’s the type of player who brings several different skill sets to the table, and there’s little doubt he’ll play a key role in the Washington Capitals’ next chapters.