TORONTO – The Washington Capitals believe they might have just obtained Michal Kempny 2.0 — the kind of low-risk trade deadline depth addition that can help nudge a good team to greatness.
Winger Carl Hagelin’s position may be different, but the cost and scenario are strikingly similar.
As is the case Thursday, the 2018 Stanley Cup champions sat in second place in the Metropolitan Division at this time last winter when GM Brian MacLellan spent a third-round pick to rescue a speedy veteran from a lottery-bound team.
Much like Chicago’s Kempny in 2018, Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has kept a close eye on the 30-year-old Hagelin, who only scored once in his 22 games as a King, and believes the impending UFA’s assets will be of better use in Washington’s comparatively up-tempo system.
“This will allow him to use his speed a little bit more and be a factor that way, which we feel is really important in the Eastern Conference,” Reirden said.
“He adds speed, he adds forward depth, and the penalty killing is something that we’ve been trying to improve all year. Those are huge things we feel we’ve added with this player.”
The Capitals’ troublesome penalty kill ranks 22nd overall (78.4%), and Hagelin should begin practising with the first PK unit Friday in Buffalo.
Washington knows the two-time Cup champ well, having faced the Swede in each of its past six post-seasons. Hagelin’s playoff teams are a combined 5-1 against the Caps, his first three with the Rangers and the most recent three with Pittsburgh.
In a lovely twist of irony, the Penguins — currently on track to face Washington in Round 1 — are still picking up $250,000 of Hagelin’s $3.666-million salary.
The Kings agreed to share Hagelin’s remaining tab with Washington in order to facilitate the deal, while the Capitals will send L.A. an additional sixth-round draft choice if Washington wins two rounds in which Hagelin appears in at least half of the games.
Reirden, who oversaw the defence during the Capitals’ championship run last spring, said he always envisioned Kempny as a top-four D-man but purposely eased him in to his new environs as a bottom-pairing defender.
Expect a similar transition for Hagelin as he gets accustomed to his third system of the season.
In order to make room on the roster and within the salary cap for their new piece, the Capitals waived playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly, who went unclaimed Thursday despite his modest $1-million cap hit.
But this decision wasn’t just a matter of financial math.
Smith-Pelly, 26, arrived at training camp below the club’s conditioning standards, and his production over 54 games (four goals, four assists) was nowhere near his playoff impact (seven goals in 24 games).
“He has to get his game back to where it was last year at playoff time. He’s someone that’s going to have to find that down in [AHL] Hershey now and build his game back up,” Reirden said.
“That’s the challenge for him now, and that’s the message that was delivered to him.”
Smith-Pelly’s father, Wayne, was in the stands watching what perhaps was his son’s final practice with the Capitals Wednesday. It’s business, sure, but it’s personal too.
Championships bind athletes, so the whirlwind of moves jolted the room.
“That sucks,” said Tom Wilson, a fellow Toronto native and longtime friend.
“It’s part of the business that isn’t glamourous. It’s tough to see a teammate go. We have a pretty good life playing in the NHL, but on those days it’s tough to see a teammate leave. We’re wishing him the best.”
When captain Alex Ovechkin considers the trade deadline, he thinks more of what’s lost than gained.
“As a player, it’s always bad when one of your friends, one of your teammates is gone because something’s going to happen,” Ovechkin said.
“It’s tough. I always say, you never know what’s going to happen any second. Great friend, a great player. We’ve been through a lot together last year, and we wish him luck.”