It wasn’t the most exciting trade deadline of all time, but a surprise deal late in the day caught a lot of people off guard. The Washington Capitals acquired Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a first-round pick in 2021, and a second-round pick in 2022.
At first glance, it looks like the Wings made out incredibly well here, but there are a few reasons why this is a fairly balanced deal -- on paper at least. The Capitals get cost certainty with Mantha, who has three years left on a contract that pays him $5.7 million annually. Washington also sheds Panik’s contract, which has another two years left at $2.75 million per. Vrana is a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights who will be in line for a raise from his current $3.35 million AAV deal. Washington gets cost certainty from a player they have coveted in Mantha. The Wings continue to build for the future.
Simply, the trade likely boils down to pending free agent Vrana and a first for the cost certainty of Mantha. A second-round pick to take on the Panik contract.
The centrepieces of this deal, Vrana and Mantha are both promising, young goal-scorers who have both fallen out of favour, to varying degrees, with their respective coaches this season. Vrana was healthy scratched for a pair of games earlier this month, while Mantha was healthy scratched in early February. Both players now have a chance to prove to new teams that they can be significant contributors on a nightly basis.
So, let’s take a look at what each player brings to his new team, where he fits, and what each fanbase can expect.
The 6-foot-5, 234-pound forward adds size to one of the biggest teams in the league. Mantha has a couple of 20-plus goal seasons under his belt and has scored 27 goals in 85 games over the past two seasons. While not overly physical, Mantha uses his size, strength, and skating ability to create scoring chances off the rush at a top-30 rate. Mantha’s 31 rush scoring chances ranks 29th this season, the same amount as fellow power forwards Josh Anderson and Matthew Tkachuk.
Mantha played predominantly with Dylan Larkin and Robby Fabbri this season and the line put up an expected goal rate of 52.3 per cent, best of any Red Wings line with at least 75 minutes at even-strength. All three players are left shots and Mantha has played both wings so there is a degree of versatility that he will bring to the Capitals' forward group in terms of where he might slot in. Mantha lined up at left-wing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie at Capitals practice Tuesday morning.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 13, 2021
On the power play, Mantha had been a fixture at the top of the right face-off circle for the Red Wings. The 26-year-old has a booming one-timer and the idea of him and Alex Ovechkin on opposite wings on the Caps power play is one that should terrify penalty killers in the East Division. Last season, Mantha ranked 15th among all forwards in power play one-timers with 41.
This season, Mantha ranks 26th in one-timer shot attempts with 20. Half of Mantha’s power play goals over the past two seasons have come off one-timers from the right circle.
That said, Caps GM Brian MacLellan said they may use Mantha’s size around the net on the power play in a goal-line/net-front role. Either way, Mantha adds another dimension to a power play that ranks fourth in the league, clicking at over 25 per cent.
The Caps' top-six forward group was already big, fast, and skilled and Mantha brings all of those elements to his new team.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season, only 12 players have scored more goals at even-strength than Jakub Vrana -- 117 forwards have played more even-strength minutes. Vrana’s 58 even-strength goals in the past three seasons are the same amount as Brad Marchand and more than players like Mark Scheifele and Brayden Point. A question that Capitals fans have long wondered -- "how many goals can Vrana score with more minutes?" -- will likely be answered in Detroit.
Vrana’s goal scoring over the past few years was no fluke as he produced quality scoring chances at a high rate, which was reflected in his strong expected goal totals. However, this season those numbers dropped as he fell out of favour with head coach Peter Laviolette. After seeing growth in his expected goals per 20 minutes of ice-time over the past three seasons, Vrana’s 0.21 XG/20 this season is at a four-year low.
So, what explains the drop-off in Vrana’s expected goal rate? A drop in several key areas that have to do with skating and ultimately getting into quality shooting areas. Compared to last season, Vrana has seen a dip in controlled zone exits, entries, rush scoring chances, and loose puck recoveries at even strength. Slot shots, where roughly 75 per cent of goals are scored league-wide, are down.
As a result, Vrana has seen a 32 percentage point drop in the time he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, per-20 minutes. Despite all this, Vrana has still managed to score 11 even-strength goals this season, tied for 32nd overall. However, there is evidence to suggest he is not impacting the game in as many areas as he did last season despite favourable zone starts and match-ups. This is what likely drew the ire of Laviolette.
Vrana has shown, at a per-20 minute rate, that he can produce offence at an elite level. The problem in Washington is that he was never going to take minutes away from the greatest goal-scoring left-winger of all-time, Alex Ovechkin. In Detroit, Vrana should have every opportunity to show what he can do, playing big minutes against top competition.
Mantha will have an opportunity in Washington to play with a future Hall Of Fame centre in Nicklas Backstrom while Vrana will take on an increased role with a rebuilding Red Wings team. The draft picks the Red Wings acquired will ultimately play a major role in determining whether one team wins this trade when all is said and done. For now, the focus will be on which of these two skilled wingers can make an immediate impact with their new club.