With just over a week to go until the NHL’s 2023 trade deadline, the league’s top team made its big move on Thursday.
Sitting first in the overall NHL standings, the Boston Bruins acquired defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Garnet Hathaway from the Washington Capitals in exchange for forward Craig Smith and three draft picks, including a first-rounder in the upcoming 2023 draft.
In order to fit the new acquisitions under Boston’s salary cap, the Minnesota Wild served as a third-party trade broker — for the second time in less than a week.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s examine Boston’s acquisition.
Orlov is the big piece here: a 31-year-old left-shot defender. The sturdy Russian, who checks in at 5’11” and 214 pounds, has spent his entire career with the Washington Capitals, who drafted him in the second round in 2009. Known as a two-way defenseman who can play any role that’s asked of him, Orlov has 256 points in 686 career games and has cracked the 10-goal mark twice in his career. He was also part of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning roster in 2018, putting up 2-6-8 in 24 playoff games.
This season, Orlov is averaging a hefty 22:43 of ice time over 43 games played. He missed a month of action early in the season due to a lower-body injury. Orlov is in the final season of a six-year contract which carries a cap hit of $5.1 million dollars, and can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
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Hathaway is also 31, and also on the cusp of unrestricted free agency. He’s playing out the final season of a four-year free-agent contract he signed with Washington as a free agent in 2019, and his cap hit is $1.5 million per season. A big-bodied winger at 6’3” and 208 pounds, Hathaway has been deployed primarily in a bottom-six role in his career. He has averaged more than 200 hits a year over his past five seasons and has served as a key penalty killer for the Capitals.
Hathaway has 116 points in 432 career NHL games with Washington and, before that, with the Calgary Flames. He’s at 9-7-16 in 59 games this season, slightly below last year’s career-best 14 goals and 26 points.
The NHL playoffs are often a war of attrition, and the first-place Bruins have designs on making a long run after a disappointing first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2022. This season, new coach Jim Montgomery has hit all the right notes since taking over from Bruce Cassidy behind the bench, and veteran centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are back in the fold on team-friendly one-year deals.
Last year, the Bruins’ big deadline acquisition was defenseman Hampus Lindholm. He quickly signed an eight-year contract extension and has become an indispensable cog in the machine — leading Boston in total ice time and, with 42 points in 56 games, just two points away from matching his previous offensive high.
Orlov’s arrival adds important depth what’s primarily a workmanlike blue-line group. Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy are stars, but the rest of the top six is currently rounded out by Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, Connor Clifton and Derek Forbort.
Over the last few weeks, Boston had been rumored to be the team most interested in acquiring defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov. The 27-year-old, also a lefty, is a big body at 6’3” and 221 pounds, but doesn’t have as much NHL experience as Orlov — just 256 regular-season games and 10 games in the playoffs.
Gavrikov has sat out the last five games for what has been termed ‘trade-related reasons.’ But with Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen looking to extract maximum value for one of the few solid defensemen on the trade-deadline market, Boston GM Don Sweeney appears to have decided to pivot to Washington once the reeling Capitals made Orlov available.
Now, this year’s market prices are now essentially set. The terms of this deal are very similar to what the Toronto Maple Leafs paid to acquire impending UFA forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues last Friday — although the Blues will cash in their draft capital a bit sooner.
In that deal, the Blues received the Leafs’ first and third-round picks in 2023, plus a second in 2024, along with two minor-league forwards. The Capitals also receive Craig Smith, a 33-year-old journeyman forward who’s in the final season of a three-year deal with a cap hit of $3.1 million. Smith had become a bit of a spare part in Boston this season, healthy-scratched at times and placed on waivers by the Bruins back in December.
The other similarity between the two deals? As mentioned previously, the Minnesota Wild acted as the third-party broker in both cases.
The NHL’s hard salary cap can be a burden for top teams at the best of times, and the virtually flat cap ceiling since the pandemic pause has made trade conditions every more difficult for general managers.
For that reason, salary retention has become a critical part of many big deals. And because teams are only allowed to retain a maximum of 50% of the money owed to players they trade away, the cap burden for the acquiring team can be further reduced if the trade is brokered through a third team. That GM makes the original trade and receives the player at 50% of his cap hit, then retains half of that number so that the final acquiring club ultimately bears just 25% of the original cap and cash burdens.
Last week, the Wild received a fourth-round pick in 2025 from Toronto in return for being the middleman in the O’Reilly deal. On Thursday, they got a fifth in 2023 from Boston by retaining 25% of Orlov’s money. And Minnesota also used this opportunity to move on from two unsigned players who don’t appear to fit into their organization’s plans. They dealt the rights to Josh Pillar, a 21-year-old winger who’s currently playing in Canada’s Western Hockey League, to Toronto. Boston received the rights to 26-year-old Andrei Svetlakov, a center who has played his entire career to date in his native Russia.
What happens from here?
Did the Blue Jackets overplay their hand? Will they be able to negotiate a deal to their liking for Gavrikov before the deadline next Friday, March 3?
Does the decision to part ways with Orlov and Hathaway indicate that the Capitals are folding their hand and preparing to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014? Heading into Thursday’s games, the Capitals had lost five straight games, but were still within two points of a wild-card spot. Washington captain and leading scorer Alexander Ovechkin was also returning to the lineup on Thursday after missing four games due to the death of his father.
And are the Wild sacrificing their own opportunity to upgrade with these two salary-retention deals? Apparently not. Winners of their last three, Minnesota went into action on Thursday sitting in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, with a two-point lead over the Calgary Flames. Despite the fact that the Wild lost $12.7 million in cap space this season due to their buyouts of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in 2021, the club has not used any long-term injured reserve space. So while the buyouts will continue to limit the club’s cap space in future seasons, Minnesota GM Bill Guerin currently has more than $11 million in cap space for this season available at the deadline, according to CapFriendly.
He may not be done dealing.