CAPS BRANCHES: Nathan Walker and Jaroslav Halak

By
Posted December 12, 2017

(Caps Outsider)

The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals had a deal. It was the second day of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and the Capitals had their eye on someone with the Hershey Bears. After 43 games on an AHL deal, Nathan Walker had five goals and six assists in his first professional season. It was the third round, Washington had no picks, New York had two.

Walker lasted just seven games for Washington in 2017 before roster competition forced the hand of general manager Brian MacLellan to waive him, trying to re-assign him to AHL Hershey. The Edmonton Oilers claimed him.

While the Capitals lost Walker for nothing, they also got him for — essentially — nothing. The Capitals sent two fourth-round picks to New York to move up, and neither of them worked out for the Rangers. However, to get one of those picks, it is time to go back to the three-goalie carousel of 2013-14.

BACKGROUND

Washington sent picks #104 and #118 (fourth-round) to Rangers’ general manager Glen Sather for their pick at #89 to move up and select Walker, making him the first Australian national drafted by an NHL team. To make this deal happen, Washington went through a goaltending fiasco to end the 2013-14 season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.

Pick #104 turned into defenseman Ryan Mantha, who never signed with New York after three years with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara Ice Dogs. He signed with Edmonton in 2017, and he currently plays for AHL Bakersfield.

That pick belonged to Washington. The other selection, #118, belonged to Chicago on allocation. However, that pick went through a few hands before New York drafted goaltender Igor Shestyorkin (or Shesterkin, depending on spelling). Shestyorkin is still playing in Russia with SKA St. Petersburg and never signed in North America.

Chicago traded the selection to the Islanders in February of 2014 for Peter Regin — a Danish center who the Islanders signed in the summer — and Pierre-Marc Bouchard — a former first-round pick by Minnesota who also signed with the Islanders in the 2013 offseason. Regin lasted with the Blackhawks and played five playoff games on their run to the Western Conference Finals. Bouchard was with the Rockford IceHogs, and they missed the playoffs by four points.

Amid the February snow, Washington had trouble in the blue paint. The Capitals were using a rotation of 13 defenders in front of Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, and Philipp Grubauer. Featuring two players — Patrick Wey and Connor Carrick — making NHL debuts amid Dmitry Orlov returning from a broken wrist and other injuries to top players, the Caps were on the outside looking in at the playoff picture for the first time since 2006-07.

The NHL went on break for the Sochi Olympics, allowing general manager George McPhee some breathing room to find help.

THE TRADES

The calendar turned to March, and McPhee pulled the following trades: sending unproductive Martin Erat out of Washington to Phoenix for infrequent NHLers Chris Brown and Rostislav Klesla with a 2015 fourth, then flipping Klesla with Neuvirth to the Sabres for Jaroslav Halak and a 2015 third-round pick.

Buffalo acquired Halak from the St. Louis Blues six days earlier in a major shakeup. The Sabres were in the midst of using five goaltenders, and used Halak to get Neuvirth for the rest of the season to backup Jonas Enroth. Ryan Miller, the primary starter, went to St. Louis with co-captain Steve Ott. Buffalo also got Chris Stewart, William Carrier, a 2015 first-rounder (traded to Winnipeg in Evander Kane trade, used to draft Jack Roslovic), and 2016 third (traded to Florida in Dmitry Kulikov trade, Panthers drafted Linus Nassen).

The Caps made a brief run at the final seed in late March, taking four of six points from the California Road Trip, putting the Caps on the bubble. Washington came back home, and took two points out of ten in their next five games, both points coming in shootout losses.

Halak fell out of favor in Washington, notably when he reportedly refused to play against the Blues due to his discomfort playing against his former teammates.

Washington missed the playoffs, and looked to get anything out of Halak. He was a pending free agent, and there was no indication he would sign with the Caps. The Islanders needed goaltending help with 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov as their primary starter the prior year. The Islanders had pick #118, and sent it to Washington for exclusive negotiating rights to the Slovak goalie. The Isles signed him to a 4-year deal, at $4.5 million a year, 25 days later.

AFTERMATH

Halak is in the final year of that deal with the Islanders. Jean-Francois Berube and Thomas Greiss gave him competition in 2016-17, forcing the Isles to send the 31-year-old to Bridgeport through waivers. Berube is now with Chicago, and Greiss serves as Halak’s backup most nights.

Regin and Bouchard both went to play in Europe. Regin split time with Rockford and Chicago in 2014-15, signing with Jokerit Helsinki of the KHL the next year. Bouchard signed with Zug EV of Swiss-A in 2014-15, playing there for two seasons.

Erat played one more season in the NHL with the rebranded Arizona Coyotes, then he went to Omsk Avangard of the KHL. He is currently playing for Brna Kometa of the Czech league, where he is the team’s top-scorer through 29 games.

Klesla did not last long after the trade, leaving North America to return to his native Czech Republic to play for Trinec Ocelari. Elite Prospects lists him as retired.

Brown scored his first NHL goal in Washington’s first win in San Jose since 1993, tying the game late in the third period. The Caps needed a shootout to win that contest. Brown ended up traded to New York in a trade for Ryan Bourque, reuniting the Bourque brothers in Hershey. Both left their teams in free agency after the 2016-17 season, with Brown now in Iserlohn Roosters (German league) and Bourque with Bridgeport.

The 2015 fourth got traded to Carolina with defenseman Jack Hillen for Tim Gleason in the lead up to the 2015 playoffs. Gleason and Hillen have not played a game since that season. The Hurricanes drafted goaltender Callum Booth, who ended up with the ECHL Florida Everblades this season. He has played 11 games so far, and is 8-1-1 with a .913 save percentage.

The Capitals did not renew McPhee’s contract, opening a wide search to find his replacement. Even after interviewing outside candidates, the team opted to promote McPhee’s assistant, MacLellan, to the top job.

A Fond Farewell to Nathan Walker

Washington Capitals 2018 Stanley Cup Champs Gear