Where Do The Caps Go From Here?

Posted May 23, 2017

What will Ovechkin’s Capitals look like next season? (Caps Outsider)

As the Washington Capitals went quietly into the night, another season lost without raising anything more than a Divisional and Presidential banner, questions and comments began almost immediately. Some were questioning how they could be truly this disappointing again, some about certain players while others were about curses. As reality set in the most important question began to be asked: Where do they go from here?

As many have read throughout the days after the final game, the Caps have many players that are in need of a new contract. Six of the teams top twelve forwards are in need of new deals. Three of those are unrestricted free agents, meaning they can negotiate with any of the other 30 NHL teams. The other three are restricted free agents, meaning they can negotiate with the other teams but the Caps can chose to match any offer the player gets. They can also let the player go for compensation, which is based on the deal the player gets from the opposing team.

Three of the top six forwards based on the teams usual lineup are without a signed contract as of July 1, making for the possibility of major changes to two of the top scoring lines. Right wingers TJ Oshie and Justin Williams as well as center Evgeny Kuznetsov are in need of new contracts. Oshie and Williams are free to negotiate with any of the other 30 teams in July, while Kuznetsov is restricted in his movement, though the Caps would be required to match any offer should they want to keep him, provided one is made. On the third and fourth line, wingers Andre Burakovsky, Daniel Winnik and Brett Connolly are in need of new deals. Burakovsky is restricted, while Winnik and Connolly are able to negotiate with anyone.

On the defensive end, long time Caps defenseman Karl Alzner and trade deadline rental Kevin Shattenkirk are likely to hit the offseason free agent market while Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are restricted free agents. Orlov and Schmidt showed this season that they may be ready for more responsibility, while Alzner’s injury may cause the Caps to think hard about if he is worth what he will likely command on the open market. Shattenkirk has said he has been enjoying his time in DC, but will likely price himself out of what the Caps can afford.

General Manager Brian MacLellan has yet to meet with the media, but history shows that he is willing to do whatever is necessary to put his team back into contention. He made big free agent moves to bring in defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, made the move for Oshie and surprised everyone at the trading deadline by bringing in the biggest name available in Shattenkirk. According to a team spokesman via the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudan, MacLellan is thoroughly reviewing the team, including head coach Barry Trotz.

Many changes are likely coming to the Caps before training camp opens in September. This is not because the team necessarily wants to make these changes, but because the salary cap requires it. Reports are that the cap ceiling could rise from 73 million this season to somewhere between 75 to 76 million For the Caps, every little bit can help. Of the six forwards with question marks after their name, it is likely only three will return. Kuznetsov will likely command somewhere between 4.5 million and 6 million in a long term deal that sees the Russian center stay in DC for a long portion of his career.

Burakovsky will likely get a bridge deal in the range of three years at two to three million a season, similar to the deal Kuznetsov is at the end of. Burakovsky, often playing and not producing enough on the third line, showed his offensive potential when he was moved to the first line during the second round series. The young winger has proven he can produce when given a top six role, and likely will be given the opportunity next season.

The biggest question mark is can this team re-sign any of their unrestricted free agents. Unlike the last offseason, where the team only lost wingers Jason Chimera and rarely used winger Michael Latta, many players are likely to depart, making way for younger prospects. The one unrestricted free agent that the team appears to be talking about wanting to hang onto is Oshie. The 30 year old is coming off his second best season ever in terms of points scored with 56, and best ever in terms of goals with 33. What he is scheduled to make in the free agent market will likely place him outside of what the Capitals can afford to give him and still have enough space to sign their restricted free agents.

One way to free up enough cap space is to try and move out Orpik. With two years left on his contract and a cap hit of 5.5 million, the defenseman, who turns 37 just prior to the beginning of next season, is likely on his way out of town one way or another. It is unlikely that the team will be able to convince another team to take on his contract, even if it is only for two years, without the Caps taking back a significant portion of his salary. The more likely option would be to buy him out. If they do that, according to CapFriendly.com, the team would then have 2.5 million in dead cap space for this season and next, followed by two more years of 1.5 million of dead cap space. While dead cap space is not ideal, especially for a team that is always near or at the cap ceiling, those numbers are still less than the 5.5 Orpik is scheduled to cost.

One more player the Caps may look to sign is back up goalie Philipp Grubauer. The young netminder showed that he may be ready for more than a back up role, and is likely to be the player that the Caps will lose in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights. Should that happen, the Caps will likely turn to the free agent market for a back up goalie, or promote the recently re-acquired Pheonix Copley, who also is in need of a new deal and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Copley is the likely short term answer as the backup, though he has minimal NHL experience, playing in only two regular season games while with the St. Louis Blues.

One of the more interesting parts of the offseason, aside from the free agent questions, is what will the Caps do after the expansion draft. While the teams protected list hasn’t been announced, it is pretty obvious what the team is going to do. The team is reportedly going to protect seven forwards, three defenseman and one goalie, with those forwards being Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, as well as Kuznetsov and Burakovsky once they are signed to new deals. The defenseman are likely to be Niskanen, John Carlson and Orlov once he has been signed to a new deal, as well as goalie Braden Holtby.

While the Caps have a back up in waiting in Copley should the team lose Grubauer, the team could also lose Schmidt or Jay Beagle. Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee knows the Caps very well, being their formal general manager, and may chose to pick up a defenseman. Should the Caps lose Schmidt, do not re-sign Alzner and Shattenkirk, and release Orpik, the team will go into the offseason with only three defensemen.

With a few roster spots available, most will end up going to Caps prospects. Jakub Vrana showed promise during his time with the Caps this season, but struggled upon his return to Hershey. Nathan Walker may be the first Australian to play in the NHL, while Travis Boyd and Riley Barber may make a strong push for a roster spot. Stan Galiev spent the 2015-16 season with the Caps, but is said to be looking to leave the organization as he is looking for a new opportunity. Defensemen Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington and Lucas Johansen are also likely to get a strong look, with one or two making the roster next season depending on what happens with Schmidt.

Teams that consistently make the playoffs and put in a real shot at winning a Stanley Cup consistently replace their additional parts while keeping their core the same. The Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Chicago Blackhawks have shown over the past decade that this is how teams win. When your supporting players get too expensive, you replace them. The Caps have done this in the past, moving out supporting players like Matt Bradley, Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks to name a few, while Mike Green and Alexander Semin were core players and the exception to the rule.

The Caps next season are unlikely to reach the high point totals that they achieved these past two seasons. In the end, that may not matter. Ending up with the most points guarantees nothing aside from another banner, but not the one the team really wants. Winning in the playoffs is about playing at your best at the right time. It is about having the right players pushing themselves to be better then they have ever been. The depth players, the ones most likely to be replaced this offseason, did not get it done last season and the one before. Like all good teams, the supporting players are going to change this offseason. The hope this time is for a different outcome.

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