A Logjam on the Blueline

Posted April 10, 2013

Will Jeff Schultz be wearing red next season? (Photo by Alena Schwarz)

Amid the slow start to the Washington Capitals’ season, the defense had its own share of troubles. Usually reliable top tandem in Karl Alzner and John Carlson had to be split up, and injuries to Mike Green, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, call up Tomas Kundratek and Dmitry Orlov caused the team to use multiple call ups from the Hershey Bears, their American Hockey League affiliate. Steve Oleksy has managed to hang around, quickly becoming a fan favorite with his willingness to lay a big hit, while Orlov and Kundratek have been sent down to Hershey to likely finish the season. While their current lineup may for work this season, they have a roster and salary cap problem ahead of them next season and beyond.

The National Hockey League has a salary cap posed upon its teams. Organizations must be below the cap ceiling while also being above the cap floor. Next season, the salary cap ceiling is going to be at 64.3 million. With the addition of winger Martin Erat and the possibility of resigning center Mike Ribeiro, there may not be a lot of cap space left for the defense.

Defensemen that are currently under contract with the Capitals next season are Green, Carlson, Erskine, Hillen, Oleksy, Orlov, Jeff Schultz, Cameron Schilling and recent college free agent signing Nate Schmidt. While those nine are not likely to play with the team next season since teams usually only carry between six and eight defensemen, that currently is 20.029 million in cap space before adding restricted free agents Alzner and Kundratek. With the limited cap space, they will likely have to make some hard and interesting decisions over the summer.

Before planning for next season, it has to be noted that Schilling and Schmidt will likely spend the bulk of the 2013-14 season in Hershey, only getting to see ice time with the Capitals as injury call ups. That still leaves the team with nine defensemen for six starting spots. Olesky, Orlov or Kundratek could join them in Hershey, although all three have shown that they can play at the NHL level.

One defenseman likely not going anywhere is Green and his cap hit of 6.083 million and change. He is their top defenseman in terms of points and cap hit, and while he could be used as trade bait, the additional cap space likely would not equal the loss of his offense. The same can be said for Carlson. Even though the additional cap space would be welcomed, the loss in talent would hurt the team. While he struggled at the beginning of the season, he has been playing better as he has become more comfortable in head coach Adam Oates‘ system.

Alzner will certainly be signed to a new contract, as will Kundratek. Erskine and Hillen were signed to new deals this season so they likely are not going anywhere, even if Erskine is overpaid. Same with Oleksy, who was signed during the season before being recalled from Hershey. Orlov, Schmidt and Schilling are all young and are likely not going anywhere.

The most interesting case for next season is Schultz. At 27 years of age, carrying a cap hit of 2.75 million, and getting an average of 14 minutes of ice time through 26 games, Schultz is likely a candidate to be one of the Capitals two compliance buyouts during the summer, if they can not find a trade partner. While at one time he was part of their top pairing with fellow 2004 draftee Green, his value to the Capitals has dropped in recent seasons due to injury and his lack of foot speed, causing him to sit out of 13 games this season. Also, at 6 feet 6 inches you would expect him to use his size to his advantage. Three coaches have tried to get him to use his size to his advantage with no luck so far. Schultz appears to be the odd man out next season.

Another option that General Manager George McPhee has is to look into trading away players to add draft picks or prospects. When Orlov and Kundratek were sent down to Hershey before the trade deadline, eyebrows were raised around the D.C. area wondering if either or both were possible deadline departures. While it is unlikely, especially with Orlov, the trade of top prospect Filip Forsberg at the deadline may show that no one is safe from being moved if the return is something the front office wants.

While the offseason is still months away, there is not much McPhee can do with the current roster. He can not make anymore trades since they are after the deadline, so the only help he can bring the team is from the minors. After this season, no matter how it ends, he will have plenty of work to do to remain under the cap ceiling and have a competitive and complete defense.