We’ve just wrapped up the preseason and have a little pause left before the real fun starts. It’s a great time to do a semi state of the Capitals. Fair warning, the possibilities are the real point we’re looking at here versus any specific “this will happen”. What we find is some ”problems” most teams wish they had. Two specifically that we know we have, and a third that looks very likely before long.
The first is in net. This is Braden Holtby’s team and Philipp Grubauer is NHL ready now. It’s a great problem to have and while nothing has to happen this season, beyond that is another story. Grubauer has little chance of being more than a backup in DC in the next 3–5 years unless disaster strikes. He will want a chance to start and he’ll be a free agent long before he has that chance here in DC. It’s a great luxury today.
The second is Marcus Johansson. The Johansson problem is a direct result of the emergence of Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. He’s a legit top 6 forward even if he doesn’t get a lot of love from many in DC. We simply don’t have a space in the top 6 over the next few years. His game is ill-suited to a 3rd line role, and he’s very valuable to other teams.
The third problem takes a little forward vision. Jakub Vrana could have made the team this season, and before it’s over he’ll get some playing time in DC. It’s hard to see him not making the squad out of camp next season. He has top 6 written all over him even if he plays on the 3rd line for a season.
When you put all of these things together, it seems obvious we’ll have to move a couple of players minimum over the next 2 seasons. Vrana seems unlikely to be moved given his upside and bargain price in the short-term. A trade that moves Johansson, perhaps at the deadline, seems much more likely. Grubauer probably has his highest value next summer as a number one for a team in need, but I wouldn’t count out something developing sooner. If a team with the right pieces to offer loses their starter early in the season, that could definitely change timelines.
The gotcha on moving both of them is the timing. Right now they have value but we don’t have a need that equals their value. Given the long season and possibility of a key injury at some point, holding them until there is a real need is the wise move. If the need doesn’t develop, Johansson has to go before next season either way. A good 3rd line NHL player and a pick or two as a minimum seems possible, if we can find the right deal. Grubauer is less urgent and could easily last into next season.
The roadblock to moving Grubauer is the salary cap. Right now we’d have to shed more salary than just Grubauer’s to get a meaningful piece in return. That begins to change after this season. Chimera is up after this season and unlikely to get a new deal here. He’s been great for the Caps but his time is nearing the end. Vrana slides nicely into that roster spot. Laich will be entering the last year of his deal as well. Chimera frees 2 million in cap space and Laich another 4 million. Add in 3.75 from Johansson and you now have 9.75 million in cap space opening up after next season. The yearly increase in the salary cap is an unknown, but it’s hard to imagine it’s not at least another 3–4 million minimum. We’re in pretty good shape with at worst a short-term semi crunch this season.
The restricted free agents (RFA’s) after this season are Latta, Orlov, Wilson and Johansson. Chimera and Peters will be UFA’s. Peters and Chimera are both as good as gone. Johansson is probably moved and Latta and Orlov are resigned. Orlov could play his way into a big payday this season but he’s probably reasonable to resign as a 3rd pair D. Latta should be reasonable as well. No real cap issues there.
Tom Wilson is a bit of a wild card and really needs to have a good year. He’s an RFA but probably won’t get renewed at or above the $1.325 million average he’s making now based on his last few seasons. He needs to take advantage of a 3rd line assignment and put up 15 or so goals if he wants a raise in DC. It’s still early to call him a bust, but the clock is ticking fast.
After next season the RFA’s will be Schmidt, Grubauer, Burakovsky and Kuznetsov. Williams, Alzner, Laich and Oshie will be UFA’s. Williams probably calls it a career at that point. Kuznetsov and Burakovsky should see significant raises. Kuznetsov in particular is probably looking at a 5 year deal. Resigning Alzner and Oshie definitely seems probable today. Schmidt’s value remains to be seen, but with 2 seasons to improve and based on early returns, he’s likely up there with Kuznetsov and Burakovsky as must signs.
When you look at it there is no way to pay Grubauer with everyone else who will be coming up after next season. It’s hard to see him taking less money to stay in DC as a backup. More likely is his agent could push his RFA cost as high as possible to force a move by the Capitals. He has more value with an RFA year left, so it’s hard to see the Capitals holding him through next season.
Vrana moving up from Hershey can plug one hole at a reasonable cost. If Wilson steps up to be the top 6 right-wing we hope he can be, you still have a top 6 crunch. If Wilson turns out to be a bottom 6 forward at best, Vrana has a spot to slide into the top 6. It’s difficult to predict exactly how it all plays out at this point.
What’s obvious is we have an abundance of riches to work with over the next few season. That’s without considering the 3–4 other AHL prospects who could make the jump. How we parlay the excess remains to be seen, but it’s a great problem to have. Johansson and Grubauer being moved seems a near certainty. The only question is do we get a pile of picks in return, a key player, or some other combination. That’s why the GM’s get paid the big bucks.
By Ernie Mudd