Hard to believe it’s been just under a month since Nick Bonino scored an overtime goal to eliminate the Capitals from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Another disappointing early exit left Capitals fans searching for answers (as well as meaning in their lives).
With a loaded team that racked up 56 wins and 120 standings points, this year’s playoff heartbreak hurt that much more than in years prior. But, just like those other years, we as Caps fans shrug our shoulders, and move on to the next season, where we hope that the Capitals will bring a title to this championship-starved city (or at least get past the second round).
Unlike years past, this year’s Capitals did not “choke,” they were simply outplayed. Pittsburgh had the speed, skill, and hot goaltending to carry them to (what looks like) a second Stanley Cup in 7 years. While I do not expect the Capitals to mimic exactly what the Penguins are doing, the speed of the Penguins was one of the many factors that put the Penguins ahead and ultimately won them the series. With several key decisions on the horizon, here is my offseason blueprint for GM Brian MacLellan.
- Sign Defenseman Brian Campbell to a 1-year contract
In his prime, Brian Campbell was an elite NHL defenseman with terrific speed and offensive ability. While Campbell is significantly past his prime, he is a Stanley Cup winner (2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks), and can provide the Capitals not only with leadership and postseason experience, but also be a key contributor on the second or third pairing. A one year deal worth between two and three million dollars seems appropriate.
- Allow Jason Chimera, Mike Richards, and Mike Weber to walk in Unrestricted Free Agency
Mike Richards was an incredibly pleasant surprise as a bottom-6 forward. He signed on for next-to-nothing, and provided excellent penalty killing, a few goals, and a hard-nosed, defense-first mentality. However, MacLellan made this move thinking it was going to help bring the cup to Washington, not as a move for the future of the Capitals. While I loved what Mike Richards brought to this team, he simply is not in the plan for the Capitals moving forward.
Jason Chimera has been a solid player since he came to Washington, and even reached the 20 goal mark last season. At 37 years of age, it is difficult to believe that he can replicate this for the Capitals or any other franchise next season. I wish him all the best, but hope that he ends up somewhere else next season.
The only memory I have of Mike Weber was a puck deflecting off his stick and onto the stick of Patric Hornqvist and into the back of the net in game 4 of the second round to give the Penguins an insurmountable 3-1 series lead. Good riddance Webby.
- Extend the contracts of Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov
Even before negotiating a 1-year deal in restricted free agency, many Caps fans knew that this year was an important one for “MoJo,” and he came through, scoring 46 points (17G, 19A) in the regular season, along with another 7 (2G, 5A) in 12 postseason games. Johansson is a key part of the Capitals’ first power-play unit, effortlessly skating the puck in time and time again, as well as providing key passes along the wall. Johansson should be retained if the price is right (between 4-5 million a year).
As for Kuznetsov, the Capitals did the smart thing in signing him to a “bridge deal” last season, hoping that he continues to grow and develop before offering him big money. Well, Kuzy did just that, leading the Capitals in points during the regular season. He filled in seamlessly for Nicklas Backstrom when he was injured to begin the season, creating the “TKO” line that I hope plays more time together next season. While it is difficult to find a comparable to Kuznetsov, he should be paid somewhere in the 8-10 million dollar per year neighborhood.
- Play Jakub Vrana in an NHL bottom-6 role
Despite all the hype, the Hershey Bears are on the brink of getting swept in the Calder Cup Finals, however the playoff run did not go for naught. Top forward prospect Jakub Vrana has been a machine in these Calder Cup Playoffs, scoring 14 points (8G, 6A) in 20 playoff games (so far). With the Capitals needing speed and skill in the bottom-6, Vrana is a perfect, cheap, in-house solution for next season. He’s too good for the AHL at this point, and the Capitals would be foolish not to allow him to contribute to the big club next season.
- Move Dimitry Orlov and Buy Out Brooks Orpik
Dimitry Orlov is a restricted free agent, and while his puck skills and speed are valuable assets, some of the things he does in the defensive zone simply do not cut it at the NHL level. Moving Orlov for a skilled forward (Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov are two names that immediately come to mind) makes perfect sense.
As for Brooks Orpik, he did more in the Penguins series to help the Capitals lose (double-minor penalty led to 2 Pittsburgh power play goals, was suspended 3 games for a dumb hit on Olli Maata), he simply is not the player he once was. Buying him out will save valuable cap space, which would go towards the extensions of Kuznetsov and Johansson, as well as free up a spot on the defensive corps for Nate Schmidt to play a bigger role, and maybe even see Madison Bowey get time in the NHL.
I am not an NHL executive, and these moves are obviously easier said than done. I’m sure MacLellan has moves in his mind that no one else on the planet is thinking about (the TJ Oshie trade came out of nowhere, will we see another deal similar to that?) I have the utmost confidence that Brian MacLellan and the rest of the Capitals brain trust will make the right moves to position this team for another run at the Stanley Cup.
By Matthew Jacobson