Photo: Joel Auerbach, Getty Images North America
With less than 24 hours until the start of the free agency period, and the official start of the 2016-17 NHL season, the stage is set for the general managers of all 30 teams to begin shaping their rosters to compete in the upcoming campaign — and even setting themselves up to compete in seasons to come, depending on their current wants and needs.
While plenty of teams are expected to be heavily involved in the free agency, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan appears poised to be one of the less-involved players when the market opens Friday at noon. With the Draft Day trade for Lars Eller — acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a pair of second-round draft choices in 2017 and 2018 — the Capitals have already addressed their key offseason need: finding a capable center to anchor the third line.
With the addition of Eller, MacLellan is now turning his attention to re-signing Washington’s three remaining restricted free agents: Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Dmitry Orlov. (Caps re-signed Tom Wilson earlier today.) With a little over $64.1 million in salary committed to next season (courtesy of generalfanager.com), the Capitals are confident they have the means to get all three under contract for next season under next season’s salary cap — expected to be somewhere in the $73-74 million range according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman — and finish assembling a roster that will easily be a strong contender for the Stanley Cup next June.
However, while the recent flurry of activity suggests the Capitals are committed to keeping the President’s Trophy-winning team of 2015-16 largely intact, the future is uncertain for one particularly important player: left winger Jason Chimera.
Trotz also said Chimera’s chances of returning are “slim.”
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) June 30, 2016
With the addition of Eller and the emphasis on signing restricted free agents, Chimera is seemingly the odd man out in terms of Capitals free agents. The 37-year-old winger has been a fixture of the Capitals since arriving in late-2009 when he was traded to the Capitals for defenseman Milan Jurcina and winger Chris Clark. During this time, Chimera has been an invaluable presence for the Capitals. Posting two 40-point seasons in the last three seasons, the Edmonton native has been a key member of Washington’s bottom-six and his speed and versatility have garnered him a significant role during his tenure in DC, and made him a fan favorite to many.
So how does a player who is productive and fits well with the team’s identity suddenly find themselves with the prospect of moving on? One reason and one reason only: age.
As mentioned in the title, Chimera is the eldest member of the Capitals having recently turned 37 in May, an age that can be accurately described as the “twilight” of a player’s career. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Chimera has yet to slow down — literally and figuratively. 40 point seasons are not common in players that age and even less common are players who can post those kinds of totals without the benefit of the ice time afforded to those on the top scoring lines. So, if he’s defying the expectations of older age players, why wouldn’t the Capitals re-sign him?
The answer has less to do with Chimera and more to do with others in the organization. In comments made Thursday during Washington’s rookie development camp at the Kettler Iceplex in Arlington, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz talked specifically about the development of younger players within the organization and how it was important to give them a chance to grow and develop. When asked about the Capitals approach to free agency, Trotz indicated the team is inclined to turn to their organizational depth for answers to their roster concerns rather than bring in players in free agency, saying:
“One of the reasons is we have a couple players out here that could challenge I think for our hockey team. We’ve been patient with some of our young guys who really made a lot of progress and showed how much they’ve grown. They went to the Calder Cup Final, and they’ve really grown. We don’t want to block our good young guys with a 35-year-old veteran, who can get it done, because we have a veteran team now. …” Washington Post Article, by Isabelle Khurshudyan, June 30, 2016
The last two sentences are highly instructive, and it is why Jason Chimera’s chances of remaining in DC are looking less likely. While he has been productive in recent seasons, he’s in that part of the career arc where he can be expected to start slowing down, so it’s no surprise that MacLellan is hesitant to hand out an extension to a player who may have already played his most impactful games.
Further to this point, while the Capitals lack an overabundance of players with top-end offensive skills or high offensive ceilings, assistant general manager Ross Mahoney and the scouting staff have done a good job of compiling prospects who have strong upside as bottom-six players capable of generating some offense while possessing strong defensive and penalty-killing attributes, and some of these players have already made an impact on the organization’s fortunes.
A brief glimpse at the 2015-16 Calder Cup runner-up Hershey Bears shows their impressive season was significantly catalyzed by the strong two-way play of younger players like Riley Barber, Travis Boyd, Nate Walker, and Chandler Stephenson. All mid to late-round draft picks of the Capitals within the last few seasons, these young men have flourished with the time and space their parent organization has given them to grow their skill sets as they ascend the ranks of professional hockey.
Just as current Washington Capitals John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, and Vezina Trophy-winner Braden Holtby found their way to being impact NHL players on a road that passed through Eastern Pennsylvania, perhaps the Capitals should once again turn to within to find players who can help them get over the hump and into the rarified atmosphere of NHL champions.
But it is in this decision that organizational imperatives clash. Does keeping a veteran player like Chimera give the Capitals a better chance to win? Or would they be better served by clearing a path for a hungry prospect to earn his stripes in the NHL and take the next step in their career? Achieving a balance of experienced and capable veterans with young players growing into their potential is the task that keep managers like MacLellan and Mahoney, and coaches like Trotz up at night. It’s a highly subjective exercise, but it is one the Capitals are forced to deal with as free agency approaches and they have to decide what to do with a fan favorite like Chimera who by all appearances still has fuel left in the tank but whose age is working against him.
As the market shakes out, Chimera’s future with either the Capitals or another team will become clearer and clearer. The grizzled veteran still has plenty to offer another club, perhaps even the Capitals if the money and contract term can be agreed upon. It’s worth noting that, while the chances of Chimera returning were described by Trotz as “slim”, the window for his return remains open, if only slightly. But the Capitals may be well served to go in the other direction and entrust in their organizational depth by allowing players like Barber or Stephenson a chance to prove their mettle at hockey’s highest level…and perhaps be considered alongside the likes of Jason Chimera as a beloved member of Washington’s hockey history at some point in the future.
You can watch Jason’s exit interview from this past season, by clicking here.
By Keith Leonard