AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
The Capitals are entering the second year of their self-proclaimed “two-year Stanley Cup window” and what an important year it is.
Not only do the Caps face the possibility of not winning the Stanley Cup, but next summer could be one that shapes the direction of the franchise. By that time, superstar captain Alex Ovechkin will be a few months shy of his 32nd birthday and General Manager Brian MacLellan will be faced with some very big decisions.
For starters, if the Caps do not win Lord Stanley’s mug, MacLellan has to decide whether the current roster gives them the best chance at a Stanley Cup, and if not, what changes should be made. Secondly, he has several notable Restricted Free Agents (RFAs), including a few that will be in line for hefty pay raises, including budding stars Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Upcoming young defenseman Nate Schmidt is also an RFA. With the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft next summer, MacLellan will have to decide who to protect. The Capitals assistant coaches are also at risk next summer.
But the most difficult decisions will be the futures of the team’s key unrestricted free agents, which include Top 6 right wings T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, fourth-line winger Daniel Winnik, and longtime defenseman Karl Alzner. With several promising prospects already pushing for playing time, MacLellan will have to let some of them go, as it’s impossible for the Caps to keep them all.
Out of those UFAs, the priorities would/should be Alzner and Oshie, in that order. Losing Alzner would leave a tremendous hole on the blue line, and top defensive prospect Madison Bowey is nowhere near ready for that role. If the Caps lose young blue liner Dmitry Orlov in the Expansion Draft, keeping Alzner becomes even more crucial. Alzner has become the team’s best shutdown, stay-at-home defenseman and his offensive output has increased in the two seasons Head Coach Barry Trotz and Associate Coach Todd Reirden have been behind the bench. He’ll be looking for a raise from his current $2.8 million salary.
Oshie is the obvious choice between the two right wings. While Williams has brought experience, productivity, and a winner’s mentality to the Capitals, he’ll be 35-years old and well past his prime. Oshie is younger (he’ll be 30 at the end of next season) and has a few more productive years ahead of him. His 26 goals last season ranked him second on the team (behind Ovechkin’s 50), and he’s been the top-line right wing the Caps have needed for years. Like Alzner, he’ll be looking for a raise from his current salary of $4.175 million.
Winnik is unlikely to return, especially given that young prospects like Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, and Nathan Walker are knocking on the Caps’ door for playing time.
While July 2017 is a long way off, it’s likely MacLellan and the Capitals’ brain trust is already planning for what may be the most important offseason in franchise history. It will all depend on if the Caps can win the Cup or not. The decisions the front office makes will almost assuredly have an impact on the team for the foreseeable future.
By Michael Fleetwood