Photo: Washington Post
Our fearless leader, General Manager Brian MacLellan, finally spoke with the media 20 days after the Washington Capitals were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in yet another disappointing Game 7. He “called out” Captain Alexander Ovechkin, saying he needs to be better. He voiced his disagreements with Head Coach Barry Trotz, with both direct and indirect statements. He’s vowed to hold coaches and players more accountable next season. So what’s his plan?
Return as much of the team from last season, coaches and players, as possible, obviously. In his own words “I think it’s a lot easier to make this team worse than it is better.” And it’s hard to disagree with him. It’s hard to see a way that he can improve this team from last year given all of the expiring contracts and every player getting a year older. What he’s left with is trying to build the best possible team for next season, so why not try to bring back as much of the reigning President’s Trophy-winning roster as possible?
There are many factors at play heading into this offseason that will complicate the decisions that Brian MacLellan has to make. The Expansion Draft and the fallout from a new team in Las Vegas will loom large as the Capitals are destined to lose one player in some manner. In addition to that, the myriad of armchair GM trade possibilities surrounding this process, both in player selection and post-expansion draft trades, paint a rocky landscape for all 31 NHL teams. On top of that, a salary cap ceiling that is currently unknown will play a major factor in how the Capitals GM plans on constructing his 2017-18 roster.
So where does MacLellan start? His first decision will be who he plans on protecting in the upcoming Expansion Draft. He tipped his hand and said he would be protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender, to the surprise of no one. We do not know who he will protect exactly, but it seems safe to assume that Vegas will have to decide between Philipp Grubauer or Nate Schmidt, and most pundits believe Vegas will be attracted to young, cheap goaltenders, meaning Grubauer is most likely to be gone.
What next? Well the next part is pretty easy, actually. Well at least in figuring out what to do, not necessarily how to do it. Dmitry Orlov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Nate Schmidt are all high-profile RFAs (restricted free agents), and will need new contracts. MacLellan expects Burakovsky and Schmidt to have increased roles next season, joining the Top 6 and Top 4, respectively. Brett Connolly seems to have a ticket back to the Capitals if he wants to return based on MacLellan’s comments as well, and looks to rejoin Lars Eller on the third-line. These players will look to fill the roles left for them by the departing UFAs (unrestricted free agents) in Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Daniel Winnik, who will likely not be back. We’ll revisit T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams later.
In addition to bringing these players back, prospects Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, and Liam O’Brien are RFAs and will all likely be expected to compete for roster spots next season in addition to Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana, and Riley Barber. Nathan Walker will also compete for a roster spot, and has already been extended for two seasons. Pheonix Copley will be a UFA, but it’s hard to imagine the Capitals not re-signing him to compete for the back-up goaltender job left vacant after Grubauer’s (likely) departure.
So what do the group of NHL RFAs sign for? Well thanks to great pieces by [NoVa Caps Writer] George Foussekis, we have ideas of what the contracts for Burakovsky and Kuznetsov might look like. Start with the middle of the salary range proposed for Burakovsky, and say that Burakovsky will have a two-year contract with a cap hit of $2.25 million. Kuznetsov, being arbitration eligible and one year away from being a UFA, will force the Caps to avoid both of those pitfalls at all costs, and could sign Kuznetsov for six years with a $6 million cap hit (and maybe more). There’s a pretty clear cut range that ‘Kuzy’ falls into, and I believe this contract negotiation will be pretty straightforward. Or maybe that’s just what I hope, I honestly can’t tell. I have also penciled in Brett Connolly for a possible one-year, $1 million contract.
Next up is Nate Schmidt, who some think will sign for something as high as two years, with a $1.5 million cap hit, so let’s go with that. He doesn’t have much leverage, and it’s likely less than that. After that is fellow blueliner Dmitry Orlov, which may be a tough negotiation. He’s a Top 4 defenseman, but didn’t play a major role on either the Power Play or Penalty Kill last season. He will be expected to play larger roles in both areas next season, but may not have the leverage to get a much higher contract. My expectation is that he and the Capitals agree on a contract for three years with a $3.75 million salary, or something in that ballpark. He cashes in, has some security, but still gets an opportunity as a UFA in a few years, this works for both sides really well to me.
So this is how it looks, with how I roughly think it will work out, in terms of lines and pairings:
I am assuming the NHLPA votes for some amount of escalator, so I’m going with a Salary Cap ceiling of $75,000,000. The Capitals will have $6,494,872 in Salary Cap space, an available roster spot for a Right Wing, a noticeable hole on their top Power Play unit, and the ability to move talented wingers lower in their lineup in order to create a rounded out Top 9, as opposed to just a Top 6. If only there was a player that we knew of who excelled on the Caps’ top-line next to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who would also fit perfectly in their Power Play system, and could be acquired without giving up any assets…
T.J. Oshie waives hello. I’m neither advocating for or against signing TJ Oshie, but it makes sense for MacLellan to want to re-sign him with the amount of Salary Cap space left, the holes the Capitals will have at the top of their lineup, and with his plan of keeping as much as possible together. On top of all of that, it’s hard to look at the pending UFA market and not tag Oshie as who the Caps should target. It will be difficult to sign Oshie with the space remaining, but here is where it becomes possible that Brett Connolly may not be re-signed, as they will want to give top prospect Jakub Vrana every possible chance to play with the NHL team next season, so Connolly becomes a priority only after the Capitals know what will happen with Oshie. Here is also where the NHLPA electing for a full escalator and moving the Salary Cap to $77,000,000 will also help the Capitals re-sign Oshie. Above, I am using $75,000,000, a partial increase.
The term and exact number are really hard to pin down, but everything that George suggested in his look into what Oshie may cost is within the Caps’ budget for next year. The big question is how that contract plays out beyond next season (and even in next season), but that’s the cost of going all in and trying to win now.
This isn’t necessarily what I would do or advocate doing, but I think it is the most likely scenario for this offseason. It may take some of the RFA’s a few weeks, or months, to come to terms. If there are any longer holdouts, I believe it will be with Orlov, as he’s the hardest to accurately pin down in terms of money and length, and had a lengthy hold out last season. There are many factors at play this offseason that could drastically change what I wrote above, in terms of trades, the decisions of the Free Agents, the Expansion Draft and the dominoes that will fall from that, and what the Salary Cap will ultimately be set at.
The only outside possibility I think that has a good chance of happening is that I believe MacLellan will explore the cost of offloading Brooks Orpik on Vegas or another team willing to take his contract. He will not be in the Top 4, and with the above salary constraints explained, moving his contract, even for a steep price, could go a very long way in being able to re-sign Free Agents and attract new players to the Capitals, as well as open the door to re-signing Justin Williams, who likely isn’t in DC next season if Orpik’s contract isn’t moved. I do not think they will buy him out, and if they can’t trade him, those are the breaks. But I do think the possibility will be explored.
For right now, this is what I think the game plan is for Brian MacLellan. Sign the RFAs, sign the UFA, bring back as much as last year’s team as possible and keep doing what worked so well last season. It’s nothing sexy, it’s nothing groundbreaking, and it’s trusting that this group will get past their demons and this franchise’s demons.
By Tyler Anderson