Photos: Washington Capitals
It’s happened. Every Capitals fan was hoping it wouldn’t, but it has. Defenseman Nate Schmidt is headed for the desert after being selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 Expansion Draft. It will be a pretty big blow to the Caps on a couple of levels.
First, it is detrimental in general to lose a second-pairing defenseman for absolutely nothing; a young, puck-moving, possession monster one to boot! It also hurts because Schmidt was an undrafted free agent signing that was just about to likely hit his potential as a second-pairing defenseman and now he has been lost for nothing; that’s a gut punch to the Capitals who put time into scouting and developing him. Also, Schmidt might be one of the happiest guys to play the sport of hockey today, a brimming personality that makes everyone around him smile and enlightening the locker room, teams don’t like losing guys like that. But there’s nothing the team can do, and the Capitals need to find a way to replace him. It won’t be easy, but here are a few options for the Caps to find a second-pairing, left-handed defenseman, and stay competitive.
The only possible thing positive about Schmidt being selected by Vegas is thatit still leaves the Capitals with Philipp Grubauer to trade, who will be a highly sought-after young goaltender with a promising future. Clubs in need of a starting goalie will pay a pretty penny for a player like that. The issue is there are only three NHL clubs that truly need goaltending help – the Arizona Coyotes, Winnipeg Jets, and Philadelphia Flyers; none really have Top 4 left-handed defenseman to move. Arizona has young superstar Oliver Ekman-Larsson and veteran Alex Goligoski, but it’s hard to see Arizona moving either, especially Ekman-Larsson. As for Winnipeg, they already have a lack of good left-handers on the backend and their only good one is Joshua Morrissey. There’s likely little chance they are moving the 22-year old for Grubauer. Lastly, the Flyers have emerging stars in Ivon Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere and its highly, highly unlikely that either of those players are moved. So it looks like the possibility of flipping Grubauer directly for a Top 4 left-handed defenseman is not something that is plausible at this time.
That doesn’t mean that the Caps still can’t turn Grubauer into a Top 4 blueliner. Consider this, the Capitals traded goaltender Semyon Varlamov with 59 games played, a 2.38 goals-against average, and a .917 save percentage for first and second-round picks a few years ago. Grubauer played 66 games with a 2.25 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Grubauer has had a better start to his career, so it’s not out of the question to a get a first and second for him. He should at least fetch a first or two second-rounders and a later pick. With those picks, the Caps can now go to teams and possibly offer those picks in a package deal to find a great player. Since the Expansion Draft is going to change the offseason plans of the entire league, it’s very difficult to give suggestions on who the Caps could possibly want to target. After everything settles with the draft and free agency, it will be a lot easier to see potential players to acquire.
Another option to replace Schmidt is to promote from within the organization. As of now, the only left-handed defensemen on the NHL roster are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney. Neither are Top 4 material, so the Caps will have to look at their prospects for help. Outside of goaltending, left-handed defensemen are probably the Capital’s most flush position in terms of Top 4 ceiling. The question is, are any of them ready?
Lucas Johansen, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, might be the best overall left-handed blueliner that the Caps have. He’s great defensively, with smooth skating ability, topped with a great pass and sneaky shot. The main issue is that unless he blows away the Capitals’ brass at the upcoming Development Camp, there’s about a zero percent chance he’s ready for second-pairing NHL duties. He’s only 19-years old, so he needs at least another two to three years or more of seasoning before he’s ready for the big stage.
There is also Jonas Siegenthaler, who has been playing against men since he was 16-years old over in Switzerland. He’s now 20-years old with a huge frame (6’3” 220 lbs) and he knows how to take care of his own zone. But, he still looks as though he needs at least another year of North American play to prepare him for the NHL. Because of his size and defensive awareness, Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz could trust him with bigger responsibilities if he can show enough at Development Camp. Still, it’s a pretty small chance he jumps straight into an NHL role this October, let alone at a second-pairing level.
Lastly is Christian Djoos, probably the most NHL-ready of the three aforementioned prospects. Turning 23-years old this summer, Djoos had a fantastic season last year in the American Hockey League, placing third in scoring among defensemen. He has some great offensive capabilities and isn’t too shabby defensively. He still needs to put muscle on his 165-pound frame if he wants to survive in the NHL, especially if he wants to be on the second-pairing. He too, would have to have a pretty great summer to prove he’s ready for time in the Top 4. The team’s annual Development Camp next week will give fans a good look at him to see if he’s ready.
Unrestricted Free Agency
As one can see, it doesn’t appear as though the Capitals’ major defensive prospects are ready for a full-time NHL role. The good news is that all of them are really close, so the Caps really just need to find a replacement for a year or two before those players are fully ready. The best way to do that is to go the unrestricted free agent route. Teams never want to solely rely on free agency, because as a rule of thumb, teams will most likely overpay for help. Luckily for the Capitals, there are some bargain picks in this summer’s crop of UFAs that can help their potential Top 4 problem without paying too much or too long.
First off is longtime NHLer Brian Campbell. He would be the best of both worlds for the Caps. He’s a veteran blueliner with Stanley Cup experience that can still play some great hockey. Plus, he would be considerably cheap and short-termed. He is known for helping younger players play their game, as he did recently in Florida with Panthers’ star Aaron Ekblad. If he pairs up with John Carlson, that pairing could have the potential to be deadly. He is 38, which is concerning, but he has been mostly healthy since the 2011-2012 season (though he was scratched twice last year) and doesn’t look out-of-place while on the ice. The only real problem is that there are rumblings he will either sign with the Chicago Blackhawks or retire, which obviously doesn’t help the Caps out. But if he would come to Washington, the Capitals could probably get him for one to two years for potentially somewhere in the area of $2.5M a season, which is perfect given the team’s salary cap situation. He still has the ability to put up 30-plus points on a great team like the Caps.
Another older player that could help the Caps out is Andrei Markov. Turning 39-years old in December, this offensive defenseman has a lot of experience, all with the Montreal Canadiens. He has been a mainstay on the top-pairing for a while, but with the Caps, he would be likely used on the second-pairing, which should alleviate some of the difficulties that come with being an older player. He put up 36 points last season in 62 games played, but that was with power play time. It’s hard to see him getting much time on the man-advantage with the Caps’ setup for righties at the point, but he does have an absolute bomb, so maybe he’s worth trying on the second unit. Still, even with no power play time, he has the potential to score 30-plus points if he stays healthy. Like Campbell, because of his age, the Capitals would most likely try and get Markov on a short-term deal worth around $4 million per season.
There are also plenty of younger options to consider as well. First is Brendan Smith, who had spent his whole career in Detroit, before he was traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. He isn’t going to blow anyone away offensively, as he might only finish with 20-30 points in a 82-game season on a great team, but that’s okay. It’s his defensive play and fantastic shot suppression that would make him a great partner for the more offensive Carlson. At 28-years old, he can probably be had for about $2.2M million a season on a two to three-year deal.
Speaking of Detroit (now in Florida), the Capitals might also be interested in Jakub Kindl. Much like his ex-teammate, Brendan Smith, Kindl will not blow anyone away offensively, but he’s good at suppressing shots and helping his team get more of them on the opposing net. He hasn’t had a ton of experience playing Top 4, but he has done well when positioned there. Best of all, the 30-year old could be potentially signed to a short-term, low-money deal. Probably $1M for a 1-2 years would work.
Lastly (well not really) is Michael Del Zotto. He’s completely different than everyone on this list because he’s the youngest, but because of that he won’t come cheap. A former first-round pick of the New York Rangers, he never has been able to live up to his potential. He eventually went to the Nashville Predators, before signing in Philadelphia, where he found his game. He’s a pure puck-moving defenseman that has a knack for scoring goals, which the Caps could always use. Since he’s so young, at only 26-years old, and has offensive skills, he’s going to cost a pretty penny in money and term. One downside to him is he gets hurt often. He hasn’t played more than 57 games in five years, but that could bring down his price. He should be getting around $3M+ for 4 years. That might be an issue for the Caps, as they need to find some money to sign many key players over the next couple years. Also, if he were going to be paired with Carlson, that could form a defensive liability. As one can see by the chart below, they aren’t the best at suppressing shots, but once they get up ice they are extremely deadly, which could be worth the trade off.
Here’s a bonus player the Caps should highly consider. The only reason he isn’t on the top of this list is because he’s a right-handed defenseman and teams tend to not like players playing on their offside, which he or Carlson would most likely have to do. The Pittsburgh Penguins just won two Stanley Cups in a row with mostly right-handed defensemen, so it can work. Anyway, the Caps should attempt to snag up Cody Franson, quite possibly the most underrated defenseman in the league considering his pay and time on ice. He’s a big player at 6’5” and 224 lbs, that can do a bit of everything. If he came to the Caps and plays Top 4 minutes, he could potentially be able to score 40-plus points. Best of all, as mentioned earlier, he’s very underrated, so he wouldn’t cost a ton. Perhaps $3.5M or more for two to three years would do it, though it could be more, but it would be well worth it. Another idea of what they could do with him – if the Caps were uncomfortable playing someone on their offside, they could sign him, but play him on the bottom-pairing. It still doesn’t answer the potential second-pairing problem, but if they have three strong pairings, then maybe they don’t need the second-pairing, left-handed side to be a strong one. Perhaps try out Djoos there or one of the really cheap options mentioned above.
It’s a shame to lose Schmidt in the Expansion Draft. He’s a young, Top 4 caliber, puck-moving defenseman that makes everyone around him better. That is very hard to find, so losing him hurts. But, there are still answers out there to fill the big hole that Schmidt has left behind. It might not be as strong or might just be a band-aid until prospects are ready, but it should work and keep the Capitals competitive. One thing is for sure, losing Schmidt hurts, but it in no way stops making the Capitals a Cup worthy team.
All the charts are provided by the great Own The Puck
By Luke Adomanis