Matt McClain/The Washington Post
When the horn sounded on the Capitals’ season two months ago, the feeling from the team, coaching staff, management, and fans alike was more than just disappointment. It was also devastation and that of wanting to hold on to the season despite their loss. After a two-year period in which the Caps finished the regular season as the best team in the NHL and lost in the second round of the playoffs, changes were coming. And while there were expected departures, there’s likely few people who saw what’s transpired since then coming.
With 11 players expected to become free agents (both restricted and unrestricted) and the team tight against the salary cap ceiling, the Capitals were inevitably not going to be able to re-sign them all. Defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk and forwards T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik were all scheduled to hit the free agency market on July 1. Defensemen Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov; forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Brett Connolly; and goaltender Philipp Grubauer were all restricted free agents. While the Caps re-signed Oshie to an eight-year contract and Orlov to a six-year contract, they made their remaining RFAs (with the exception of Schmidt who was lost in the Expansion Draft) their top priority.
As a result, Alzner, Winnik, Williams, and Shattenkirk (who wasn’t expected to be re-signed) hit the open market on the first of July. One by one, three signed contracts with new teams – Alzner signed a five-year pact with the Montreal Canadiens, Williams signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Shattenkirk a four-year deal with the New York Rangers. Winnik remains unsigned. The Caps subsequently signed Kuznetsov to a massive, eight-year deal that left them with just $4.6 million to sign both Burakovsky and Grubauer. Just moments after announcing the Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded longtime forward Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils to give them some cap relief. On Monday morning, the Caps announced the signings of forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and John Albert to contracts. Despite General Manager Brian MacLellan’s conference call with the media early Monday morning, there are still plenty of questions that will need to be answered.
After losing Schmidt, Shattenkirk, and Alzner, the Caps now have two open spots on their blueline. While MacLellan made it clear that the team will give some of their young defensive prospects an opportunity in training camp as expected, none of them have massive or any NHL experience, leaving the possibility of growing pains next season as a potential problem. The young prospects include Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington, and Aaron Ness (who HAS played in the NHL before). The Caps also are much weaker up front, with multiple forward spots open for the taking. Unlike the blueline, there are several young forwards in the American Hockey League that are likely ready for a bigger role and action in the NHL. Riley Barber, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, and Liam O’Brien are among the forward prospects who have NHL experience. Nathan Walker and Travis Boyd are also possibilities for the NHL next season.
While changes were expected, the magnitude at which they have occurred has left some fans angry, others shocked, or both. The Capitals are now weaker than they were when their season ended two months ago and the question now becomes whether or not the Capitals will truly be able to contend next season. While they will still likely ice a good team, they will undoubtedly be less formidable than they have been the past two seasons. MacLellan has made many smart decisions in his three years at the helm and there’s no reason to doubt him now, despite the moves made in the past two weeks.
By Michael Fleetwood