The Capitals have done a great job of keeping the core pieces intact from their Stanley Cup run by re-signing key players such as defenseman John Carlson, defenseman Michal Kempny, and forward Devante Smith-Pelly, but they had to make some tough decisions to make room to retain those players like moving defenseman Brooks Orpik and goaltender Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche and letting center Jay Beagle walk in free agency.
The Capitals may have internal replacements for Beagle and Grubauer. Centers Travis Boyd, who re-signed with the Capitals on a two-year contract worth $1.6 million on July 1, or Chandler Stephenson, who tied defenseman Christian Djoos for the second best +/- rating on the team at a +13 in 67 games during 2017-18 and was very good defensively, could move into Beagle’s spot at center. Both played center during their time with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League. Pheonix Copley, who was (re)acquired as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade with the St. Louis Blues at the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline, will almost certainly take Grubauer’s spot as the No. 2 goalie behind Braden Holtby.
The Capitals may have some assets in the pipeline to replace Beagle and Grubauer, but do they for Orpik? Orpik was fifth in the NHL with a +32 rating in 2016-17 and was an alternate captain for all four years of his tenure here. Sure, his -9 rating was the worst on the team this season and he may have had the worst season among Capitals’ defenseman in recent years, but he helped mentor rookie defenseman Djoos and Madison Bowey during the season and showed them the ropes of being an everyday NHL defenseman. Orpik was also solid in the postseason, leading the Capitals with a +17 rating. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov had the second-best +/- rating with a +12.
The good news for the Capitals is that they have a lot of options to replace him.
The first option might be to bring back Orpik, who was bought out by the Avalanche shortly after they acquired him. The Capitals have expressed interest in a reunion but no deal is imminent and Orpik is weighing his options.
The Caps could give Bowey, 23, a spot on the third pairing, but he struggled in that spot with the Capitals last season, tallying 12 points (all assists), a -3 rating, and 38 giveaways in 51 games. Bowey spent most of the year with the Capitals but became the odd man out after the team brought in Michal Kempny at the trade deadline.
Other than Bowey, the Capitals have good defensive prospects like Lucas Johansen and Connor Hobbs, but it appears that neither of them is ready for the NHL yet. In his first year with the Hershey Bears, Johansen had 6 goals, 21 assists, and a -13 rating in 74 games. Hobbs had 3 goals, 13 assists, and a -11 rating in 44 games with the Bears.
The Capitals also have some options in free agency, and general manager Brian MacLellan said earlier this week that they have talked to some free agent defenseman. Some notable defensemen on the free agent market include Dan Hamhuis, who tallied three goals, 24 points, and a -3 rating in 79 games with the Dallas Stars this season but is 35 years old; Luca Sbisa, who recorded two goals, 14 points, and a +8 rating in 30 games with the Vegas Golden Knights and is only 28 years old; and Johnny Oduya, who tallied four goals, eight points, and a +1 rating in 52 games with the Ottawa Senators but is 36 years old. Oduya, who the Capitals drafted 221st overall in 2001, brings much of the same traits as Orpik does as a shutdown defenseman, and he has won two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 and 2015.
As a final option, the Capitals could look toward a potential trade for a defenseman. The hottest player on the market is Senators’ captain Erik Karlsson, though it’s highly unlikely the Caps could land the Norris Trophy winner. Karlsson can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2018-19 season and has made it clear he had no interest in staying in Ottawa. He could be traded as early as this week, but it sounds like the Tampa Bay Lightning are the front-runners to land his services, with the Golden Knights and the Stars also in the hunt. Washington and other teams reportedly made a push to land Karlsson and the trade deadline, but the asking price was too high. While adding someone of Karlsson’s ilk would push the Capitals to a new level, the Capitals would likely have to give up a package that could include a 2019 first round pick, current roster players like forward Andre Burakovsky, Djoos, and perhaps even prospect Ilya Samsonov, which would take away some of their depth and their best prospect, or that kind of deal to get him. And while adding Karlsson would help the team, the Capitals already have a solid top-four defensive unit in place for the next three seasons and would have to pay him around $11 million or more after his contract expires at the end of the season, which would force them to move even more players.
Before they look for an Orpik replacement, the team must sign forward Tom Wilson, who became a restricted free agent July 1. Wilson, 24, tallied 14 goals, 35 points, and a +10 rating during the regular season playing alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom/Evgeny Kuznetsov. He is due for a pay raise and is the Capitals’ top priority right now.
The Capitals have $8,265,705 remaining in cap space so they should be able to re-sign Wilson and Bowey, the only other restricted free agents on the team, and find another defenseman to replace Orpik.
MacLellan has done a tremendous job of keeping the Cup-winning roster as intact as possible, but the Caps need to find a defenseman who can anchor their third pair after trading Orpik to the Avalanche. The good news is that they have a lot of options.
By Harrison Brown