The Capitals have a problem that many contending and Stanley Cup-winning teams have had: limited prospects in the minors that have potential to contribute at the NHL level. The Caps and a vast majority of the fan base would absolutely trade the prospect pool in return for being the 2018 Stanley Cup champions. It does not appear that the Capitals would be content with only winning the Cup once during the touted Alex Ovechkin era. In order to compete for championships going forward, especially with the Seattle expansion draft looming, General Manager Brian MacLellan has to be a shrewd asset manager. There are a few options that MacLellan and the front office can consider.
Trade assets from positions of strength to bolster forward prospect depth
The complication the Capitals face is that there is only strong depth at two positions in the minors: goaltender and left-handed defensemen. Vitek Vanecek is a solid goaltender in Hershey, and highly-touted prospect Ilya Samsonov will likely make the jump to the NHL in one of the next few seasons. In the NHL, Braden Holtby (an Unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2019-20 season) and Pheonix Copley round out the goalie tandem at the NHL level. With all indications that Samsonov is the heir apparent for the starter’s role after Holtby’s departure, goaltending is likely not a position GMBM is looking to use to acquire additional assets.
At the NHL level, left-handed defensemen are one of the deepest positions on the team. The Caps have long-term deals in place for Michal Kempny (three years remaining at $2.5 million a season) and Dmitry Orlov (four years remaining at $5.1 million a season), as well as Jonas Siegenthaler (one year remaining on his entry-level contract) and pending Restricted Free Agent Christian Djoos. There’s a log jam of talent on the left side, with really only the third-pairing left side spot up for grabs. In the minors and elsewhere, the Capitals have 2018 first-round pick Alex Alexeyev, 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen, one of the team’s two second-round picks in 2018, Martin Fehervary, and 2017 fourth-round pick Tobias Geisser.
The left-handed defensive prospect that makes the most sense to move is Lucas Johansen. He was on the third-pairing with [the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate] Hershey at the end of the season and in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Additionally, he was underwhelming defensively this season, and recorded only 14 points in 45 regular season games played. With Alexeyev showing high level potential with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels and Fehervary playing well at the World Championships, all indications (at this stage) appear to point to Johansen being passed by on the depth chart. Johansen’s value realistically could net Washington a mid-round pick, or a similar forward prospect that could use a change of scenery. Names like Joshua Ho-Sang in the New York Islanders organization come to mind in that regard.
Another option is moving right-handed defenseman Matt Niskanen, a likely cap casualty with the team needing to open up salary cap space for signing Jakub Vrana and other pending free agents. Nick Jensen can slot into his position on the second-pairing alongside Dmitry Orlov. Niskanen had a down year after the team’s Stanley Cup run, but finished the season playing up to his capabilities. Right-handed defensemen are always going to be a premium asset in the NHL, especially for teams that do not have NHL-ready, right-shot blueliners.
Moving pending Restricted Free Agent Andre Burakovsky is another option the Capitals could possibly explore. After an impressive showing in 2015-16, his production has dropped off, likely a result of multiple hand and wrist injuries. He’s scored 12 goals in each of the last three seasons in reduced roles in the bottom-six. There are a lot of conditions with moving Burakovsky though, most notably that his qualifying offer would be at a minimum of his current $3.2 million salary, something the Caps can ill-afford. A scenario that could make sense is that he’ll be non-tendered by the team, and another team (or the Capitals) could sign him as a free agent at a reduced salary. The best option here for the Caps is to move him to a team that doesn’t have salary cap issues and are in need of scoring wingers. The precipice for this move would be that the acquiring team must be concerned with not signing Burakovsky as a free agent, and do not want to take the risk of not signing him. Burakovsky might flourish in a role where he plays Top 6 minutes. There were rumblings earlier this season that Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi could be the return for Burakovsky. Puljujarvi likely is a change of scenery candidate, who can be qualified at a lower average annual value.
Target the best forwards available with multiple picks in the 2019 NHL Draft
The Capitals are slated to pick 25th in the draft on June 21 and currently hold five draft picks (first, second, fourth, fifth, and seventh-round selections) According to Sportsnet’s prospect ratings, there are quite a few forward prospects that should be available for Washington. Ryan Suzuki, brother of touted Montreal Canadiens center prospect Nick Suzuki, is one of the more attractive options for the Caps, but they may have to move up a couple of spots in the first-round to draft him based on draft projections.
Another option is Samuel Poulin, a 6’2”, 207 lb, 18-year old left winger. His father, Patrick Poulin played in the NHL. That NHL bloodline appears to be an attractive quality to the Caps’ scouts and front office (see Kody Clark, Riley Sutter, Christian Djoos, and Burakovsky). Poulin would fit right into the mold of the Capitals, but likely isn’t NHL ready for a few more seasons. His presence in Hershey would bolster forward scoring, especially with last year’s team leader in goal scoring, Riley Barber, likely departing for free agency.
The Capitals must continue to build from within to compete long-term. Teams that exhaust draft capital in the trade market eventually hit a wall where their core ages out, and rebuilds become the only option (see Detroit, and likely San Jose). Often, the price is necessary to win the Cup. The Capitals need to develop from within with the Seattle Expansion Draft looming, or else it means losing a valuable asset. The Vegas expansion draft cost Nate Schmidt, who’s now one of Vegas’ top blueliners. The following players are likely to be protected in the next expansion draft and are signed through 2022:
One could likely add Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to this list of protected players. The other two forwards covered in the seven-forward, three-defensemen, and one goalie format can be up for debate. Does MacLellan choose to expose T.J. Oshie or Lars Eller (or both) in lieu of exposing a young player with the potential to be a difference maker? The best thing MacLellan can do is avoid giving or acquiring contracts with no-movement clauses — unless he plans on protecting that asset in the expansion draft. No one would blame MacLellan if he decided to give NMCs to Ovechkin and Backstrom, but those are likely no-brainers for protection.
All-in-all, look for not only MacLellan, but other General Managers around the league to be much more shrewd in their negotiations with Seattle leading up to the Expansion Draft. Vegas’ George McPhee got the best of many of his colleagues around the league (looking at the Florida Panthers, in giving them ⅔ of their top line in their historic inaugural season). Depending on how the next few seasons go, MacLellan might be willing to move other assets to ensure Seattle takes the player he wants them to from the Capitals.
By Justin Trudel