Photo: Yahoo! Sports
Late last week, TSN released a list of their top 25 “trade bait” players for this off-season (here). It is interesting to note that no players from the Washington Capitals appeared on this list but it is pretty fair to assume that General Manager Brian MacLellan would be willing to move assets to bolster the NHL roster, the prospect pool, or clear cap space. The Capitals are in a bit of a cap conundrum this off-season, exacerbated by the $1.15 million in bonus overages that will impact the overall cap hit of the team. These bonus overages are when players achieve the conditions necessary to receive their performance bonuses but their NHL team does not have the cap space necessary at the end of that season to account for them. With the bonus overages, and pending free agents, the Capitals have $10,080,706 in projected cap space, according to CapFriendly. The Capitals have the following NHL roster players to re-sign (or choose not to re-sign):
- F Jakub Vrana (restricted)
- F Brett Connolly (unrestricted)
- F Carl Hagelin (unrestricted)
- F Andre Burakovsky (restricted)
- F Dmitrij Jaskin (restricted)
- F Chandler Stephenson (restricted)
- F Devante Smith-Pelly (unrestricted)
- D Brooks Orpik (unrestricted)
- D Christian Djoos (restricted)
There are a few players in the list above that are unlikely to be re-signed, regardless of cap room. Orpik is likely contemplating retirement. Smith-Pelly may want a change of scenery after being sent through waivers. Jaskin was a healthy scratch most of the season and did not play at all in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Out of this group, Vrana has to be the top priority. From what we have seen in the past with the Capitals, we will likely see a bridge deal to lower his cap hit in the short term, with a larger contract coming after the bridge contract expires. Connolly and Hagelin are both nice-to-haves. For those players (mainly Connolly) to return, and have the cap space to do so, here are the players that the Capitals should consider trade bait:
Burakovsky showed great promise in his first couple seasons in the league, landing him a two-year contract with a $3 million annual average value at the end of the 2016-17 season. After suffering a slew of hand and wrist injuries, his production — and growth — have been stifled. He has shown flashes of brilliance, namely in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning where he potted two goals to seal the Capitals’ first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1998. Ultimately, it would require a $3.25 million qualifying offer for the Capitals to re-up him, which is just too rich for the team’s cap situation right now. Burakovsky would likely be a welcome addition to a team that needs to improve their forward depth and has sufficient cap space. He could reunite with former Erie Otters linemate and center Connor McDavid with the Edmonton Oilers, for a mid-round pick.
Niskanen was a stalwart on the top defensive pairing on the Capitals’ Stanley Cup team. A long Stanley Cup Playoffs and a subsequently short summer seemed to have an impact on Niskanen’s physicality this season. He got closer to his former self at the end of the season, but was not close enough to his caliber of play in the Cup run. With a $5.75 million cap hit expiring in two seasons, he is more of a cap casualty than anything. Defenseman Nick Jensen, who was acquired at the trade deadline and immediately signed to a four-year contract extension worth $10 million ($2.5 million AAV), seems to be the heir-apparent to taking Niskanen’s top-four role. An interesting landing place for Niskanen could with the Dallas Stars, who drafted Niskanen 28th overall in 2005 and need veteran leadership in their second and third pairing on the right side. Could Niskanen have a rejuvenated season playing next to Dallas wunderkind and defenseman Miro Heiskanen? It would definitely be an improvement for the Stars. Dallas could send back a package of restricted free agents in forward Mattias Janmark and defenseman Julius Honka, who would likely combine for less than Niskanen’s cap hit.
Johansen, a first-round pick in 2016, has yet to play a game in the NHL. With the bevy depth of left-handed defensemen, Johansen is an asset that could be flipped to address the Capitals’ need for forward prospect depth (has been mentioned previously in here) but Johansen could likely net either a mid-round pick or another change of scenery candidate like AHL forward Joshua Ho-Sang from the New York Islanders.
In all, MacLellan is going to have a busy offseason. If the Capitals want to extend their championship window, they will have to address a few areas of need. Teams that don’t invest in prospects and move out expensive contracts for non-core players at the end of their prime before their value plummets end up in the purgatory of mediocrity. Not only do the Capitals have this off-season to worry about, but Nicklas Backstrom’s contract also expires at the end of next season and captain Alex Ovechkin’s the season after that. The teams that are good for a long time rely on a constant influx of young talent on entry-level or cheaper contracts so that they have more cap flexibility. We have seen examples of that on the Capitals on defense (Djoos, Michal Kempny) and goaltending (Pheonix Copley) during the past few seasons but have only had a couple of forward prospects over the past four or five seasons that make the jump into the NHL and make significant contributions. Through trading assets and the 2019 NHL Draft, the Capitals will need to pick up more talent in the bottom-six forward corps and in the minors.
By Justin Trudel