After Christian Djoos was awarded a one year, $1.25 million contract in arbitration and Chandler Stephenson was signed to a one year, $1,050,000 contract before his August 1st arbitration hearing, the Capitals find themselves over the salary cap. Luckily, teams are allowed to go 10% above the cap-ceiling during the off-season, but need to be cap compliant by season start. This means that the Capitals will be able to go through training camp before being required to make moves to get under the salary cap ceiling.
A common option for teams to get below the cap ceiling is to send players down to Hershey. The issue for the Capitals is that the only player on the roster that is exempt from the waiver claims process is Jonas Siegenthaler, and his cap hit is only $714,166. The Caps are currently over the cap ceiling by $1,364,294.
There will be inferences made here on MacLellan’s behalf, such as the Caps not trading recently signed free agents Hagelin, Panik, Hathaway, and Leipsic. Typically, moving recently signed free agents makes the team less desirable for future free agent signings. Also, trading or sending Pheonix Copley through waivers is something that will likely come as a last resort, mainly due to preparations for the upcoming expansion draft, where the Capitals will need to expose a goaltender who is under a current or expiring contract.
It is expected that the Capitals will enter the season with a 22 man roster, rather than the typical 23. They’ll likely keep an extra forward and an extra defenseman with low cap hits, preferably on an entry-level contract. Through training camp, we’ll likely see a competition for the fourth line wing position between recently signed Brendan Leipsic, Chandler Stephenson, and Travis Boyd. The odd man out will likely be sent down to Hershey, and will need to pass through waivers.
Another position battle will be for the left defenseman spot on the third pairing between Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler. Djoos has much more playoff and regular season experience, racking up a total of 108 games played in the regular season and 25 in the playoffs. Siegenthaler impressed a bit more at the tail end of the regular season, and looked formidable when inserted into the lineup in the 2019 playoffs in Djoos’ place.
If Djoos loses that position battle, it puts MacLellan in a tough spot. They can’t afford to have Djoos on the NHL club as a healthy scratch, and it’s extremely likely that he’ll be claimed off of waivers by another team. MacLellan isn’t in the business of letting assets go for nothing, especially ones with the experience of winning a Stanley Cup. If Djoos doesn’t make the starting lineup, the Capitals will likely need to trade Djoos for a prospect or a draft pick. Left defensemen is also one of the positions where the Capitals have a surplus of prospects that are nearly ready to make the jump to the NHL in Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary.
If Djoos is traded, the Caps are only $789,294 over the cap ceiling. This makes it a bit easier, because you can keep Brendan Leipsic’s $700,000 cap hit on the NHL roster, and send either Stephenson or Boyd through waivers and hopefully to Hershey.
Based off of last season’s statistics, the more valuable player to keep on the NHL roster is Travis Boyd. Let’s compare their career stats, courtesy of hockey-reference.com:
In comparing possession stats, both Boyd and Stephenson under-performed with Boyd coming in at a 48.6 Corsi For percentage at even strength (1.3 lower than when compared to the Capitals’ performance with Boyd off of the ice), and Stephenson at 45 Corsi For (3.7 under the Capitals’ performance with Stephenson off of the ice).
Judging purely based off of Corsi, which judges whether or not players on the ice are driving play, Boyd has an advantage here. Also, when comparing point shares (a method of calculating player value by estimating their total defensive and offensive point contributions), Boyd has a considerable advantage.
If Stephenson loses the battle to Boyd in training camp, and is reassigned to the AHL, the Capitals will be below the salary cap ceiling by $260,706. The following iteration of the Capitals would be projected to finish with 106 standings points, and a 28.79 team WAR:
Comparably, if Stephenson makes the opening night lineup, the Capitals’ approximate standings points drops a point to 105, and the overall team WAR drops to 27.95.
The value that Stephenson brings is his ability to penalty kill, which isn’t necessarily counted into the WAR metrics. Overall, you can likely expect Tom Wilson, TJ Oshie, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik, Nic Dowd, and Garnet Hathaway to be on the penalty killing units. Stephenson making the roster makes four even forward units on the penalty kill.
Interestingly enough, if you add Travis Boyd to the fourth line, and leave Brendan Leipsic as a healthy scratch, the approximate standings point projections go up to 107, and the team WAR increases to 29.07. That opening night roster would look like this:
Also, if you look at the starting roster with Djoos inserted for Siegenthaler, you have a drop off of two standings points to 104, and a team WAR of 27.73.
Overall, we’re not looking at a huge drop-off in terms of standings points if one player is retained over another, but in a vastly improving division and Eastern Conference in general, every standings point is going to matter. The issue here is, we can only try to predict the future using projection tools based off of what we already know in terms of past production and player performance. Unless Stephenson or Djoos improve considerably and force MacLellan to keep them on the roster, the recently signed restricted free agents are likely to be out of the NHL lineup.
To recap, this is only one of countless options the Capitals could make to become cap compliant. It’s pretty safe to assume that MacLellan isn’t going to shake up the main core of the roster by moving a larger contract out and potentially closing the Stanley Cup winning window. This means that, although it’s certainly a possibility, the Caps are not going to be moving out anyone on the top six in Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson, Vrana, Backstrom, or Oshie, unless the return makes the Capitals cap compliant and a better team overall.
By Justin Trudel