The Washington Capitals have a big offseason ahead as goaltender Braden Holtby can become an unrestricted free agent and captain Alex Ovechkin, forward Jakub Vrana, and goaltender Ilya Samsonov can all sign contract extensions. With some big money almost certainly being doled out and a tight salary cap, the team may be forced to make some tough decisions with other players.
After defenseman Martin Fehervary impressed team management during camp and early in the NHL season, he shined in a brief two-game return to the big squad in February. Fehervary has been told that he will be with the team when play resumes and is almost certain to be an everyday NHLer next season. He will likely replace Radko Gudas, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end and who previously admitted that he does not anticipate returning next season.
Center Nicklas Backstrom’s new $9.2 million contract goes into effect next season, and the Capitals will need to clear some cap space in anticipation of signing Ovechkin and Vrana. With a strong defensive prospect pool, they could probably afford to save money by releasing or trading on one or two defensemen.
In addition to needing money, the Capitals also need to make some strategic moves in advance of the Seattle expansion draft after the 2020-21 season. The team will probably choose to protect three defensemen, with two of those spots likely going to John Carlson and Jonas Siegenthaler after the 23-year-old Swiss had a solid rookie campaign where he posted a +11 rating. Alexander Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary will both be exempt from the expansion draft, so the Capitals will be left to decide between protecting Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny. Rather than risking the other in the expansion draft, the Capitals could decide to make a trade.
After setting a career-high in goals with 10 in 2017-18, Orlov’s game has been on the decline as he has just seven goals over the past two seasons. He is not the best defensive player, and his $5.1 million cap hit could be seen as a bit of an overpay for a team up against the salary cap, even though he played better this season as his Corsi-for percentage of 53.37% was his best in three seasons and his 54.69% scoring chances-for percentage was the best of his career. The defenseman will turn 29 in July, meaning that the odds are his best playing days are in the rearview. While it could be argued that dealing Orlov would not sit well with captain Alex Ovechkin, the team just added another Russian in Samsonov this season, and while 2018 first-round pick Alexeyev may need a bit more time, he will likely get some time next season or 2021-22.
Kempny has not been the same since having hamstring surgery on April 2, 2019, which caused him to miss the first eight games of this season. His +19 rating may have led the Capitals this season, but Kempny’s Corsi-for percentage and Fenwick-for percentage both declined from the previous season, though slightly, and he struggled in February. The Capitals opted to scratch Kempny for arguably the biggest game of the season against the Philadelphia Flyers back on March 4. While Kempny may not be the player he was before his procedure, he also missed having a full summer of training and still led the Capitals in plus-minus even in a down season. With the opportunity to train more during the NHL pause, he could bounce back to be better even if he doesn’t return to the level he was at before his surgery. And his $2.5 million cap hit for two more seasons still looks like a bargain.
The Capitals could potentially use cash freed up from a trade to keep Brenden Dillon, who played well after he was dealt from the San Jose Sharks on February 18, or to sign another defenseman that would better fit the team’s salary cap in free agency.
Besides Fehervary, Siegenthaler had a breakout season and established himself as the Capitals’ top penalty killer, though he found himself out of the lineup after the team acquired Dillon. He is likely an everyday NHLer next season as he got some time on the top-pair next to Carlson before Dillon’s arrival.
With Orlov and Kempny on the decline and young defensemen in need of some ice time, it could be time for the Capitals to deal one of the veterans, especially with the expansion draft just a year away where at least one of them will likely be exposed. If the Capitals act this offseason, they could get more rather value than if they waiting until just ahead of the expansion draft. Besides, the Capitals’ defense has arguably been a disappointment for the past two seasons as it has given up an average of 3.05 goals-per-game, the league average.
By Harrison Brown