As a result of the loss of revenue due to COVID-19, the NHL salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for the next three seasons, which is obviously a bad break for teams such as the Washington Capitals who are currently almost $1.02 million over the cap and have some major decisions looming.
Captain Alex Ovechkin (eligible to become an unrestricted free agent), forward Jakub Vrana (RFA), and goaltender Ilya Samsonov (RFA) will be in need of new contracts after this season. Because they need to ensure that they have enough money to sign them, the team will almost certainly have to make some major decisions with other parts of the roster. One of those parts could be center Lars Eller.
It is no secret that the Capitals have one of the best center groups in the league with Eller, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov as their 1-2-3 punch down the middle. After drafting centers Connor McMichael (25th overall) and Hendrix Lapierre (22nd) with their last two consecutive first-round picks, the Capitals’ depth at center just goes beyond the NHL roster. While Lapierre will need more time to develop, McMichael could very well be ready to go by the 2021-22 NHL season after setting career-highs in goals (47), assists (55), and points (102) in just 52 games with the OHL’s London Knights last season and a season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears under his belt. As the Capitals view him to be a top-six center on the NHL roster eventually, it would make sense to give him as much of an opportunity as possible when he is ready for it.
Currently 31-years-old, Eller will have just two seasons remaining on his contract which carries a $3.5 million cap hit. While that contract is not bad by any means, the Capitals could use some more breathing room with the salary cap not going anywhere for a long time to work with as they try to sign Ovechkin, Vrana, and Samsonov.
The expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken after the 2020-21 season is another factor to consider here. While many project the Capitals protecting Eller, is that really the best option with McMichael expected to be ready to make the jump to the NHL as early as the 2021-22 season?
As Eller is on the wrong side of 30, like most of his teammates, it would be understandable if the Capitals would want to get younger as they enter this season with an average age of 29.8, one of the oldest in the NHL. The team is nearing the end of their Stanley Cup window and the best way to remedy that would be to insert some youth, especially with a player as talented as McMichael is.
For a team that is in need of bolstering their prospect group as The Athletic ranked the Capitals 31st in the NHL earlier this year, they could use some extra high picks in the coming drafts. While they may have gained some steam with the addition of Lapierre, who could have gone higher if he did not have problems staying healthy last season, this past one, the Capitals are still near the bottom when it comes to farm systems. By trading Eller prior to the expansion draft, the Capitals could net at least a second-round pick in return and maybe even a low first to help bolster their prospect pool even more.
Since Eller would have another two years remaining on his contract by the time next offseason comes around, dealing him then would increase his value as opposed to when he has one year left which would make sense supposing McMichael is ready.
Eller has been everything and more that the Capitals wanted him to be when they acquired him from the Montreal Canadiens at the 2016 NHL Draft as he has provided depth scoring and solid penalty-killing since coming to Washington. But at some point, it will be time to give the prospects a shot with an aging core, some key but tough decisions nearing, and an expansion draft on the horizon. That point in time could be coming soon.
By Harrison Brown