Photo: Nick Waas/AP
With the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft just 18 days away and each team having to lose player to the Seattle Kraken, some teams will lose a significant part of their rosters that will leave gaping holes while others will be able to plug in other players within their system to replace them. With that in mind, NoVa Caps examines the best and worst possible outcomes of the NHL Expansion Draft for the Washington Capitals.
In our mock draft published in June, we had the Capitals protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie from Seattle. You can view the players protected from the Kraken here. Assuming the Capitals go with the protection list projected in our mock, the players available to the Kraken to take for free can be found below. [Click to enlarge].
Screenshot via CapFriendly
We determined these rankings by examining the player’s role with the team, whether there are suitable replacements in the system, how hard it would be to find a replacement outside of the organization, and whether it would improve the Capitals’ salary cap situation (they currently have $9,018,695 in space to re-sign captain Alex Ovenchkin and goalie Ilya Samsonov).
LHD Michal Kempny
Pros: With Martin Fehervary expected to make the jump to the NHL this season, the 30-year-old Kempny is penciled in as the extra defenseman and the Capitals may not need him. If the Kraken were to take him, that would free up an extra $2.5 million in cap space. Since Kempny is on the outside looking in, losing him would not change the Capitals’ plans much. In fact, he could be traded in the near future. Kempny is coming off of two major surgeries in two and a half years, one to repair a torn hamstring on April 2, 2019, and another to repair a torn Achilles tendon on October 8, 2020. Even when Kempny was healthy during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he was scratched.
Cons: There are not many downsides to Kempny being taken besides that there will be fewer in-house options if Fehervary struggles to pan out as hoped. Nevertheless, it’s always tough for the Capitals lose a piece of their 2018 Stanley Cup Championship team.
RHD Justin Schultz
Pros: If Schultz were to get taken, unloading his expensive $4 million will give the Capitals some much-needed cap space. He struggled defensively this season with a 49.14% Corsi-for percentage, a 48.25% expected goals-for percentage, and a 49.25% scoring chances-for percentage at five-on-five and he has never been known as a strong defensive defenseman. Since he will turn 31 on Tuesday, it is unlikely that his defensive game will improve. The Capitals could find a better defensive right-handed defenseman who is younger and cheaper via trade or free agency. Schultz has just one year remaining on his contract before he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.
Cons: Losing an offensive-minded defenseman like Schultz would only make their power play worse, and Schultz improved under head coach Peter Laviolette’s system as he ranked third on the Capitals with a +12 rating. Schultz could be traded to upgrade at the position so losing him would remove that possibility. With two Stanley Cup rings, the Capitals would lose out on that playoff experience.
RHD Nick Jensen
Pros: The Capitals signed Trevor Van Riemsdyk to a two-year contract extension on March 21, so they have an in-house replacement if the soon-to-be 31-year-old gets taken. Losing Jensen would free up $2.5 million in cap space. With the Capitals hoping to get younger over the offseason, losing a player over 30 years of age would be a step in the right direction. If the Capitals are not confident that Van Riemsdyk can be an everyday player or want an insurance policy since he has been a No. 7 defenseman for the past two seasons, they could sign a replacement to rotate in with him in free agency for less than $2.5 million.
Cons: Jensen is one of the Capitals’ best shutdown defensemen and averaged 2:38 on the penalty kill last season, second among the team’s blueliners. He thrived under Laviolette in 2020-21, where he turned in his best season as a Capital and posted a 50.24% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 53.58% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and a 52.5% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage.
LW Carl Hagelin
Pros: Hagelin is getting up there in age as he will turn 33 on August 23 and his $2.75 million cap hit in a flat salary cap era might be deemed high for a player who produced just six goals in 56 games last season. The Capitals could find a shutdown forward to replace Hagelin for cheaper in free agency.
Cons: If Hagelin were to be taken, the Capitals would lose their top penalty-killing forward as he averaged 2:34 per game (most among Capitals’ forwards) on a unit that ranked fifth in the NHL with an 84% efficiency this past season. Hagelin was also a key part of the Capitals’ shut down line. With two Stanley Cups and five trips to at least the third round under his belt, the Capitals would also be losing valuable playoff experience if Hagelin were to go.
LHD Brenden Dillon
Pros: After leading the Capitals with five major penalties this season, losing Dillon would make the team more disciplined from the one that finished sixth with 527 penalty minutes this past season. The Capitals were the oldest team in the NHL in 2020-21 and Dillon is 30 years old. Losing him would free up $3.9 million to spend in free agency or acquire players via trade. Perhaps the Capitals could find some better and cheaper ones if they look outside the organization for a replacement.
Cons: If Dillon were to get taken, the Capitals would lose a solid player that fits into their style of heavy and big. They would lose grit and a player that makes them tougher to play against. Dillon is one of the team’s best defensive and penalty-killing defensemen, recording a 50.40% Corsi-for percentage, a 51.56% expected goals-for percentage, and a 51.97% expected goals-for percentage at five-on-five. The Capitals would have to find another partner for Schultz who would help offset his defensive deficiencies.
G Vitek Vanecek
Pros: If Vanecek were to get taken, that would force the Capitals to look outside the organization for a goalie. After he finished the season with a .908 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average, perhaps there is an opportunity to upgrade, especially following a season where the Capitals finished 17th in the NHL with a .9164 five-on-five save percentage. It took until Vanecek was 25 for him to make his NHL debut and he performed admirably this past season but is unproven and his play was inconsistent.
Cons: While there is room to improve in goal, finding a replacement will cost more money and Ilya Samsonov is also up for a new contract as a restricted free agent. Having a back-up or 1B goalie make just over league minimum allows the team to spend more money on forwards and defense. While Vanecek’s play was inconsistent, it was enough for him to finish sixth in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s rookie of the year. With an unproven starter or 1A goalie in Samsonov who has played more than 28 games in his career just once (started 37 with the AHL’s Hershey Bears in 2018-19 and finished with a .898 save percentage and a 2.70 goals-against average), the Capitals need somebody who is up to a heavy workload. Vanecek showed he can do that this season when he started 16 of 17 games from January 18-February 27 and posted a .905 save percentage and a 2.92 goals-against average over that time.
RHD Trevor Van Riemsdyk
Pros: If the Kraken were to take Van Riemsdyk, the Capitals would be losing just their seventh defenseman, which every team would call a “win” if they lost theirs in expansion. He will turn 30 just after the expansion draft.
Cons: In Van Riemsdyk, the Capitals would be losing a good value contract after he finished with a 52.49% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, a 54.94% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 53.7% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 20 games. He signed a two-year contract that carries a $950,000 cap hit on March 21. Losing Van Riemsdyk would give the Capitals less defensive depth and fewer options on the penalty kill. The Capitals would be missing a solid defensive defenseman if Van Riemsdyk were to go.
C Lars Eller
Pros: Eller’s production took a hit this season as he finished with eight goals and 23 points in 44 games. He also missed time due to numerous injuries and just turned 32-years-old. After the Capitals just drafted three strong centers past two seasons in Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas, and Hendrix Lapierre in the past two drafts, there are a few in-house candidates to take Eller’s spot. Even if the Capitals do not feel comfortable with letting one of them step in from the system, they could find a cheaper and younger short-term alternative in free agency in case McMichael or Protas do not cash in on their opportunity in training camp.
Cons: In losing Eller, the Capitals would lose one of the NHL’s best third-line centers and one of their best penalty-killers. He finished third among Capitals forwards with an average of 2:00 minutes per game on the penalty kill. Putting that pressure on McMichael and Protas in training camp may also not be beneficial for either player or for the organization.
C Evgeny Kuznetsov
Pros: If the Kraken select the 29-year-old, the Capitals will lose a player that they are trying to trade anyway for a solid return. Kuznetsov has been unreliable and irresponsible after being placed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol twice this season and testing positive for cocaine during the 2019 IIHF World Championships, and he has seen his points-per-game average decline since leading the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 20 assists and 32 points in 24 games. The Capitals would clear $7.8 million in cap space and would not have to give up additional compensation for someone to take on Kuznetsov’s expensive contract or work with his 15-team no-trade clause to move him. He is not known as a great defensive player, though he has improved recently.
Cons: It would certainly be unfortunate to lose a player as talented as Kuznetsov for nothing and would put more pressure on McMichael and Eller in training camp if they do not chase another center. It would certainly be harder to acquire another top-six center without having Kuznetsov to offer and may not sit well with the Capitals’ other three Russians, especially if they lost him for nothing.
RW Garnet Hathaway
Pros: Finding a player to play on the fourth line is not difficult or expensive in free agency. Perhaps, the Capitals could find some younger, less expensive alternatives in free agency or in their pipeline. Hathaway will turn 30 in November.
Cons: If the Capitals lose Hathaway, they will lose the grit and physicality that fits so well in their system. He was the team’s nominee for the King Clancy Award as awarded “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community,” so the Capitals would certainly miss the impact Hathaway has off of the ice. With two years left at $1.5 million, Hathaway is delivering good value to the Capitals and is defensively responsible. Not having him would give the Capitals fewer options on the penalty kill as he averaged 1:19 while shorthanded this past season. Hathaway has shown some scoring ability with nine goals in 66 games in 2019-20 and converting on some nice shots this past season. Losing Hathaway would break up the Capitals’ solid fourth-line and make it a lot harder to get under the opposition’s skin.
C Nic Dowd
Pros: Dowd is 31-years-old and as the fourth-line center, the Capitals could find younger alternatives on the open market.
Cons: Dowd provides excellent contract value with one year remaining on a deal that pays him $750,000 per season. He centers the team’s shutdown line and just set a career-high with 11 goals despite the shortened season. Dowd’s average of 2:17 per game on the penalty kill was second on the team behind Hagelin. Losing him would also break up the chemistry of the team’s fourth-line, which was key to the Capitals’ success during the 2020-21 regular season.
RW Daniel Sprong
Pros: The 24-year-old is not known as a very defensively responsible player as he recorded a 50% Corsi-for percentage, a 49.64% expected goals-for percentage, and a 48.76% scoring chances-for percentage during the regular season. He was a healthy scratch for two games of the team’s five-game first-round series loss to the Boston Bruins. The Capitals could find a third-line right-wing in free agency easily if Sprong were to be selected.
Cons: If Sprong were to be taken, the Capitals would lose their youngest forward while trying to get a younger roster. GM Brian MacLellan expressed a desire to get Sprong some more playing time at his year-end media availability. Sprong’s 1.59 goals-per-60 minutes this season was tied for 13th best in the NHL. As he makes only a league-minimum $700,000, he provides excellent value for a team battling with the salary cap. These are not the type of contracts you let walk away for nothing.
LW Conor Sheary
Pros: The Capitals could perhaps find a middle-six left-wing for cheap in free agency.
Cons: Losing the 29-year-old would mean losing a productive player on a very team-friendly deal after he signed a two-year contract that carries a $1.5 million cap hit on April 14. Sheary’s 14 goals ranked fourth on the Capitals this season. He is well-rounded as he put up a 53.77% Corsi-for percentage, a 55.71% expected goals-for percentage, and a 54.23% scoring chances-for percentage at five-on-five this season. Sheary is the type of player that could play on any line. He was one of the team’s youngest forwards on the NHL’s oldest roster this past season and fit in well. With two Stanley Cups next to his name, he also brings experience. The Capitals’ prospect pool down the wings are not very strong, so finding a replacement would likely be more expensive and the value would almost certainly not be as good.
Pros: As a pending unrestricted free agent, it is highly unlikely that the Kraken will use their expansion pick on any as they can sign them a week later but what would they be without at least checking in with Ovechkin and offering a blank check? It is reported that the Capitals have a deal in place with him to be signed after the expansion draft so they can protect an extra forward. Yes, the Capitals would lose an older player and gain a huge chunk of salary cap space, but let’s face it, there is no upside to losing the face of the franchise.
Cons: Losing Ovechkin is all downside. It would slam shut an already narrow Stanley Cup window and would mean more since he has been the captain since 2009 and led the Capitals to their first championship in 2018. It would also mean losing what very well is the best goal scorer to ever play the game who was still on pace to finish with 44 goals in a full 82-game season last year and is still going strong. It would also change the outlook of the Capitals’ offseason and short-term approach and make a power play that finished third in the NHL with a 24.8% efficiency dramatically worse as Ovechkin’s nine power-play goals ranked second on the Capitals (behind just right-wing’s T.J. Oshie’s 13). Losing Ovechkin would leave the Capitals without a game-breaker, something necessary to win.
By Harrison Brown