Screenshot: Washington Capitals
With the NHL offseason truly beginning to take hold, the Washington Capitals are just one of the league’s 32 clubs gearing up for the NHL Entry Draft on July 7, evaluating potential picks as well as preparing for the free agency period. For the Caps, a multitude of roster decisions to address the challenges facing the club next season will need to be made, among them, the situation in net and the absence of Nicklas Backstrom.
General Manager and Senior Vice President Brian MacLellan took questions from the media prior to the NHL Entry Draft July 7, looking at the weeks ahead for his hockey club and addressing certain needs.
After 10 seasons of stability in net from Braden Holtby (who departed in free agency), the Caps turned the crease over to the young and inexperienced duo of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov in 2020-21 (after the loss of veteran free agent signing Henrik Lundqvist to open-heart surgery), both of whom had to adjust to the NHL game on the fly.
While Samsonov in particular had a number of up and down moments in his first taste of NHL action, Vanecek played promisingly, sporting a 21-10-4 record, and finishing his first season with a .908 Save Percentage and 2.67 Goals-Against Average. Both netminders showed stretches of solid play between the pipes in their second season, though periods of inconsistency highlighted the need for a more stable situation for Head Coach Peter Laviolette in 2022-23.
The Caps looked to address the issue in-season, however ultimately decided that the play of Vanecek at the time warranted an opportunity to carry the team into the playoffs, where they were eliminated for the fourth consecutive spring in the opening round.
“They’re both RFA’s [Restricted Free Agents] we’ll go through the RFA process, we’ll explore all opportunities with any other position on the team”
MacLellan urged patience with both Vanecek and Samsonov’s (both of whom will receive qualifying offers) inexperience in his final media interview at the conclusion of last season, however, did emphasize the need for consistent play between the pipes. A trade or free agent acquisition is one route the Caps’ brass could take this summer to address those concerns.
“Yeah, definitely. Like I said, we’ll explore the trade opportunities there, we’ll look at the free agent market, and then analyze the RFA contracts coming for both, and make a decision based on all that.”
The Caps have a number of potential options via both free agency and trade, as highlighted by NoVa Caps’ Harrison Brown in May of this year.
With a knee injury to right wing Tom Wilson during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, longtime center Nicklas Backstrom undergoing significant hip surgery, and losing veteran fourth-line forward Carl Hagelin due to an eye injury, the Caps have a number of other needs to address in addition to goaltending.
“Nothing on the timeline. I think the timeline is uncertain. Everybody’s happy, the trainers, the doctors with the surgery, the results of the surgery. I think it’s Nick’s intention to come back and play at some point this year, but the timeline of that will be uncertain, as his recovery comes…Until we see him halfway in his recovery, what mobility strength he’s gotten back from it, it’s tough to project for anybody how he reacts and how he comes out of his surgery. So we’re gonna wait and see where he’s at.”
“He [Hagelin] has a later check-up in August for a final determination on how much the surgery has done for his eyesight so we’ll have to wait until that appointment to get a better indication where he’s at.”
With Backstrom out indefinitely and Wilson likely to miss a chunk of the season in his recovery, the Capitals have a number of holes in the lineup to fill. The Capitals emphasized a need to get younger next season, including on the defensive corps
“We have to plan for Nick coming back at some point. What we can do, we can give opportunities to our young guys, we’ve got some young guys, [Connor] McMichael we hope to get to the next step, [Hendrix] Lapierre, [Aliaksei] Protas is coming in, we expect him to take the next jump. It’s not that we can go out and sign a $9 million player, but until that goes away, we’re planning on him coming back. ”
“I think he was in the mix [referring to defensive prospect Alexander Alexeyev undergoing shoulder surgery] I think we have six, seven, eight spots available and he was in the mix for that, Lucas [Johansen] is in the mix for that, so we’ll make decisions and try to fill all those three holes as we go into free agency.”
Washington holds the 20th overall pick in tomorrow’s draft, which will kick off at 7:00 PM ET at Montreal’s Bell Centre. Assistant General Manager Ross Mahoney (previously the team’s Director of Amateur Scouting) told the media that the Caps have identified “four or five guys” in which they may target, however noted some uncertainty early in the draft. In such instances, teams may choose to deal their pick for better assets.
“I think we’re open to anything. There’s been a couple discussions about moving it. I think if it made sense and we got something that really improved our team, we’d consider it, other than that I’d say we’re more likely to make that pick. Ross and his staff really like the range that we’re in, I think we’re going to get a player they really like.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the NHL’s Russian players have faced an immense amount of scrutiny under the proverbial microscope. Recent developments around the league with certain Russian players has caused more concern on whether Russian players will be able to return to North America for the season.
“Obviously there is a little uncertainty, but talking to our guys, everybody’s comfortable that they’re coming back and playing next year. I can go by what our players say and their comfort level with it. I think there might be some uncertainty but I think we’re pretty confident they’re all coming back to play.”
To see MacLellan’s full press conference, see below:
By Michael Fleetwood