The Washington Capitals are staring down a rather busy off-season with 13 players on the current active roster on contracts that expire after the 2022-23 season. The Capitals and General Manager Brian MacLellan took action on one of the more important pieces of the current roster on Friday by extending center Dylan Strome to a five-year extension with a cap hit of $5M annually.
With the trade deadline coming in a month’s time, the Capitals are in an interesting spot. They’re currently in the playoff race in the top wild card spot, but also have played four more games than the Penguins in the second wild card spot, and three more than the Sabres who are right on the outside looking in.
The Penguins are only three points back of the Capitals and the Sabres are four points back. On top of that, the New York Islanders made a huge splash on the stagnant trade market by acquiring center Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks for Anthony Beauvillier, Aatu Raty, and a top-12 protected 2023 first round draft pick.
With the high-end rental market set by the Horvat trade, it’s rather likely that other dominoes will start to fall. The Capitals have some decisions to make on the current roster, including at the trade deadline.
There are 10 games between now and the trade deadline to get a better read on where this team will stand in terms of the playoff picture. As it stands right now, it’s likely that the Capitals will be conservative buyers at the deadline. It’s not likely that they’ll make a huge splash trade like we saw a couple years back when they acquired Anthony Mantha for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a first round pick, and a second round pick.
Outside of that, the Capitals will have a myriad of decisions to make after the season ends: who to keep and sign to new contracts, who to trade at the deadline, and who they should let walk at the conclusion of the season. It’ll be interesting to see what MacLellan’s strategy will be, especially on defense where the only current player under contract for next season is John Carlson.
In this post, we’re going to make an assessment on each player on the Capitals’ active roster that is on an expiring contract. Salary cap and contract information is courtesy of CapFriendly. Statistics are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, and Natural Stat Trick. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our analytics glossary.
First up, we’re going to start with the forwards who are on expiring contracts. We’re going to take current roster construction, other pending free agents in their position group, and performance during the 2022-23 season into account when deciding whether to keep the player for next season (and possibly more), trade them at the trade deadline, or let them hit free agency and sign with another team.
Lars Eller (Center, $3.5M cap hit)
Eller was an instrumental piece to the Capitals finally reaching the ultimate goal of winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup back in that magical spring of 2018. Unfortunately, Eller is now 33 years old, and his best days are behind him.
Eller has shown in the past that he’s capable of playing up in the lineup, which was valuable in case of injuries. His offensive production has never been an elite quality, but his points per 60 minutes (P/60) rate of 1.2 is tied for his career low back in his first full season in the NHL in the 2010-11 season.
His underlying statistics are actually rather decent. Here’s Eller’s Rate Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) chart, via Evolving Hockey:
This shows how Eller performs in these key categories in relation to replacement level across the league (the 0 on the y-axis for Z-Score is replacement level).
He’s above replacement level in Corsi shot attempts for per 60 minutes (CF/60), expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), and Corsi shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60). The issue is, he’s below replacement level in goals for per sixty minutes (GF/60) and expected goals for per sixty minutes (xGF/60). This tracks with his offensive production decline over the past few seasons.
On top of that, any value in his Goals Above Replacement (GAR) performance is wiped out by the fact that Eller is racking up a lot of penalty minutes in comparison to previous seasons. He’s currently sitting at 34 PIM through 51 games. For context, in 72 games last season, he had 40 PIM. Since arriving in DC, the highest PIM he’s posted in a season was 48, in the 2019-20 season, where he played in 69 games due to the pandemic-shortened season that year.
Overall, at this point, it’s hard to argue that Eller’s $3.5M price tag is worth keeping him on the roster, especially with the incoming cap crunch that will ensue when John Carlson is activated off of the long-term injury list later this season. With Strome getting extended, it’s clear that the Capitals are likely to move on from Eller, and it’s likely that they’ll explore their options at the trade deadline to either acquire a draft pick, or may move him in a “hockey trade” for a defenseman.
Garnet Hathaway (Right Wing, $1.5M cap hit)
Hathaway has been a key contributor in building the Capitals’ fourth line and its identity over the past three seasons. Hathaway has performed highly in defensive production and his line is usually tasked with shutting down the opponent’s top line.
Hathaway sits fourth on the team in GAR with a 7.9. Interestingly enough, this season, his even strength offensive GAR (EVO) is 4.9, tied with the likes of Conor Sheary and Nic Dowd for second on the team.
Here’s Hathaway’s RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey:
Hathaway is extremely effective during five-on-five play. When he’s on the ice, the Capitals are more likely to generate more CF than CA, which is typically a key indicator for success. On top of that, the team performs well in limiting xGA and generating xGF while he’s on the ice. It’s never a bad thing to have a possession-driving winger on your fourth line, and by all appearances, that’s what Hathaway is.
The biggest question for the Capitals is just how much money and term Hathaway is going to want on his next contract. He’s 31 and plays a heavy game. The Capitals have let other key fourth line players walk in the past, like Jay Beagle, who want to cash-in on likely their last chance to get a substantial pay raise. With an expensive and aging core group of players, the Capitals can’t really afford an expensive fourth liner.
Verdict: Keep for the right price
Conor Sheary (Right and Left Wing, $1.5M cap hit)
Sheary has been a key player in the Capitals’ top six forward lines this season, and the two-year, $1.5M cap hit extension he signed in April 2021 has been one of MacLellan’s shrewder moves.
Sheary is generating .57 points per game this season, slightly down from the .61 points per game he generated last season. The good news there is, the .57 and .61 points per game production is the second and third highest points per game rate he’s scored since his 2016-17 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That height in production was from playing on a line a majority of the time with Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust that season.
Here’s Sheary’s RAPM chart:
The Capitals’ offensive production when Sheary has been on the ice this season has been solid, but the xGA/60 and CA/60 are not very good. Considering he’s been playing most of his ice time with Alex Ovechkin and Dylan Strome, it’s not too shocking to see the defensive aspects suffer a bit considering they’re a bit more offensively focused.
Sheary could fetch a decent return on the trade market if the Capitals’ performance in the next ten games suffers to the point where a playoff spot doesn’t seem attainable, but I’m sure the Capitals would want Sheary back next season if the price can work out.
Verdict: Keep for the right price
Marcus Johansson (Left and Right Wing, $1.1M cap hit)
In what was one of the more questioned signings of the off-season, by all accounts, Johansson has performed rather well in his second stint with the Capitals. He’s been instrumental on zone entries on the power play and he can be used anywhere in the lineup. That flexibility was key when the Capitals were dealing with the onslaught of injuries they encountered earlier this season.
Johansson has been quite the journeyman since the 2018-19 season, now playing for his sixth team. It seems he’s settled right back into being a Capital, putting up 1.9 points per sixty minutes of play, which is his highest since the 2018-19 season.
His .25 goals per game is his best production since 2016-17, where he posted .29 goals per game with the Capitals. His all around game has been rather solid too, as shown by his RAPM chart:
He’s above replacement level in all categories except CA/60, which is a solid sign that he’s performing at a decent level, especially with what he’s being paid.
With 13 goals on the season, Johansson is sitting second on the team in goals behind Ovechkin. His depth scoring has helped keep the Caps in the playoff hunt. Johansson is on pace to score 20 goals this season. With that production and his deployment and position flexibility, his price may go up. The Caps may want him to stick around for those same reasons.
Verdict: Keep for the right price
Nicolas Aube-Kubel (Right Wing, $1M cap hit)
Aube-Kubel has been a solid addition, especially for a player that was acquired for free through a waivers claim from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Aube-Kubel has slotted in rather smoothly in the bottom six for the Caps.
He has put up some rather gaudy possession stats, with a 57.74 CF%, 58.28 FF%, and a 61.43 shots for percentage (SF%). Offensive production has never really been his strong suit, but his ability to help the Capitals secure possession has been really impactful. Here’s his RAPM chart:
The main driver for Aube-Kubel’s strong CF% is the ability to stifle shot attempts against. He’s considerably above replacement level in CA/60, which drives his xGA/60 in a very positive direction. As previously mentioned, his offensive production isn’t a strength of his game, but he can pot a goal or two.
Aube-Kubel is a solid bottom six, but really would be best suited for a fourth-line shutdown role. He’d be really important to keep around if Hathaway decides to hit the free agent market. Other than that, roster spots at the NHL level are going to be tight for the Capitals, and it’d be surprising to see Aliaksei Protas spend another year in Hershey next season.
Verdict: Keep if you can’t re-sign Hathaway
Sonny Milano (Left Wing, $750k cap hit)
Somehow, Sonny Milano was left unsigned after the start of the season after being released from a professional tryout by the Calgary Flames (I’m sure they’d love to re-do that decision). The Capitals brought him in after the onslaught of injuries to the forward group hit critical mass, and the Capitals won the low-risk, high-reward lottery with Milano.
Although the eye-test has been exemplary, here’s his RAPM:
The so-called “fancy stats” aren’t as eye-popping. On a positive note, during five-on-five play, he’s above replacement in everything besides CF/60. Although he’s sitting at 51.46 CF% and 50.30 FF%, he’s only at 48.73 SF%. The interesting thing here though is that his GF% in the RAPM chart is really buoyed by the fact that Milano is a high-event player. He’s sitting at a 52.63 SCF% and nearly breaking even at 49.46 HDCF%. On the other hand though, Milano has been on the ice for 16 high danger goals for (HDGF), and is sitting at a 64% HDGF%.
Milano is currently sitting with 8 goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games played. That’s not too shabby for a guy who was basically taken on a flyer and signed to a league minimum contract. Only question is what a new contract might look like for Milano, but his skill set is likely one that the Capitals will want to keep around for a depth scorer in the future.
Verdict: Keep at the right price
As mentioned earlier, the Capitals only have one defenseman, John Carlson, under contract next season. Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev are restricted free agents without arbitration rights, so it’s likely that they’ll stay in DC. Other than that, the Capitals have basically four other spots to fill on the blue line for next season with little options for a true difference maker to make the jump from Hershey to the NHL.
MacLellan’s strategy for constructing (or reconstructing) the defensive group in the summer has yet to be declared. On one hand, entering the off-season with a ton of flexibility to reconstruct the blue line might be desirable to retool on the fly. On the other hand, having some clarity with who will be on the roster longer term helps provide a vision of where the team can go over the next season and beyond that.
Let’s hop into the expiring contracts on the blue line. We’re going to exclude Fehervary and Alexeyev from this breakdown since they’re almost assuredly going to be back next season since they’re restricted free agents.
Dmitry Orlov (Left Defense, $5.1M cap hit)
Orlov has been one of the most important defensemen on the Capitals since the 2016-17 season. His performance during the 2017-18 season and the run to the Stanley Cup that year was due in part to his high level of play with Matt Niskanen on the Caps’ shutdown pairing.
Orlov’s overall quality of play has dwindled a bit this season, likely due to his injury and the other injuries that have plagued the Capitals. That likely doesn’t impact his value a ton, though, since his overall skill set as a puck-moving defenseman is something that’s nearly a necessity in today’s NHL.
Earlier in his career, Orlov was a bit of a gambler, but his defensive play has solidified recently. He’s also one of the league’s best open-ice hitters. Here’s his RAPM chart:
Orlov’s offensive production and shot attempt generation is very strong. That’s not too surprising considering his puck moving capabilities. He also is really strong on the puck and can deke and toe drag like a forward. His power play performance this year is falling below expectations, but 43 minutes of TOI in that situation isn’t a huge sample size. He’s also usually on the second unit.
Here’s the complication with Orlov’s next contract: he’s going to turn 32 this off-season, and it’s likely going to be his last chance to cash-in on a long-term deal. He’s going to command a raise from his current $5.1M cap hit. The question is just how much of a raise will he get?
Verdict: Keep at the right price
Nick Jensen (Right Defense, $2.5M cap hit)
Jensen was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings at the 2018-19 trade deadline. Through his first season and a half as a Capital, he seemed to struggle in the new system. His play really elevated after spending a season on a pairing with Zdeno Chara, and the 2021-22 season was the best of his career as a Capital.
Here’s Jensen’s RAPM chart:
He’s above the replacement water mark in all the key statistics outside of GF/60. On the positive side, he is on the ice for a decent level of xGF/60, and performs well in xGA/60 and GA/60 to counteract the dip in GF/60. He’s also solid in possession metrics, which is a good sign from a defenseman who is expected to serve on your shutdown pairing.
Jensen’s skating and puck moving ability gives him a lot of value in today’s NHL as it is. The fact that he’s a right handed shot adds to his value. There are only 207 active defenseman who have right-handed shots, compared to 289 who have left handed shots. The average of the top 50 salaries for right-handed defensemen is $5,938,476.18. For left handed defensemen, the average salary of the top 50 earners is $5,694,440.16. Right shot defensemen are slightly higher valued in the eyes of NHL GMs.
Since Jensen will turn 33 just before the start of the 2023-24 season, he may also be seeking his last longer-term deal of his career. He’ll be sought after by nearly every other NHL team, but it’s unlikely that Jensen will get a considerable raise from his $2.5M cap hit since he’s just solid all around and not necessarily elite in any one category. The Capitals might be interested in keeping Jensen around since the right side of the defense is slim at the organizational level, with only Vinny Iorio as a potential NHLer in the pipeline.
Verdict: Keep for the right price
Trevor van Riemsdyk (Right Defense, $950k cap hit)
TVR has been a solid contributor on the blue line, who adds the flexibility of being able to play on his off-hand side. He’s not really excellent in any regard, but he slots into a third pairing role rather seamlessly.
He’s above the 50% watermark in CF% (51.32), FF% (50.68), SF% (50.45), GF% (52.94), and xGF% (52.55). That performance is basically what you’re looking for in a third pairing defenseman, and TVR has done so when being thrown into a role in the top four defensive pairings with John Carlson recovering from a slap shot to the head earlier this season.
Here’s TVR’s RAPM:
In terms of these statistics, TvR is kind of hovering around replacement level. His possession metrics are above 50% largely because he does a solid job suppressing shot attempts against rather than generating an excess of shot attempts for. He’s also tied with Nick Jensen for fifth on the Capitals in GAR with 6.8.
Overall, with TVR, his being a right shot helps with his value a bit and at the organizational roster level, as right shot defensemen ready for the NHL or in the NHL are rather scarce. In an ideal world, the Capitals likely hold onto both Jensen and TVR, but they’ll certainly want to keep TVR around if they can’t keep Jensen from hitting free agency.
Verdict: Keep, especially if Jensen walks
Erik Gustafsson (Left Defense, $800k cap hit)
When the Capitals signed Gustafsson, I thought he was by and large going to be a third pairing or seventh defenseman for the Capitals. His offensive production prior to the season had been on a downward trend after a tremendous 2018-19 season with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he posted 17 goals and 43 assists for 60 points in 79 games played.
Now, Gustafsson has taken over as the primary offensive defenseman for the Capitals with Carlson on the shelf, and has posted 7 goals, 22 assists, and 29 points in 52 games. Even with taking over the point on the top power play unit, Gustafsson only has 6 assists, meaning he’s been really effective during five-on-five play.
The Capitals really ended up upgrading their secondary offensive defenseman by letting Justin Schultz walk in free agency and picking Gustafsson out of the bargain bin in free agency.
Here’s Gustafsson’s RAPM:
Nothing much to add here other than just an impressive performance from the soon-to-be 31-year-old defenseman. His possession stats are a bit inflated from his sheltered zone start deployments (67.6% in the offensive zone), but that’s what you can expect from an offensively focused defenseman. Peter Laviolette has also been more attentive to zone starts for players who are more offensively focused, so it just ends up playing to Gustafsson’s strengths as a player.
As indicated above, Gustafsson’s possession statistics are solid: 54.95 CF%, 54.44 FF%, 55.37 SF%, 55.13 GF%, and 54.32 xGF%. His offensive prowess and tendency is also not being offset by being irresponsible defensively, with the Capitals owning 55.42% of scoring chances (SCF%) and 54.27% of high danger scoring chances (HDCF%). He’s basically performing at a level where every team wants an offensive defenseman to perform.
Gustafsson’s value is tricky, though. As mentioned before, he had a tremendous 2018-19 season, but his play really trailed off after that until this season. Is it a breakthrough performance that he’ll continue over the next two or three years? Or will it be a regression to the mean? The Capitals may want to keep him on a short term, less expensive deal, but will the open market dictate more money and term for Gustafsson? If the Capitals falter to a point of being a seller at the deadline, Gustafsson might be one of the team’s expiring assets that may return a solid package.
Verdict: Keep for the right price, especially if Orlov walks
Matt Irwin (Left Defense, $750k cap hit)
Irwin is a rather good option as a seventh defenseman when you need him to play in a pinch. The issue for the Capitals this season is that Irwin has been needed for more than just a brief stint. Irwin has played in 38 games so far this season, which is his highest since the 2018-19 season with the Nashville Predators.
Going from 17 games played all last season to 38 games so far this season has impacted Irwin’s effectiveness. Last season, Irwin was actually really solid in those 17 appearances, generating 4.1 GAR. This season, Irwin is valued at -1 GAR. He’s below a replacement level player at this point, and he’s 35 years old. To show the difference in performance from last season to this season, I’ll show you his RAPM chart from both seasons.
Here’s this season’s RAPM:
And here’s last season’s RAPM:
Overall, we’re just looking at a player who’s likely at the end of his NHL career. His performance in short bursts of games played is at a much higher level than when he is called upon for regular duty. Really, the only statistic that has remained steady for him is xGA/60, which isn’t surprising considering he’s a defensively focused, stay at home defenseman.
Verdict: Let him walk
There’s a lot of questions to answer about the team’s direction for next season, especially with the trade deadline and the 10 games that will be played before that deadline. The Capitals could see themselves solidly in a playoff position and looking to add some complimentary talent to the lineup, or they could see themselves on the outside looking in and may trade some expiring contracts (or even some non-expiring contracts) to create more flexibility in the off-season to retool on the fly.
At this point, though, the Capitals are going to have to make a trade between now and the deadline. With John Carlson expected to recover from his injury and be activated off of LTIR before the end of the regular season, the Capitals will need to free up about $221,667 in cap space to be cap compliant. With the Capitals’ injury history this season, it’s unlikely that they’ll roll with only one extra forward and one extra defenseman down the stretch. By trading Lars Eller, the Capitals would have $3,278,333 in cap space, and could add a defenseman or another forward to help down the stretch.
By Justin Trudel
Don’t keep Jensen. Not sure what his fancy stats say, but my eye test says he ain’t worth keeping. Iorio is a similar player, so they have his replacement, or better, in the pipeline. Keep TVR. Again, my eye test says he’s worthy on keeping in the fold.
He’s improved quite a bit since he first arrive, I feel. Now, he is getting on the older side, and the cost will go up, so that’s where I may have personal difficulty re-signing him.
My lineup for October 23′ opening night
Interesting — what do the Capitals do with Mantha in this scenario?
Excellent work here Justin and thank you.
Take whatever you can get for him; at best probably a prospect or low pick. Take it and run to the bank smiling!! And the same with Oshie!
I like it. Does it fit under salary cap?
Depends on what you sign the UFAs for. Milano will probably want a raise over league minimum, Orlov could get a substantial rise himself, and Gus will go up in price too. Any which way, GMBM is gonna be a busy boy over the summer.
I’m down with that, except for McIlrath. I’ve seen him make some boners in the A that were cringe worthy. He’s big, tough, can skate, but he doesn’t think the game well. That’s why you need to keep one of Jensen or TVR, until some of the right shots like Chesley, Iorio, or Johnson are ready.
Yeah, the bottom pairing could use adjustment, imho
Lol…those d pairing are a recipe for disaster.
I like your lineup however the first think that I think of is who will be the head coach? Every HC is going to want to bring in some of the players he likes or has coached before. Also with so many UFA/RFA on this team and with the salaries of Ovie, Backy, Kuzy, Wilson, Carlosn and now Strome I feel sad and confident the Orlov will not be on the team next year due to salary. At 31 I think he will be looking for that one last contract and a big payday which the Caps cannot afford. Do you intend to not resign Brown and just let him walk for nothing? As for Mantha I would hope that someone would want him for wither a prospect or low pick and to be honest would also toss Oshie in the trade mix and take a decent return for him, probably a prospect and low pick at best. To be honest I hope that Backy either chooses to retire this year or after next season as we need the cap relief. Long term does CMM replace Dwod and Lapierre replace Backy? The real problem comes when Ovie retires who is his replacement. Also consider this…..in the middle of next season, which will be a rebuilding on and probably for the next 5 or 6, how about trading Kuemper for picks and a high prospect? there are several goalies in the system who deserve a shot at the #2 spot and Lindgren can handle the #1 spot.
Everyone of them who does not agree to an extension before the deadline should be moved. I would try to extend the Dmen and Milano. Would shop all the forwards. None are difference makers.
But it usually (though there are a few examples) doesn’t work that way at the trade deadline. Teams that are in the playoffs (mostly a lock) will buy and those not going to make it will sell. With this teams always going thru injuries these last few years, I doubt Bmac would leave his roster thin at forward or defense by selling off any who won’t re sign. I just don’t think he would work that way. I think he is smart enough to know who to approach and when. I hope they have approached Milano but we will see. Orlov can/will be done in the offseason. I am not worried about him leaving unless he wants more than 6.5 per, then you might let him go.
I don’t think he will either but that will be a mistake. Not a cup challenger this year so get some assets to help in future. Replacements like Protas, Beck and Snively would not be that big drop off from those they would replace.
Keep for right price and stay mediocre. Shake it up, get younger and faster.
Agree; cant keep players just because you like them and also cant keep extending or raising salaries; have to have a balance of youth, age, high and low salaries and experience and at least one or 2 guys who can create havoc and irritate the other team.
I understand it’s a business, just hope Ellen gets a proper sendoff since he was on the 2018 Cup team. Hath is a dynamo on the 4th line and MoJo fits in. Orlov should be a priority signing. Good to see Strome was signed today.
What about Carl Hagelin what’s your opinion?
Orlov at least 6.5m per in my opinion (obviously), keep him. Trade Mantha before trade deadline (trade partner gets term, won’t get much in return. TVR is coming back, maybe next one they extend as I wouldn’t think they want him to hit free agency.
You think 32 year old Orlov will get a 27% raise on a multi-year deal? Lmfao, I’m confident he won’t get the same cap hit as Torrey Krug. Laughable take.
The only one of these guys who they couldn’t replace relatively easily via the system or another mid-level FA is Orlov, and maybe/possibly/perhaps Jensen due to his above-average skating and right shot. I like TVR as well, but wouldn’t overpay for him (or Jensen).
Eller is obviously done in DC. Malenstyn brings everything Hathaway does, just from the left side. Snively and Sheary are very similar players. Lapierre and Johansson have similar skill sets — though Johansson is a better 2-way player at this point, he isn’t enough better than many of the LW prospects in the system to pay him more than his current bargain rate. Aube Kubel is typical filler — there are dozens of guys around the NHL or AHL who can play 13th forward just as effectively for the league minimum. Milano is a mystery to me… he doesn’t appear to be above average in any particular aspect, but he has been effective in DC and Anaheim. If he was willing to play for bottom-six bucks he might be worth keeping, but I believe there are cheaper kids in the system who could fill his spot (McMichael? Frank? Pilon? Miro? Suzdalev?).
Gus can score but can’t defend one-on-one, I’d rather they give Alexeyev that spot. TVR is a solid 3rd pair RD, but I wouldn’t give him any term with Iorio and Chesley on the way. Irwin is Lavy’s pet, at this point he’s replaceable by pretty much anybody in the league, and about half the LD in the AHL for that matter.
Bottom line: Keep Orlov, maybe Jensen or TVR (not both). Everybody else can come back for Laughlin/May’s alumni game in 2028.