Following the injury-laden and overall disappointing 2022-23 regular season, the Capitals enter this off-season at a major crossroads. The Capitals’ roster is centered around a core group of players that have bloated contracts and have started to see a downturn in overall performance and effectiveness.
With the injury bug and aging variables at play, the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season, and just the second time since the 2006-07 season. For most teams that face this scenario, the typical solution is to rebuild the roster and focus on the future. The Capitals are not one of those teams.
Along with the five-year extension that Alexander Ovechkin signed in the summer of 2021, promises were made by the front office and ownership that the roster would still be constructed to contend through the end of Ovechkin’s career in Washington. What makes this scenario so complicated is the fact that the Capitals are truly at the end of their Stanley Cup contention window.
For a team that’s been playoff quality for the past 15 years or so, that typically results in a shallow prospect pool, a lack of young NHL talent that had to be moved due to cap space, and a reduced stock of draft capital. With your top paid players being players past their prime years, it’s difficult to add viable, younger, proven talent to the roster in free agency or in trades that might just require picks or prospects. For the Caps, bringing in more effective talent will require some salary cap gymnastics, whether that means trading for players with similar cap hits, or paying premium assets or picks to a team like the Arizona Coyotes to absorb their contracts.
By selling at the 2023 Trade Deadline, the Caps and Brian MacLellan were able to recoup some draft capital and a young NHL quality player in Rasmus Sandin. MacLellan was also able to add younger contributors like Dylan Strome, Sonny Milano, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. That’s a good start for sure, but this is likely the defining moment for Brian MacLellan’s tenure as the Washington Capitals’ general manager. In this post, we’ll be breaking down what should be his top objectives to accomplish this summer.
Hire a new head coach fill out the coaching staff
The Capitals are essentially getting a fresh start behind the bench this off-season with the departures of Peter Laviolette, Blaine Forsythe, and Kevin McCarthy. Only Scott Allen, who headed-up the very effective penalty kill unit this season, will remain in his current role.
There are a bevy of options for the next head coach of the Capitals that we’ve covered this year. If the Capitals decide to go after a younger head coach without NHL head coaching experience, I’d expect a more veteran-laden assistant coaching staff to support them.
Make an assessment on Kuznetsov and Mantha’s contracts
In order to bring in new talent, the Capitals will have to part ways with at least one of their higher cap hit contracts. Kuznetsov and Mantha make the most sense here in terms of their high cap hits being based on their offensive production. Mantha was actually surprisingly good defensively this season, but he’s being paid for his offensive production. With 11 goals and 16 assists in 67 games, his offensive prowess was rather underwhelming this season.
Kuznetsov is trickier. He was the catalyst for the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run in 2018, but hasn’t really come close to that level of effort and execution since then. He’s had good seasons offensively for sure, but he hasn’t taken over games (or playoff series) like we saw in the 2018 playoffs. Kuznetsov also has two more seasons remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $7.8M. With the term remaining on the contract, there’s no chance the Capitals retain salary in a trade. The Kuznetsov scenario hinges on two things: do you see if the new coaching staff can get Kuznetsov back to where he was in the spring of 2018; or is there a similar player needing a change of scenery that the Capitals could swap Kuznetsov for?
In my mind, the Kuznetsov trade will never be market value for the type of player Kuznetsov is. When he’s playing at his full potential, Kuznetsov is a top player in the league. The issue is, when he’s not playing at his full potential, he’s effectively a replacement level player. Other GMs will know this, and a team that’s looking to potentially start contending for the playoffs might bite on this since they might have more cap space to work with, but what would the Caps get in return?
According to PuckPedia, the Capitals are entering the summer with $6,524,167 in cap space (assuming the cap ceiling will be $83.5M). With that, they still have roster spots to fill in and sign players to new contracts. If the salary cap only goes up a million dollars (from $82.5M to $83.5M), cap space will be a premium asset.
Assess the future of Nicklas Backstrom
At the start of the off-season for the Capitals, we really dove into the quandary that the Capitals are facing with Backstrom’s performance after returning from his hip resurfacing procedure, his expensive cap hit, and the career paths of players who have received this procedure in the past.
The future is very murky for Backstrom’s career. He’s optimistic because he’s finally pain-free and can have a full summer to condition and get closer to being who he once was on the ice. MacLellan wasn’t quite as optimistic.
If Backstrom remains closer to his performance level we saw this past season, he’s at best a third line center and power play specialist. His contract that extends through the 2024-25 season with a cap hit of $9.2M makes that a very expensive endeavor.
That $9.2M can go a long way in reshaping the roster. The issue is, if the Capitals wait until Backstrom shows up to training camp in late summer, the opportunities to acquire players might have passed. On the other hand, Backstrom has earned a chance to prove himself this summer through his decade and a half of top tier performance on the ice.
Either route is a difficult decision. Do the Caps talk Backstrom into retirement? Would MacLellan actually trade Backstrom if they weren’t in agreement about the path forward? Would Backstrom be placed on the long term injury list with a doctor’s corroboration?
To me, this is the biggest story of the summer for the Capitals.
Acquire two top six forwards
If you’ve been following along in the analytical posts we’ve had throughout the season, the Capitals really struggled where it matters most: finishing scoring chances. For the first time in a long time, the Capitals’ bottom six forwards were more effective as a whole during even strength, and the top six struggled to score goals (outside of Ovechkin and Strome). Realistically, you could include TJ Oshie as a part of the top six, but he’s best suited for third line deployments at this point in his career. He’d add some scoring depth to the equation there, and the Caps could limit his minutes to prop up his effectiveness during even-strength game scenarios.
The two top-six forward ask makes sense: you need a scorer on the right side of the ice. Tom Wilson, with a full off-season to train, should be quite effective there, but there’s not a great option on the roster to pick up the slack for scoring on the right side of the ice when Wilson is on the bench.
A player like Nick Schmaltz makes a lot of sense here. We’ve talked about him as a possible acquisition target from the Arizona Coyotes because for one, he’s 27 and in his prime years, so he’s outside of the contention window for the perpetually rebuilding Coyotes. He’s also position flexible, with the ability to play both right wing and center.
There’s been a lot of noise around Evgeny Kuznetsov this off-season. From his disappointing offensive production compared to the 2021-22 season to just an apparent lack of intensity and effort, it looks like his time in DC might be over. That leaves a great big hole for the Caps in their top two center spots. The Capitals are likely going to sweep the trade market for a young center that’s in need of a larger role than he’s getting with his current team.
Sign Martin Fehervary to a new contract
Fehervary is currently a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, so the Capitals can tender him a qualifying offer to retain his rights through the summer. For the Capitals, there are a couple of options: offer Fehervary a bridge contract (a short term deal that will keep Fehervary as a restricted free agent when it expires), or offer him a long term contract.
The bridge contract is valuable because you can typically get a lower cap hit since you’re not eating into any of the player’s unrestricted free agent years. The downside is, if the player improves greatly and becomes an invaluable asset on the ice, the next contract becomes even more expensive.
A long term deal is beneficial because you can lock in a player for a considerable amount of time (up to eight years), and it’s essentially a bet that the player will play to their potential value for most of the contract. You might pay more in the beginning of the contract, but you get more long term cost certainty. The downside is, if you’re eating into unrestricted free agent years, you’re going to end up paying a higher cap hit to the player.
In my mind, the bridge contract makes more sense for Fehervary. The Caps are tight on cap space, and might opt to just offer Fehervary a two year contract to build in some more cost certainty for more than just one season. With cap space at a premium, the lower the cap hit you can get him to agree to, the more money you can invest in other players.
Explore options for proven left-hand defensemen
The Capitals are going to be very close to the salary cap ceiling throughout the summer, unless drastic changes are made to the roster. For a team that’s banking on an aggressive retooling of the roster to try to win Ovechkin one last Stanley Cup before he retires, would you bank that off of three 23 year olds on the left side of the blueline?
On one hand, you want to have younger players on the roster that can grow into valuable contributors on the ice. On the other, though, you want to have players you know are valuable contributors that you can depend upon. We’ve covered some potential options like Ryan Graves and Vladislav Gavrikov who would be dependable top four defensive defensemen.
Putting it all together
If the Capitals and MacLellan can address all these problem areas this summer, we may see a vastly improved roster come October. This is going to be the most important off-season of MacLellan’s career, and his legacy is likely going to be based off of his execution of the plan in hand.
This is MacLellan’s chance to mold the roster in his vision. Sure, the Caps won the Stanley Cup in 2018, due to timely trades and additions to the roster’s supporting cast around the established core group of forwards. But, the core was largely built around the players that his predecessor George McPhee drafted.
Not only is this a decent chance to retool the roster to potentially send Ovechkin out as a Stanley Cup champion for the second time, but it’s a great chance to build and identify the “next core”. The ideal scenario is that MacLellan can retool the roster without substantially mortgaging the future, which would extend the impending rebuild considerably.
By Justin Trudel
Finding a way to get rid of Backstrom is their top priority. He’s not an effective NHL player anymore, no team would sign him as a 3rd line center. He does’nt have the attributes to be an effective 3rd line center and he does’nt belong on the 1st PP unit.
I’m not sure I would go to the extent that he’s not an NHL level player anymore, he’s just not worth the $9.2M cap hit he’s owed on his current contract. To me, the contract is the issue, not the player. Obviously, his best days are behind him, but if he were 100% healthy and was a free agent, a team would definitely scoop him up for a third line role.
It would be a much easier decision to offload Backstrom’s contract somehow if he weren’t a player of his stature in the organization. He’s likely the second best player this franchise has had behind Ovechkin, and simply trading him or buying him out is a painful decision. Now, that’s a decision you might have to make for the near term success of the team, but it wouldn’t make it any less of a difficult decision for MacLellan and the ownership group.
My take is, he’s probably going to get a chance to play again this season for the Caps. If he’s not playing up to his own standards and the Caps agree, I’m assuming they’ll get a doctor to corroborate his inability to play and he’ll go on LTIR for the remainder of his contract.
Just because he is slow doesn’t mean he can’t play. We are stuck with that cap hit. Hopefully we can get out from Mantha’s.
Uh, yes it does. That’s exactly what it means.
Not quality play but not LTIR either. Just because a player isn’t good doesn’t mean they can’t play.
I disagree, I’ve been scouting for our local LHJMQ team for over a decade and he is not a player I would recommand for 3rd line center. He’s does’nt have the skills or physical habilities of a good 3rd line center, physicality, face off, speed to effectively backcheck, he’s so slow that he’s a defensive liability. The only metrics where he looked somewhat decent he owes to his linemates. Mostly Oshie, Milano and Protas but he rendered them useless (unproductive). Maybe a team would be foolish enough to give him a contract, but they would be sorely disapointed and he would end up on waiver after a few weeks. You can sign better player on entry level deal every summer.
Backstrom shouldn’t have come back this season. Maybe he thought he would be helping the team to make the playoffs. Anyhow, Backstrom knows better than anyone if he can play at a reasonable level. He’s not a 3C. If he can’t be a defensively sound, nearly point per game 2C then he makes the team worse.
If he can’t play at a high level then LTIR is the best option in this bad situation.
Star athletes find it so hard to move on. Tampa is having to decide rather to rehire 37 year old Corey Perry or not. Hard decision even considering his low $1 million deal. Yet he has stated more than once that he does not intend to retire. Look at Chara, Lundqvist. Heck, look at Jagr!
I think lesser players might find it easier as they anticipate a shorter career and get degrees or start looking into coaching or scouting. Stars just feel the party will never end.
It has to be incredibly difficult to accept going from one of the greatest in the world to a mere mortal. Rush has a song about this called “Losing It.”
Thanks for the ref. Just listened. Yep, it sums it up pretty well.
Sure thing! 🎸👍
Cats just beat the Leafs in OT sending the Leafs to locker cleanout. If the Caps want to interview Carbs, now would be the time to ask permission.
Outstanding analysis Justin! Thought-provoking and …
Next Core! Next Core! Next Core!
Great Anticipations for this 2023 Caps’ offseason. “Things” look brighter for the short-term Caps than they have in many seasons. Relatively good team health. Steady team “Core” with a bunch of good contract-signings in the past quarter. Geritol Ovechkin can still score 43 goals in 73 games. Identifiable excellent Head Coaching “candidates” out there. A whole HOST of very competent Hershey Bears players, at all positions, hammering on that door to start for the Caps next season. They even have at least one REALLY good veteran goalie.
This has got to be enticing for NHL head-coaching candidates! Heck, I wish I were getting an interview.
And GM MacLellan has motivation and opportunity of a lifetime. If he manages not to dork things up, the Caps could be excellent, even outstanding. GM Mac’s legacy could be a GREAT one
Huge offseason for Mac.
Thanks for the optimism! There’s really more positives than it seems, you’re right. And yet, all of that would work if only MacLellan was known historically to lean on younger, and to trust less experienced players. Which he isn’t. Maybe the new head couch would convince him otherwise. Especially a younger one with more Hershey experience (wink-wink) 🙂 But would he have a say with Mac? Philosophical questions, rather)
My top 4 all-time Caps:
I like your list. Especially where you’ve got Stevens – to my mind the best ever NHL defenseman. Yes, I know – i’m old enough to have seem Bobby Orr play many times. He controlled a game – when he had the puck. Stevens didn’t need the puck to control the game. He was the dominant player every time he was on the ice. You have to have seen him play to realize this. Stats don’t ever tell the story with d-men. With Stevens the Caps would have won at least a couple SC’s.
BMac is in a tricky spot. Our core players got old all at the same time. Ovie, Oshie, Kuzy, Carlson still have some game. But they’re not going to play much if any defense.
The reality is that only young stars will get us back into Cup contention. Our core is in its twilight.
Ovie, Oshie, Carlson and Backstrom will likely stay. Kuzy should’ve won the Conn Smythe. I expect he’ll stay, too.
Kuzy and Mantha to the Avs would make sense for both teams. Could happen. I like the trade for Sandin. We need young stars. There’s no other way.
At $9.2 M, there’s no way that Nick is anything but an anchor to the Caps hopes to be competitive. Nick has got to know this. We’ve loved him for a long time. Now he needs to love us back and retire.
Hard to walk away from $9.2 million.
You don’t walk away. Ltir you get paid and the team gets the cap space.
Greetings folks! Just a quick note, if you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to NoVa Caps posts in the “subscribe” box located in the upper right corner. Thank you!
Crunch the numbers,
Figure it out.
The sad Caps Fan.
Backy is a Cap. Full stop! I started going to games in 74. I expect the Caps to be as loyal, damn the business model, as I have been to the Caps. He’s a Cap. Worst case scenario offer him an Assistant Coaching position
Moron thinking like this is why we suck and can’t seriously contend for at least 8 years. Probably longer. Backstrom should never have been resigned, even before covid that was the worst contract in the nhl. 30 goals once, 90 points once, almost always below a point per game. At his peak he was a very very good 2c. 9.2 million is for mackinnon pastrnak McDavid ect. I’m loyal to winning. Cut the dead weight and get younger. Suck for Cole eiserman next year.
Please sober up before posting. Thank you.
Agreed, he was already overpaid the last years of his previous contract. They should have let him walk.