In order to set the context for how the Washington Capitals have progressed through their intended retool-on-the-fly strategy for this off-season, we’re going to take our annual look at how the current Capitals’ roster stacks up to opponents in the Metropolitan Division so far this off-season.
We’re going to be using Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) projections to understand where each roster in the division currently stands, as well derive an understanding of where the Capitals’ current forwards and defensive groups stack-up in the division as a whole.
Since we’re only just under a week into free agency, we’re going off of the active rosters (including players on injured reserve, but not long term injury list contenders) on CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn a bit more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
While GAR projections are a useful tool to help try to predict a team’s success over the course of the regular season, it’s definitely volatile in terms of only basing a team’s potential success or failure during the season on those projections. When we’ve used GAR projections in the past to project standings at the end of the regular season, we’ve seen a lot of volatility and variance from those projections.
Part of that is including goaltenders, a position where Evolving Hockey doesn’t provide projections. In the past, we’ve both used those goaltenders’ GAR from the previous season, as well as an average of their GAR over the past three seasons. Both have shown the tendency to over-inflate the team level GAR projection for teams that have two good goaltenders and underrate teams with an elite goaltender and a below replacement level backup.
To avoid this situation entirely, we’re just going to be looking at skaters in this post. One, I think you get a better read on a team’s roster construction quality. Two, for the Capitals, goaltending doesn’t even register on the list of priorities to address this off-season.
For the structure of this analysis, we’re going to go through each team’s GAR projections one by one (by alphabetical order) so that we can set the stage for a sort of way-too-early GAR power rankings entering the regular season.
Carolina has made some early noise this off-season by signing arguably the top unrestricted free agent available in former Cap Dmitry Orlov, as well as signing winger Michael Bunting (who we called out as a potential option for the Caps to target in free agency).
Here’s how the current Canes roster projects:
Carolina is the lone team in the division to not have a player that projects to be worth negative GAR value (meaning sub-replacement level). They have a quality roster construction in both the forward group and the defensive corps, but could still use an elite goalscorer to take this team from regular season studs to Stanley Cup champions.
Although the Canes’ roster is solid, it feels like they aren’t done. There’s a potential Brett Pesce trade on the table due to stalls in extension talks, and they could potentially turn Pesce into a true goalscorer in the right trade package.
Forwards GAR Projection: 58.3 (Division Rank: 2nd)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 29.2 (Division Rank: 1st)
Team Total GAR Projection: 87.5 (Division Rank: 1st)
Columbus Blue Jackets
Although most everyone is expecting the Columbus Blue Jackets to continue as a rebuilding club, they made some shrewd moves on the trade market by acquiring Ivan Provorov from the Philadelphia Flyers, as well as Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils. On top of that, I believe they got the gift of the century from the Anaheim Ducks, who passed on Adam Fantilli at second overall for Leo Carlsson.
Fantilli won’t be included in the GAR projections for two reasons: one, he isn’t currently signed to an entry-level contract and two, Evolving Hockey hasn’t published GAR projections for him. There’s a considerable chance that a Johnny Gaudreau, Fantilli, and Patrik Laine line could really make waves this season.
Here’s how the Blue Jackets’ roster currently projects:
Gaudreau is far and away the most valuable player on the Blue Jackets’ roster currently, and that shouldn’t come as much of a shock. The issue is, Columbus doesn’t have a ton of depth at the center position to support some really good wings in Gaudreau, Laine, and the up-and-coming Kirill Marchenko. Kent Johnson had a decent rookie season last year, but Fantilli is really the franchise center that the Blue Jackets never really have had.
Forwards GAR Projection: 31 (Division Rank: 7th)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 13.5 (Division Rank: 7th)
Team Total GAR Projection: 44.5 (Division Rank: 7th)
New Jersey Devils
The Devils already had a rather lethal top-six forward group last season, but then went out and acquired Tyler Toffoli from the Calgary Flames. Toffoli put up 34 goals and 39 assists for 73 points in 82 games last season with the Flames, and New Jersey only had to part with winger Yegor Sharangovich and a 2023 third round pick. On top of that, the Devils went out and acquired Collin Miller from the Dallas Stars for a meager 2025 fifth round pick.
With the ascension of goaltender Akira Schmid in net, the Devils ended up trading MacKenzie Blackwood to the San Jose Sharks for a 2023 sixth round pick. The Devils look like a team ready for a deep playoff run in the 2024 NHL Playoffs.
Here’s how the Devils’ roster projects:
In contrast to the Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey definitely has a bit more star power and elite players on the roster in Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and Dougie Hamilton. On top of that, they add the goal scoring touch of Toffoli, and this team looks elite up front. They’re solid enough defensively, but Hamilton is the most valuable player there, with former Cap Jonas Siegenthaler rounding out the top pairing there.
Forwards GAR Projection: 66 (Division Rank: 1st)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 19.8 (Division Rank: 5th)
Team Total GAR Projection: 85.8 (Division Rank: 2nd)
New York Islanders
The Islanders haven’t been too busy this off-season, in terms of new acquisitions, but have been busy in keeping supplementary pieces of the roster around with new extensions for former Cap Semyon Varlamov, Pierre Engvall, and Scott Mayfield. The Isles also locked up franchise goaltender Ilya Sorokin with a huge eight-year extension that carries a cap hit of $8.25M.
The Islanders haven’t made a huge splash in the trade market or free agency quite yet, but were apparently a potential landing spot for the pure shooting Alex DeBrincat (who is currently in Ottawa). That could potentially take the Islanders from a wild card competitor to a division playoff spot.
Here’s how the Islanders currently project:
With last season’s acquisition of Bo Horvat, the Islanders have a bit more punch offensively up front and have a nice complementary piece to Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson. The Islanders are solid defensively, but don’t really have any true elite players on that front in terms of GAR valuation.
Forwards GAR Projection: 45.7 (Division Rank: 4th)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 20.5 (Division Rank: 4th)
Team Total GAR Projection: 66.2 (Division Rank: 4th)
New York Rangers
The Rangers haven’t been players in the trade market this off-season, but have had a lot of success bringing in veteran players on cheap contracts to supplement the core of their current roster. They’ve brought in former Cap Erik Gustafsson, Nick Bonino, Jonathan Quick, and Riley Nash to play supplementary roles. The most notable signing was bringing in the recently bought-out Blake Wheeler, who happened to score 55 points in 72 games with the Winnipeg Jets, on a one year deal with a measly $800k cap hit.
Here’s how the Rangers’ roster projects:
With Adam Fox, who is effectively a perennial Norris candidate, and Artemi Panarin, the Rangers definitely have the star power to drive team success. With some more of the complementary pieces on their roster, including potential further development from former first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and former second overall pick Kappo Kakko, the Rangers could be a force. The Rangers would definitely project better with the inclusion of Igor Shesterkin in these projections, and the Rangers will go as far as Shesterkin can carry them in the playoffs.
Forwards GAR Projection: 48.5 (Division Rank: 3rd)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 25.4 (Division Rank: 2nd)
Team Total GAR Projection: 73.9 (Division Rank: 3rd)
With Danny Briere fulling taking over the reins as the General Manager in Philadelphia, the Flyers have started selling off some assets in an effort to rebuild their roster for future contention. So far this off-season, they’ve offloaded Ivan Provorov (who ended up in Columbus), Kevin Connauton, and Hayden Hodgson in return for a substantial package of Cal Petersen (cap dump), Sean Walker, prospect Helge Grans, a 2024 second rounder from Los Angeles, a 2023 first round pick from Los Angeles, and a 2024 2nd round pick from Columbus. They also solid rather low on Kevin Hayes, retaining 50% of his cap hit to the St Louis Blues for a 2024 sixth round pick.
The Flyers are not going to be a competitive team, but Briere apparently has the team going in the right direction to maximize on selling current assets and draft well. They lucked out with the elite prospect Matvei Michkov falling to them at seventh overall, and have some decent young talent on their current roster.
Here’s how the Flyers project:
The Flyers don’t currently have an elite player on the roster, but have a few strong, young players in Owen Tippett and Noah Cates. We’ll have to keep an eye on Philadelphia to see what they end up doing with Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim, who were both rumored to be on the trade block. Tony Deangelo appears to be on the block as well.
Forwards GAR Projection: 30.8 (Division Rank: 7th)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 10.5 (Division Rank: 8th)
Team Total GAR Projection: 41.3 (Division Rank: 8th)
The Penguins are another team in the division under new leadership, with former Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas taking over as president of hockey operations and interim general manager.
The Penguins have signed Ryan Graves (another player we called out as a potential acquisition target for the Caps), former Cap Lars Eller (this feels gross to type), Noel Acciari, and brought back goaltender Tristan Jarry. The Penguins also solidified their top nine forward group by bringing in recent Stanley Cup Champion Reilly Smith from the Vegas Golden Knights for a mere 2024 third round pick.
Here’s how the Penguins project out:
The duo of Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel figure to be an elite combination on the Penguins’ first line. The Penguins have also done rather well in avoiding adding any players with negative GAR projections, with former GM Ron Hextall’s mistake of keeping Jeff Carter on the roster as the lone below replacement level player on the roster.
The Penguins’ success is really going to hinge on their aging core staying healthy (hmm, sounds familiar) and Jarry’s success in net.
Forwards GAR Projection: 42.9 (Division Rank: 5th)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 15.2 (Division Rank: 6th)
Team Total GAR Projection: 58.1 (Division Rank: 5th)
The Capitals haven’t had the most aggressive off-season, which contradicts my expectation for executing an aggressive strategy of retooling on the fly. The Caps signed offensive threat Max Pacioretty and acquired crease-clearing defenseman Joel Edmundson from the Montreal Canadiens. Outside of that, we haven’t seen the Caps go after another true top six forward, especially on the younger side.
Here’s how the Caps currently project:
Evolving Hockey is really high on Rasmus Sandin, who was one of the better trade targets for Brian MacLellan in the recent past. The Capitals only have one player below replacement level in Nicklas Backstrom, which isn’t much of a surprise considering his struggles after returning from hip resurfacing surgery last off-season.
Interestingly enough, Anthony Mantha is actually rated rather highly by Evolving Hockey’s GAR projection model. Although Mantha has had his struggles, the quality of his underlying metrics are actually rather strong. At this point, it almost makes sense to see if he can rebound with a more progressive coaching staff under Spencer Carbery. Evgeny Kuznetsov is going to be the player to watch here. When he’s at his best, he’s much more valuable on the ice than his 0.2 GAR projection shows here.
Forwards GAR Projection: 30.6 (Division Rank: 8th)
Defensemen GAR Projection: 22.5 (Division Rank: 3rd)
Team Total GAR Projection: 53.1 (Division Rank: 6th)
Metropolitan Division GAR Projections
To me, these projections feel right, at least for right now. The Hurricanes and the Devils feel like the two best teams in the division, with Carolina narrowly edging out the Devils in total GAR projected. The Rangers have a quality roster and probably the best goaltender in the division, which puts them right there with the Canes and the Devils.
The Islanders and the Penguins are going to be battling it out for a wild card spot. The difficulty is, the Eastern Conference is going to be an absolute blood bath. We haven’t talked about the Atlantic Division yet, but with the ascension of the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators, the two wild card spots are going to be very competitive.
The road forward for the Caps
This is where the Caps might struggle. With the way the roster currently looks, they’re really a bubble team for the wild card. Without immense rebound seasons from Kuznetsov and Mantha, the way the roster is currently situated really makes it really tough to make noise in the division. Even if the Caps make a wild card spot, can they really compete with the elite teams in the East?
If the roster stays like it is, the Caps are really going to have to be banking on the aging core staying healthy all season, and potentially adding a bit more young talent to the roster through the prospect pipeline, like Connor McMichael.
In my mind, if the Capitals hadn’t promised Alex Ovechkin a contending roster through the end of his current contract, would the Capitals be in the midst of a rebuild right now? I feel like they would be.
By Justin Trudel