Back in May, I outlined a to-do list for Capitals’ General Manager Brian MacLellan in order to address the gaps in the roster construction leading up to the start of the 2023-24 regular season. While MacLellan has not been nearly as aggressive in his “retool-on-the-fly” strategy that many have speculated he’d take on this summer, he’s made some progress on the to-do list.
Roster Construction and Cap Management
To start off, and to set the stage for the progress on MacLellan’s to-do list, I want to show what the Capitals’ current NHL roster looks like, according to CapFriendly. As it currently stands, the Capitals have 10 forwards on the active roster, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders. Max Pacioretty, who is recovering from an Achilles injury, is currently on the injured reserve, which opens up a roster spot, but his contract still counts towards the salary cap.
With 19 players on the active roster (one short of icing a full lineup for a game), the Capitals have $888,333 in cap space. If the Capitals were to call up three more forwards from Hershey, like Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas, and Beck Malenstyn, to round out the full roster, the Capitals would be $1,526,667 over the salary cap ceiling. Here’s what that potential lineup looks like:
Obviously, the Capitals would need to clear the cap space to remain at or under the salary cap ceiling for the 2023-24 season of $83.5M. The Capitals would have a potential option of moving Max Pacioretty to the long term injury list, which would free up both a roster spot and add his $2M cap hit to the cap ceiling the Capitals can utilize to ice a full roster.
With that move, the Capitals wouldn’t have to make any other corresponding moves, and would still be able to have a seventh defenseman and a thirteenth forward. The issue, though, is when Pacioretty is able to return to the lineup, you’re right back in the thick of a cap crunch.
Since there’s plenty of time to go until the regular season kicks off, the Capitals do have some time to figure out a way to remain salary cap compliant while having a full roster with some healthy scratches around as insurance in case of short term injuries.
To-Do list items that have been completed
We’re going to start this off by going through the completed items from our initial to-do list, and then we’ll work into where we’ll need to see some movement from MacLellan prior to the regular season starting.
Hire a new head coach and fill out the coaching staff
The Capitals have gone ahead and hired former Hershey Bears head coach and Toronto Maple Leafs’ assistant Spencer Carbery to be the bench boss in Washington. That part of the checklist is complete. The Capitals have only one spot open on the coaching staff after hiring two-time AHL Coach of the Year, Mitch Love, to coach defensemen. The unfilled spot on the staff is going to be focusing on the power play, which is one of Carbery’s specialization areas. This one seems like it’ll take a bit longer since Carbery will have to trust the scheme and direction that the new power play coach will want to employ.
Sign Martin Fehervary to a new contract
On July 4th, the Capitals re-signed Fehervary to a three-year bridge contract that carries a $2.675M cap hit. Fehervary will have one year remaining of restricted free agent status at the conclusion of that deal, which will give the Capitals the opportunity to lock Fehervary up on a long-term contract when he’s only 27 years old in the off-season prior to the 2026-27 season.
Fehervary has gotten ample opportunity to solidify himself as a top four defenseman on this roster, and the $2.675M cap hit is certainly affordable in the short term. The question will be, at the end of his new contract, will he demand a substantial raise if his performance continues to improve? That’s the main trade-off of agreeing to bridge contracts with restricted free agents.
Explore options for proven left-handed defensemen
MacLellan did a bit more than explore his options in the market for left-handed defensemen by acquiring Joel Edmundson (with 50% salary retained) from the Montreal Canadiens in return for Minnesota’s 2024 third round pick and Washington’s 2024 seventh round pick.
All in all, it’s pretty good value for a big-bodied, physical defenseman that this defensive group has been really missing. Edmundson didn’t have the greatest season last year, but with a smaller role on a better team, he might bounce back. The worst case scenario is that the Caps flip him at the trade deadline for future assets if they’re out of a playoff spot at that point.
To-do list items that are still in progress
There’s a few nebulous items on the initial to-do list that seem like there isn’t an immediate resolution to. We’ll get to those first, and then go through some of the areas where MacLellan has made some progress in addressing.
Make an assessment on Kuznetsov and Mantha’s contracts
It seems like MacLellan is rather unwilling to just dump Kuznetsov or Mantha’s contracts on a willing team just to clear cap space. We’ve seen some other teams, like the Philadelphia Flyers, take meager returns for players on bad contracts (like Kevin Hayes with 50% salary retained for a 6th round pick from the Blues). The Capitals are in a bit different of a situation than the Flyers, who are looking to really sell off the roster to kick start an aggressive rebuild.
At this point, I don’t see the need to dump Kuznetsov solely for cap space. Elliott Friedman recently reported that the Capitals and the Nashville Predators were engaged in discussions around Kuznetsov, potentially in a one-for-one trade for Matt Duchene (prior to his buy-out). That kind of move would make sense, since the Capitals would receive a top six caliber center back in that trade.
The issue with dumping Kuznetsov without receiving a similar caliber player back is two-fold. One, Kuznetsov is still a good player that has some extreme effort issues and a lack of passion for the game, and with resolution there, could be an extremely impactful player for the Capitals. Two, the Capitals don’t have a proven top six capable center waiting in the wings to slot into Kuznetsov’s vacancy.
For Mantha, though, I was wondering about the possibility of trading him to a team with 50% of his salary retained for a meager return. The value for the receiving team would be that they get a player that could have a bounce-back season at a lower cap hit that could be flipped at the deadline for more assets. The Capitals, even with 50% of Mantha’s salary still on the books, would have enough cap space to ice a full roster.
I think at this point, we might make the assumption that MacLellan has made an assessment on both players’ contracts and futures with the team, but nothing has been made official by the team. I wouldn’t consider this one resolved until MacLellan comes out and says they’re both staying, we see a trade of one (or both), or we see them in training camp.
Assess the future of Nicklas Backstrom
For this one, it feels like this is bound to last until the end of training camp. MacLellan will give Backstrom the opportunity (and now luxury) of having a full off-season to train pain-free for the first time in years to see where he’s at in terms of his playing ability. Backstrom has earned that opportunity, even if he’s not worth his current price tag of $9.2M a season.
The real question will be, if Backstrom does decide to retire (which will mean going on LTIR, because he’s not forfeiting all the money he’s owed), what will the Caps do with that now available cap space?
Acquire two top six forwards
This one is 50% completed, with the signing of Max Pacioretty to a one-year deal that carries a $2M cap hit this season, but with bonus incentives, can result in an extra $2M cap hit in the 2024-25 season. Pacioretty, when he’s healthy, can still be a force on the ice. I don’t mind the more frugal route of signing Pacioretty to a rather low-risk contract, but it’s clear that this team needs a bit more top six help.
Now, are we looking at the possibility of a player like Connor McMichael making an entrance into the top six? Or maybe Sonny Milano? Time will tell, especially when Carbery has his opening night roster available.
While it is clear that MacLellan’s job isn’t quite done this off-season, there’s still time to address some of the concerns in regards to the construction of the Capitals’ roster. With MacLellan’s rather conservative approach to the off-season, it certainly feels like he’s making smaller moves to try to supplement the team, but isn’t willing to move first or second round picks and prospects to really improve this team.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. If we’re looking at the state of the Capitals realistically, we’ve likely seen the sun setting on the Capitals’ current competitive window. MacLellan might want to adhere to the promise made to Alex Ovechkin to continue to contend for the playoffs for the remainder of his contract, he’s not going to mortgage the future unless the Capitals are right on the cusp of being a Stanley Cup competitor.
We’ve seen this in the past with Ken Holland when he was the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. They had a two decade playoff streak that they weren’t willing to let end, and it has resulted in the Red Wings missing the playoffs for the past seven seasons.
At this point, you might bank on a healthier season from your veteran core that might result in a playoff spot come the trade deadline, where you can add some players to help improve your roster going into the playoffs. With that, it’s a more shrewd strategy to see how the roster, as it currently stands, fares until the lead-up to the trade deadline.
By Justin Trudel