The moves will get harder and the decisions will become tougher for Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan this offseason. For now, MacLellan will look to get the bulk of his restricted free agents signed before free agency opens up to all teams in July, just a few days after the draft.
MacLellan, entering his second year as the GM in Washington, locked up two influential young pieces for the Capitals 2015-16 campaign and beyond earlier this week. He signed both expected backup netminder Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Nate Schmidt to two-year, one-way contracts to keep them in Washington through the 2016-17 season.
Grubauer Likely Holtby’s Backup
Grubauer, a 23-year-old German native, is an athletic goaltender who made a significant mark in Hershey and has overtaken former Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters on the Caps’ goalie depth chart. Grubauer will hold a cap hit of $750,000 over the next year and will earn $650,000 and $850,000 over the next two seasons.
He finished 13th in save percentage (.921) in the AHL this past season with expected Bears starting goalie Pheonix Copley just ahead of him (.925). Grubauer should play much more than Justin Peters did behind Holtby next season and is a better option, both in the short and long-term. Peters played in only 12 games and posted a less than sufficient .881 save percentage. Holtby had a significant workload in Washington last season and giving him ample rest should be a consideration for the Capitals coaching staff. Grubauer has played in 24 career NHL games in Washington over the past three seasons, with an impressive .924 save percentage.
“I’ve got to get ready and prepare for the season as if I’m starting in the NHL,” Grubauer told Dave Sottile of the Patriot News. “That’s the goal, to be a starter in the NHL, and it’s got to start as the back-up. I want to take the next step.”
Like any goalie, Grubauer will want to work on every area of his game to become a reputable NHL netminder. Some of the areas Washington’s 2010 fourth round draftee should work on is his rebound control and his puck-playing ability.
“You work on a lot of things like tracking the puck and body positioning,” he said. “Every situation is different, but tracking the puck and how you position yourself to the shooters and to the traffic, being aware of more things than the puck, being aware of other players, what could happen and what could not happen. I think I developed those areas, as well as playing the puck.”
Does Schmidt Signing Eliminate Mike Green?
Washington also locked up former University of Minnesota blue liner Nate Schmidt to a two-year pact, giving Washington six defensemen signed for the 2015-16 season. Dmitri Orlov could round out Washington’s defensive core with Schmidt on the Capitals third defensive pairing if MacLellan doesn’t add an impact free agent on the defence.
“Schmidt, 23, registered four points (one goal, three assists) in a career-high 39 games with the Capitals last season. The St. Cloud, Minn., native made his NHL debut in 2013-14 and earned six points (two goals, four assists) in 29 games. Schmidt registered his first NHL point with an assist at Calgary on Oct. 26, 2013, and scored his first NHL goal on Dec. 7, 2013, against Nashville. In 68 career NHL games, Schmidt has registered 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and 16 penalty minutes.” – Capitals PR
Schmidt and Orlov will compete with right-handed defensemen Connor Carrick and Madison Bowey to fill out the third defensive paring in Washington, but Carrick and Bowey are clearly long shots. Bowey played an enormous role for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL this past season, including being their captain. He’s one of the best two-way defensemen the Capitals have had in their system over the past decade and has the potential to become a top-four defenseman at the NHL level. Carrick and Bowey are expected to begin the year with Hershey in the AHL barring an outstanding training camp and preseason.
Carrick entered the NHL under Adam Oates two seasons ago and struggled because of his slight physical build, playing with John Erskine (47.1 corsi-for percentage in 195:32) and his inexperience. He brings strong offensive instincts along with an effective skating game, making him a potential key part of the Capitals’ defense in the future. Carrick’s defensive game still needs work, along with continuing to develop his body, but he could be a power play option in the future.
The signing of Schmidt was a good move for MacLellan and the Capitals, but shouldn’t have too much of an effect on Mike Green’s free agency. Green is a long shot to stay in the nation’s capital, and Schmidt had to be re-signed anyway. The Capitals have Schmidt and Orlov in the fold for next season and if MacLellan can somehow retain Green he certainly would be willing to find a way to make their defensive situation work. Depth is certainly never a problem to have, especially for a hopeful Stanley Cup contender.
Just the Start of Summer for MacLellan
Washington still has crucial restricted free agents to sign for next season and MacLellan’s ability to negotiate the Caps’ RFA’s to team-friendly deals will be crucial to keep salary flexibility. Goalie Braden Holtby and young forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson are Washington’s top RFA priorities and Joel Ward and Eric Fehr headline the Capitals unrestricted free agents.
A bridge deal for Holtby appears to be the goal for MacLellan and the Capitals, but Washington should feel confident signing a long-term contract with the goaltender. He has shown no signs of slowing down the excellent progress he has made as an elite NHL goalkeeper. Johansson and Kuznetsov are both similar situations and Washington will likely sign them to shorter deals and both of the players’ agents surely want to maximize their value in unrestricted free agency.
Washington will field a similar team to last season’s roster, but I believe they will be much younger. Forward prospect Stan Galiev will have a chance to make the team out of training camp. MacLellan will need to keep costs low to retain his top players and players on entry level deals surely help with that. The team should have a great mix of young players and veterans. With Barry Trotz’s leadership behind the bench, the expectations should include a goal of reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
The Capitals and MacLellan have a long way to go this summer, but the draft is approaching soon along with free agency. They’re in a good spot now and Washington fans should be excited for the future of the franchise.
Matthew Speck covers the Washington Capitals organization for The Hockey Writers. He provides coverage of both Washington at the NHL level and prospect related content. Matthew also covers local sports for the Lebanon Daily News in Central Pennsylvania. You can email him at email@example.com with any questions or comments.