Capitals: Breaking Down 2019-20 Lineup Changes

One of the last major bullet points on the Washington Capitals’ off-season needs list can finally be crossed out. After two weeks of uncertainty, restricted free agent Jakub Vrana has agreed to a two-year, $6.7 million bridge deal with the Capitals on Tuesday. This will clear $3.35 million worth of cap space for a promising 23-year-old who last season showed great potential, reaching career highs in goals (24), assists (23), and points (47). 

With Vrana’s re-signing, the Capitals’ 2019-20 roster is basically set, barring any surprising late moves. It was a tight off-season for general manager Brian MacLellan, and a lower-than-expected NHL salary cap prevented the team from diving into the top-tier free agent market. Still, he found ways to improve the roster around the margins, keeping the Capitals in the conversation as Stanley Cup contenders.

Big Changes to the Bottom-Six

The Capitals should not lack for scoring as long as they have a line with Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson. Ovechkin, in particular, does not seem to be slowing down with age, having won the Maurice Richard Trophy for the sixth time in seven years in 2018-19 with his 51-goal season. 

Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

Ovechkin is the rock of a forward trio that is prone to instability. Kuznetsov, while a brilliant passer and skater, had a rough season defensively – one of the roughest of all time, according to RMNB. Thankfully, he should have the enforcer, Tom Wilson, to provide backup, provided he isn’t suspended for rough play.

Offensive depth was one of the team’s strong points during the regular season, but in their first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, the bottom-six forwards seemingly abandoned them, contributing only five goals in the seven games. During the offseason, the Capitals emphasized rebuilding their forward corps both in the draft and in free agency. While the Capitals could not afford to hang on to Andre Burakovsky or Brent Connolly, they found cheap replacements in veterans Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.

A New Piece on Defense

The Capitals’ defensive corps is mostly unchanged from 2018-19, with one key difference – Matt Niskanen. The rock of the unit during the 2018 Stanley Cup run, is gone. In their quest to slash costs, Washington traded him (and most of his $5.75 million salary) to the Philadelphia Flyers in June in exchange for 29-year-old defender Radko Gudas.

Three years younger than Niskanen, Gudas is a pure defenseman who successfully pared down his penalty minutes in his last year with the Flyers, which should maximize his usefulness alongside last year’s trade deadline pickup Nick Jensen.

Radko Gudas #3, Philadelphia Flyers
Former Flyer Radkos Gudas (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last season, the Capitals improved from 16th in the NHL in goals allowed to 13th, but for Gudas, Jensen, and the remaining defensemen – Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, and Michal Kempny – there is always room for improvement.

The status of restricted free agent Christian Djoos is uncertain, but with the Capitals sitting $935,706 under the salary cap, it seems unlikely that the 24-year-old defenseman will be retained for next season barring another move.

Is This the End for Holtby?

Already, questions are swirling around the long-term status of goaltender Braden Holtby. The 2019-20 season will be the final year of his current contract, and as this off-season has demonstrated, keeping him in Washington will be a thorny issue for MacLellan. However, that is an issue for next season, and Capitals fans still have at least one more year to witness the once-Vezina-Trophy-winner in action.

Washington Capitals Braden Holtby New Jersey Devils Blake Coleman
Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby makes a save (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Should worst come to worst, however, the Caps have options available. There is Pheonix Copley, the second-string goaltender who showed some promise in the 24 games he started last season. He won 16 of those starts while registering a 2.90 goals-against average, just 0.08 higher than Holtby.

The Capitals could also turn to Vitek Vanecek, who they re-signed on July 1 to a three-year, $2.15 million contract. Vanecek shared the Hershey Bears’ goaltender spot with Ilya Samsonov throughout 2018-19 and improved steadily throughout the season as the Bears won an unexpected division title. Though Copley is set as the second goaltender, expect Vanecek to make an appearance or two late in the regular season. (From: ‘Ilya Samsonov, Capitals’ top prospect and goalie of the future’, Washington Post – 5/8/2019).

Last Cup Chance?

The Capitals had little breathing space during this offseason, and while they ended up losing two key offensive pieces in Connolly and Burakovsky, it could have been a lot bloodier. MacLelland’s decision to replace them with late-blooming veterans Leipsic and Hathaway, combined with the decision to trade Niskanen for a defenseman only three years his junior, only proves that the Capitals’ main priority is to win now and win as soon as possible – which may not be unjustified.

Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden
Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

On average, the roster is pushing 30, with five players already over that age. While Ovechkin is still performing at an All-Star level, he isn’t getting any younger. The talent is there to win the Cup, at least for this season, but the window may be closing.