With a fourth-straight first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Washington Capitals are seemingly on the decline. That notion is especially apparent with the fact they have dropped in the Metropolitan Division rankings and there is more young talent in the Eastern Conference. Needless to say, the franchise needs major help if they want to remain competitive.
Additionally, Tom Wilson will be recovering from ACL surgery until about December, and Nicklas Backstrom has a big question mark surrounding his career moving forward. Though there are some options in the system that can at least fill in, Washington needs to look at the summer market for help, and there’s a lot of offensive talent available.
Capitals Can Get Help in Free Agency
Washington’s roster is going to look different come October. Though a reset, not necessarily a rebuild — the next couple of seasons may be practical — there is also an argument for management to keep going all-in until Alex Ovechkin retires. If that’s the case, they need to get creative and stretch their already tight cap space. The team doesn’t need any more role players. They need impact players, so perhaps next summer may be the best time to make a move. Yet, that’s a year away, and the fanbase lives in the now.
The defense should be set. Realistically, Justin Schultz will not get re-signed. Though he is a solid blueliner, he comes with a hefty cap hit. Plus, the Capitals can sign a discount veteran to complement Alex Alexeyev making the leap to the NHL from the American Hockey League. The main focus for Washington this summer is offensive help.
Good Forwards Available
As mentioned, the Capitals have two predicaments on offense. The Backstrom situation will resolve itself, but they are definitely going to be without Wilson for some time. The forward position should be a priority and can get split into three categories: Mid-tier impact player, wily vet, and a bouncing check (aka, can’t afford him, but why not, the salary cap is already a mess).
Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas, and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby could all be on the opening night roster. They need someone more seasoned, however, someone as good as or better than Wilson and Anthony Mantha. Yet, they’re going to have to pay someone between $4-$6 million a year for that.
Washington should consider Ondrej Palat if the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t re-sign him and Andrew Copp, depending on what the New York Rangers do. Washington’s main problem the last four seasons is they run out of steam and play poorly in the postseason. Palat shines in the playoffs, and Copp has had a great run this season with the opportunity given. Both players have a better points-per-game average than Wilson and Mantha in the playoffs over the last four seasons, and they’re even right in line with Evgeny Kuzentsov’s postseason production; Palat is at 0.63, Copp at 0.65, and Kuznetsov at 0.66.
Tampa Bay is in a horrible cap situation, and Palat, 31, is likely to be a causality. He made $5.3 million this past season, but the Capitals shouldn’t really fork much over for him. He registered 49 points in 77 games during the regular season and has recorded eight points in 11 games so far in the playoffs.
Copp, 27, came to the Rangers via a trade with the Winnipeg Jets and has impacted the team greatly — he has 12 postseason points so far in 2022. He’s making $3.64 million this season, so his stock is expected to go up. He’s younger and will be less of a hit than Palat. A few other names include Nazim Kadri, Vincent Trocheck, and possibly bringing back Andre Burakovsky.
Capitals Should Spend Spend Spend
Another route is signing a wily veteran forward to the roster for a year, but the best three options have been Capital killers for quite some time. It’s highly unlikely this will happen, but Washington should entertain signing either Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, or, dare we say, Evgeni Malkin.
It just sounds weird and unrealistic. Yet, if the fanbase still believes that this team can win the Cup again with the current roster, then this isn’t as far-fetched in comparison. However, most of this hinges on what happens with Backstrom.
If the beloved center decides to retire or Washington decides to move on much to the chagrin of everyone, then it will clear up $9.2 million in cap space. Or, if the front office is truly committed to this anything-is-possible scenario, then perhaps moving other valuable pieces such as Kuznetsov or Orlov may be considered.
If that is the case, then they must be certain someone like Filip Forsberg is the answer. The forward does have a history with Laviolette, having reached the Stanley Cup Final together in Nashville and also Washington, having been drafted by the franchise only to get traded away during the 2012-13 season. These connections, and his talent, could be convincing enough for management to get creative and get Forsberg in D.C.
Or is the PR nightmare that is Evander Kane worth taking a look at as well, especially after proving his worth in Edmonton at the moment? Look, but don’t touch.
It’s All About Next Summer for the Capitals
Washington has seven unrestricted free agents next summer that account for $17.8 million against the cap. The front office needs to think about whether or not they can wait and see what develops this season. Next year’s offensive free agent class features Vladimir Tarasenko, David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon, Dylan Larkin, Timo Meier, and Jonathan Huberdeau, just to name a few.
The Capitals’ best options right now are either to go after Copp but don’t overpay, maybe consider someone like Malkin for the ridiculous drama, or break the bank on Forsberg after some moves, because why not.
Or they can just stomach a tough year with the roster they have to increase their chances moving forward by developing the system and waiting to free up cap space. Let the young forwards gain a lot of experience, and then maybe go after a prized free agent next summer.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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