If you wanted a brief assessment of whether the Washington Capitals have managed their cap space effectively under general manager Brian MacLellan, ‘it’s complicated’ would be the response. Following another first-round exit, the team from D.C. is preparing for the new season while surrounded by several major question marks.
Alex Ovechkin’s future level of production looms large in Washington. Will the Russian, who is due to celebrate his 37th birthday next month, continue to score at an elite level? Nicklas Bäckström’s health is also a source of serious concern. The 34-year-old faces an extended period in the treatment room following his hip surgery: will he return and how will he perform if he does? Finally, T.J. Oshie suffered a series of injuries last season. Was it an unfortunate blip or the start of a trend ahead of his age-36 season?
Washington’s core is old and staring the end of their era of contention in the face, introducing an unfamiliar sense of urgency into the mix. It feels like now or never for the Capitals, but has MacLellan’s cap management put them on the path to success?
With that in mind, let’s assess the contractual landscape in Washington, marking the organization’s performance on a position-by-position basis. There is a lot to discuss, especially as the Capitals sit $6.3 million over the cap, albeit without long-term injury reserves accounted for.
Capitals’ Goaltending Represents Sizeable Risk
As previously reported, MacLellan rebuilt his netminding department over the summer, swapping Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov for Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren. Washington will spend $6.35 million in goal next season, with the team’s inbound Stanley Cup winner signed to a five-year contract carrying a $5.25 million annual average value (AAV).
“It’s more than just experience,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of Kuemper’s appeal. “It’s experience and success. His numbers have been good. He’s big. He covers a lot of net. His numbers say he keeps the puck out of the net.”
Last season, the 32-year-old recorded a .921 save percentage (SV%) and 2.54 goals-against average (GAA) through 57 regular-season appearances for the Colorado Avalanche. His level of performance dipped in the playoffs, although spending half the postseason retraining his eye was not ideal preparation for a Cup run.
Kuemper is the “significant and legitimate” improvement between the pipes that MacLellan was looking for last season. For as long as the Canadian continues to stop pucks at the same rate, his cap hit will remain fair value.
Lindgren, on the other hand, is a complete wildcard after upholding a 5-0-0 record, 1.22 GAA, and .958 SV% for the St. Louis Blues last season. If the 28-year-old thrives as Washington’s backup, his $1.1 million cap hit will prove to be excellent value. It will be a nightmare for MacLellan if he struggles.
Capitals’ Blue Line Provides Excellent Value
Washington’s defence is a bargain, with John Carlson’s $8 million AAV representing eye-catching utility. He flew under the radar last season, recording 71 points (17 goals, 54 assists) in 78 regular-season appearances alongside rookie Martin Fehérváry.
Although the 32-year-old has four years left on his deal, he is aging with grace and does not appear to be on the verge of a major slice of regression. He recorded five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in six playoff games last season, underscoring his staying power at the highest level.
But Carlson’s deal is not Washington’s only efficient contract, Nick Jensen ($2.5 million AAV), Erik Gustafsson ($800,000 AAV), and Trevor van Riemsdyk ($1.2 million AAV) are also paid below their market values and help to justify allocating $5.1 million against the cap to Dmitry Orlov.
That said, MacLellan’s blue line will look very different in 2023-24. Carlson is Washington’s only blueliner signed beyond the end of this season, with Fehérváry also hitting restricted free agency.
Capitals’ Depth Forwards Contribute Cheap Goals
Let’s start with some positive news: Dylan Strome’s $3.5 million AAV is of tremendous value. The 25-year-old finished last season with 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 69 appearances for the Chicago Blackhawks and is set to earn a salary bump as a restricted free agent in 2023.
Garnet Hathaway’s $1.5 million cap hit is another savvy piece of business. The defensively responsible forward produced 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists) in 76 games last season, solidifying his status as a member of Laviolette’s inner circle. The 30-year-old’s contract expires next summer, but the Capitals should enjoy his cheap production in the meantime.
Connor Sheary ($1.3 million AAV), Marcus Johansson ($1.1 million AAV), and Nic Dowd ($1.3 million AAV) are also signed to team-friendly deals, with Connor McMichael’s entry-level contract improving Washington’s cap situation further.
However, there are issues on the horizon. The age curves of Bäckström ($9.2 million AAV), Ovechkin ($9.5 million AAV), and Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8 million AAV) are starting to bite.
Bäckström’s contract will be particularly difficult to stomach once he returns to the ice. He notched 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists) in 47 appearances last season, his least productive year since debuting in the Swedish Hockey League, and remains an injury doubt.
On the other hand, Ovechkin is still producing offence at close to fair value. He was excellent in the first half of last season but cooled off after the turn of the year. It is essential for the Capitals that the Russian returns to his best.
Kuznetsov is an interesting case. He rebounded from a disappointing 2020-21 campaign by scoring 78 points (24 goals, 54 assists) in 79 regular-season appearances last season. The 30-year-old was also one of the team’s most productive postseason players, with five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in six games. If he continues that type of production, it will be a win for the Capitals.
Capitals Face Crunch Season in 2022-23
If the Capitals want to lift another Stanley Cup in the Ovechkin era, they must do it next season. Washington’s prospect pool is shallow, the team has struggled in the playoffs since winning it all against the Vegas Golden Knights, and age curves are starting to kick in.
If not next season, when will be the Capitals’ next opportunity to contend? With that said, they must make the most of their solid cap management in 2022-23. Time is running out.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.