Capitals Will Lose a Good Defenseman in Expansion Draft but Gain Salary Cap Space

The expansion draft is only two weeks away and soon Seattle will have another franchise to emphatically support as their fans are known to do. Each NHL franchise will show their support for the new team by unprotecting a player they wish not to lose. For the Washington Capitals, the sacrifice may be worth the gain — and they have options.

Capitals Have Tough, Bittersweet Decision to Make on Defense

Currently, the Capitals rank 27th in the NHL regarding available cap space. The team has $9,491,667 worth of wiggle room, but unrestricted free agent Alexander Ovechkin is in negotiations with management, so his looming deal is bound to bring Washington to the league’s threshold. Last season, the star cost $9,538,462 against the cap. You don’t have to have a math degree to figure the concern after first glance.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Washington will more than likely sign the franchise’s icon after the expansion draft, and with Nicklas Backstrom having a no-movement clause in his contract, the Capitals can protect six more forwards. T.J. Oshie protected himself with his clutch play with a depleted roster this season, and Lars Eller, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha, and Tom Wilson appear to be locks. Luckily for the team, they can take a risk, and decisions such as “Conor Sheary or Daniel Sprong” may be moot come draft night. Trends suggest Seattle will be looking for defense.

Recent History Could Repeat Itself

Well, trend, not trends. During the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, the Vegas Golden Knights selected 13 defensemen. Of the 30 picks this year, Seattle must select at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen, and three goalies. After the required positions, the remaining four roster spots can be filled by any skater or netminder. Vegas used all four of those selections on defense in 2017; it worked out tremendously as the franchise made the Stanley Cup Final their inaugural season, and they continue to be a contender.

Nate Schmidt Vegas Golden Knights
The Capitals lost Nate Schmidt in the Vegas Expansion Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

On offense, Capitals fans will defend and validate the inclusion of their stars until those players retire — and then possible conspiracies will arise for why they actually retired. Management has made it clear that Ovechkin and Backstrom aren’t going anywhere. Also, Sheary and Sprong may not be appealing enough to select in lieu of other names on the blue line that will likely be left unprotected — unless the Kraken needs to fulfill its forward quota.

In net, the Capitals may be vulnerable leaving Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek exposed, but realistically both are safe considering goalies such as Jake Allen, Adin Hill, Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, and Malcolm Subban all could potentially be available — unless the Kraken wants a future trade asset.

That leaves defense, that trendy yet smart strategy to constructing a brand-new roster. The Capitals are sure to protect John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, and the third should be Justin Schultz. Schultz had the second-most points (27) and the least amount of penalty minutes (10) of Washington’s top six defenders.

Brenden Dillon or Nick Jensen

With Zdeno Chara in free agency limbo, Michal Kempny coming off a season spent on the injured reserve list, and Trevor van Riemsdyk not proving quite enough to entice Seattle, the Kraken’s pick will come down to Dillon or Jensen.                

PlayerAgePosition2020-21 SalaryUFA2020-21 Points2020-21 +/-2021-21 PIM
Brenden Dillon30LD$3.9 Million2024-25191549
Nick Jensen30RD$2.5 Million2023-2414514
Dillon and Jensen Comparison

Seattle’s system may help with the decision. Dillon has 15 pounds and three inches on Jensen and is more built for Peter Laviolette’s style of play. Jensen is the better fit of the two in Dave Hakstol’s fast, aggressive style of hockey. In the case for Dillon, he was born just two and a half hours north of Seattle in New Westminster, British Columbia, and has played on the west coast before, so his talent and roots may both be factors.

On the other hand, the strong hand of each could play a role. Dillon shoots left and Jensen right. Kempny, Orlov, and Martin Fehervary of the Hershey Bears — who is ready for a more frequent seat on the Capitals’ bench this upcoming season — all play the left. Carlson, Schultz, and van Riemsdyk are on the right. Depending on how earlier picks go for the Kraken, which side of the rink they need help on may ultimately make their decision easier.

Come draft day, look for Dillon or Jensen to be the Kraken’s selection; it’s a coin flip. Unless the Capitals…  

Trade Dmitry Orlov

Though it’s far-fetched, it’s not off the table. Orlov is set to make $5.1 million this season and again in 2022-23. Though he’s not the most rumored Russian to be on the move from Washington, that’s a decent chunk of money to save. Between Kuznetsov and Orlov, Washington could save $12.9 million a year and get a lot in return for the two Russians.

Dmitry Orlov
Dmitry Orlov (Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Like Kuznetsov, it would either be a trade or nothing with Orlov. He wouldn’t be left unprotected if the choice was between him and Dillon. Yet, trading Orlov and protecting and retaining Dillon would give Washington an additional $1.2 million in cap space. Plus moving Orlov could fetch a decent bounty of prospects and/or picks, and allow the team to pursue a veteran in free agency to transition Fehervary to the next level. Tyson Barrie would come at slightly less of a cost and the same could be said for Jamie Oleksiak. Alec Martinez would also be an intriguing one-year deal at a possible discount and Mike Reilly, if lured away from Boston, could be a steal.

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With management in desperate need to make quality moves that either don’t push the limit of their salaries or don’t get much value in return, moving a star before or after the expansion draft is at least a thought.  

Who Benefits Whom

Ideally, for both Seattle and Washington, it’s a win-win. Dillon has the talent, experience, and connection to the northwest to find a perfect home in Seattle. The same could be said about Jensen, except roots can be replaced with playing style. The Capitals would gain $3.9 million in cap space if Dillon was selected and $2.5 million if Jensen is picked. Losing Dillion, however, would free up minutes for Fehervary to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL, which MacLellan believes is an inevitable move this year.

Nick Jensen Washington Capitals
Nick Jensen, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In the end, though losing either Dillon or Jensen will be hard, it’s somewhat bittersweet. No matter who is selected by the Kraken, Washington will gain millions of dollars in cap space to pursue a bargain in free agency, and they still are able to retain one of these players. Also, If MacLellan remains patient, he won’t have to force a trade of someone like Kuznetsov and lose out on a greater return after the expansion draft.

The Capitals have options before and after July 21. With loss comes gain.

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