Capitals Need Strong Seasons From Their Free Agent Defensemen

The Washington Capitals made some moves this summer in free agency, as they addressed immediate needs in the crease and up front. Now that Darcy Kuemper and Dylan Strome are signed, all eyes should shift to the blue line.

Related: Capitals’ Free Agency Signings Fill All Their Needs

This season will be a tough one for the Capitals, especially during the first couple of months as they wait for their roster to be fully healthy. Six defensemen are on a contract year, so perhaps they will be motivated to show their value, propelling the team to a successful campaign in the process.

Capitals Could Get Boost From Blue Line in 2022-23

Kuemper and Strome will be constantly analyzed, but perhaps with an understanding eye as the netminder gets used to a new system and the center tries to produce as much as Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom would – which is quite a lot to ask. The youth in the system, most notably Connor McMichael will be asked to alleviate some of that pressure.

After the end of last season, the Capitals were left with only five defensemen on the roster who were not unrestricted free agents. Alex Alexeyev was considered an option to make the jump from Hershey, Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, until shoulder surgery delayed the move. Lucas Johansen is another young skater who could see some NHL time as well.

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

The Capitals signed Erik Gustafsson and re-signed Matt Irwin to help fill out the roster, but depth remains an issue, especially considering the aforementioned note about Kuemper adjusting to a new system. Yet, the situation gets far worse next summer, as five defensemen are unrestricted free agents and one is a restricted free agent. John Carlson is the only blueliner locked into a contract beyond this season.

Martin Fehervary, the restricted free agent of the bunch, will surely be extended before that summer or signed to a multi-year deal. If Alexeyev and Johansen develop well, they may both be skating on opening night in 2023-24. That is promising, as the combination of youth and motivated veterans is usually dangerous for opponents. Having said that, the main two question marks heading into 2022-23 will be Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov.

Solid 2021-22 for Jensen

Jensen had a strong showing in 2021-22. In 76 games, he set career-highs in goals (5) and assists (16), but his plus/minus rating was an outstanding plus-32. His presence on the penalty kill was even more valuable, as he averaged the second-most time spent shorthanded on the roster at 2:32 a game, only trailing Trevor van Riemsdyk (2:38).

Nick Jensen Washington Capitals
Nick Jensen, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The veteran will make $2.5 million this season but will be 32 years next year, so it will be hard for management to justify giving him a long-term contract. However, when compared to what happened with Justin Schultz this summer, signing a two-year deal with the Seattle Kraken as a 32-year-old, it could be beneficial for the Capitals to offer a similar deal to Jensen next summer.

Get Everything From/For Orlov

The Capitals could greatly benefit from Orlov’s play this upcoming season. The 31-year-old recorded career marks in goals (12) and points (35) last season, but is a $5.1 million cap hit, which is good for second-most on the blue line.

Orlov will likely demand a higher price next summer, but general manager George MacLellan may not be in that bad of a spot with the defenseman. Though the Capitals may not be a contender to start the season, Orlov playing at a high level in a contract year may be the extra jolt the team needs to keep pace with the rest of the division in the first half of the season, then finish strong in the second half with a full roster.

Washington Capitals Dmitry Orlov
Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

On the other hand, if the Capitals do fall behind in what looks to be a stronger Metropolitan Division and loaded Eastern Conference, Orlov may be a good piece to move at the deadline for draft capital and to clear cap space. Chances are, the team could part ways with him next summer anyway.

Looking Ahead

Keeping Jensen and parting ways with Orlov may be the best bet for the Capitals come next summer, but things could change depending on their performance this season. Extending Fehervary is a must, and giving Alexeyev and Johansen NHL experience will help. Also, van Riemsdyk could play well enough to warrant another deal, and most likely remain at a discount.

The Capitals will still need one more blueliner in 2023-24, and with an extra $5.1 million of cap space, if the team moves on from Orlov, they could target a big free-agent defenseman. Matt Dumba, Damon Severson, and Travis Sanheim should drive the most buzz come next summer. Other names set to be available include MacKenzie Weegar, Brian Dumoulin, and Shayne Gostisbehere.

Related: Capitals’ Offseason Proves They Are Ready For a Repeat of 2018

For this upcoming campaign, the Capitals should take advantage of the possible elevated play from their blue line. Contract years always seem to bring out the best in skaters, and will also push the youth to skate up to par. The team is going to need that to happen if they want to better their chances of making the playoffs come April.