The NHL’s 32nd franchise will be formulated in June 2021, and enter the league officially for the 2021-22 season. It’s sounding more and more likely that the franchise will be named the Seattle Kraken, and Ron Francis (the club’s general manager) is licking his chops to get underway building the foundation for the club. One vital component to the new franchise’s roster? An asset from the Washington Capitals’ depth chart. Washington boasts a plethora of talent, as well as significant depth throughout their lineup, which bodes well for Seattle in selecting a strong piece to build upon. So, the question becomes — who will Washington leave available for the new franchise?
The protected players list rules for this expansion are very similar to that of the Vegas Golden Knights draft. Washington can choose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie as the first possible route. The second alternative would be protecting eight skaters (forwards, or defensemen) and one netminder.
The key aspect to the protected list — all players with no-movement clauses (who decline to waive them) must be on the protected list. Let’s plunge into the projected list, and who Seattle could end up taking from the 2017-18 Stanley Cup champs.
The No-Movement Clauses
Referring back to the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, teams were put in very complex positions due to the no-movement clauses of some players. Individuals like David Backes (Boston Bruins), Scott Hartnell (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Milan Lucic (Edmonton Oilers) were mandatory for protection, despite their teams potentially having the desire to shed additional cap space. This is why NHL teams have been so careful about NMC’s since that expansion draft, because they knew Seattle was looming and the possible detriment of the conditions.
For the Capitals, they won’t have such an issue. Although the Capitals have one full no-movement clause, and five modified NMCs, only the full condition demands mandatory protection in the expansion draft. This means only Nicklas Backstrom will be a mandatory protected player (don’t think the Capitals are upset about that).
There is a possibility that Alexander Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, or Ilya Samsonov possess the clause with their upcoming contracts over the next year. All three of them will become free agents in the summer of 2021, but there is no doubt they will put the pen to paper before the expansion draft.
What’s the chances of Washington protecting arguably the greatest goal scorer of all time? Roughly the same as John Tortorella losing his temper with the media at some point during the season — high. Ovechkin will be the first name on the protected list without so much as a hesitation by Washington. His name will swiftly be followed by John Carlson, Backstrom, Vrana, and Samsonov. Those five names are an absolute lock for the Capitals foundation and form the infrastructure of D.C.’s hockey future.
Ovechkin has stood the test of time, and is currently tied for the NHL lead in goals this season at 37. He continues to pour in tallies despite his age climbing through the 30s. Carlson is well on his way to his first-ever Norris Trophy, and is on pace for the first 90-plus point season by a D-man since Ray Bourque in 1993-94 (91 points). Backstrom is one of the premier playmakers in the world, and owns the aforementioned NMC in his contract. Vrana and Samsonov have turned into budding superstars this season, and will continue to develop as primary fixtures for the Capitals.
But then it becomes a little trickier. The next names that come to mind are Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Tom Wilson, and T.J. Oshie. Capitals fans are likely asking: “what about Braden Holtby?” Rules are rules. The Capitals backstop of the future is Samsonov, so Holtby will not be in the crease for the 2021-22 season. Washington won’t be able to protect both goalies, so Holtby will be moving on one way, or another.
With Ovechkin, Backstrom and Vrana locked in as core components for the Capitals it leaves a maximum of five remaining forward spots for the protected list. Kuznetsov and Wilson will make the cut and begin to solidify the top six. Kuznetsov continues to produce at nearly a point-per-game clip throughout his career (44 points through 49 games in 2019-20), and Tom Wilson is a very rare breed in today’s NHL. Not many players bring his two-way style of hockey to the ice anymore, and his physicality continues to create chances for the high-flying talent of the Capitals.
The question then turns to Oshie and whether Washington retains their entire top-six forward group given the salary implications. Between Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Wilson, the Capitals have just shy of $22.2 million invested heading into the 2021-22 season. That’s roughly 27.1% of the current NHL salary cap. That’s a very significant portion of the team’s cap space invested in just three players.
Then let’s assume that Ovechkin re-signs this summer for $12 million per season moving forward, and Vrana takes on an average annual value (AAV) of $6.5 million. Now the picture becomes a little scarier with $40.7 million per year divided between Washington’s top five forwards (nearly half of the team’s total cap space as of now).
Shifting our attention to the back end for a moment, Washington won’t leave Carlson as the only D-man protected and understand the importance of cementing their D core. Orlov will join him on the list and is under contract through 2023 at $5.1 million per season (ranked 51st among NHL defensemen). Samsonov will man the crease, but his contract is a complete guessing game at the moment. Given his superb play (16-2-1 with a 0.925 save percentage) it’s very likely he sees a Jordan Binnington-esque contract.
Where do the Capitals go from here?
“If you love someone, you will set them free.” What a terrible cliche to utilize in this moment, but it could very well be the case. Washington will have a massive percentage of their total salary cap invested in the eight individuals we have discussed. Their core will include five elite forwards, two polished defensemen and possibly the best goaltending prospect in the NHL. They will be able to survive without Oshie. His $5.75 million cap hit is just not going to be justifiable for Washington to retain, despite how talented he truly is.
It’s not easy to shed a player that performs at an exceptional level day in, and day out. Oshie has been a staple for Washington’s top power play unit, penalty kill and second line since coming over in a trade from the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis would probably love to have that one back, given the mediocre performance of Troy Brouwer afterwards.
By relinquishing their elite right-winger, Washington opens up a significant chunk of financial stability and can provide opportunities to players like Connor McMichael (first-round pick in 2019). This also gives them the flexibility to double-down on added stability in their lineup with other key assets. Let’s dive into who those players might be.
Finalizing the List
With Oshie being left available to Seattle, it’s a fair prediction to say the new franchise will likely select him. One could expect Oshie to become a key piece to the new club (similar to Marc-Andre Fleury with Vegas), and likely wear a letter for Ron Francis’ organization. Washington then turns their focus to other key requirements. Lars Eller has been one of the most underrated fixtures in the Capitals’ success since he joined the club. His two-way presence is calming, and he plays a full spectrum of roles for the top team in the NHL.
Washington ensured they would have their third-line center locked up moving forward with a team-friendly, $3.5 million per year deal through 2023. His inclusion on the list is a no-brainer. Michal Kempny would be the final asset secured for the Capitals D core. Kempny has evolved into one of the most steady defensemen in the league, and complements Carlson’s offensive prowess impeccably well. He currently sits third on the team in plus/minus (plus-13) and his cap hit of $2.5 million per year through 2021-22 is more than justifiable.
To round out the complex process, the Capitals would need to decide on a final forward. The likes of Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Travis Boyd could all be possibilities. Carl Hagelin is 31 at the moment, and wouldn’t likely require protection anyways. Panik would make a fitting final selection given his success in previous years. Despite his difficult transition to the Capitals, he comes with a friendly cap hit of $2.75 million per year and has significant upside on the third line after a 33 point outburst with Arizona last season.
Washington is already uncomfortably close to the salary cap this season, and they have momentous signings approaching with Ovechkin, Vrana, and Samsonov. By letting Holtby and Oshie enjoy new opportunities, it provides breathing room and favorable circumstances for the young, up-and-coming prospects. With how dominant Samsonov has been, it could bode extremely well for Washington as an outcome.
The Seattle franchise will likely pry Oshie from Washington, given how consistent he has been over the years (seven straight 18-plus goal seasons) and the lack of right-wingers available. Expansion drafts typically boast a significant plethora of defensemen for a new club, but not nearly as much for forward selections. (from ‘Vegas Golden Knights Focus on Defense in N.H.L. Expansion Draft,’ New York Times, 06/22/2017) Oshie will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft, and this could be a phenomenal finish to a storied career. If this indeed becomes the story-line, one could only hope for the best for a player that’s brought so much to Washington already.