Capitals Expansion Situation Looking Much Better This Time Around

The Seattle Kraken are close to having a roster, and just like every team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals will have to contribute a player to the expansion team’s lineup. Though the league puts the established franchises in an awkward position by forcing them to protect certain players and sacrifice others, the Capitals aren’t in that bad of a spot.

Seattle Could Help Capitals Free up Cap Space

After the Vegas Golden Knights went to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence and continue to succeed, the expansion draft has received backlash from mostly envious fanbases. Teams protect their stars and their future but must give up a key contributor. The new franchise may not draft a star, but it’s essentially drafting a team of second- and third-line players. Though Seattle won’t receive a once-in-a-generation talent, they also won’t draft unestablished players who are sub-par. Filling a roster with average to above-average skaters and goalies puts them right in the thick of things from the league’s parity perspective.

Washington left Nate Schmidt unprotected in 2017-18, and the defenseman became a staple on Vegas’ blue line. During his three years in Sin City, he averaged 32 points and had a plus/minus rating of 53 — and two of those were shortened seasons. Schmidt is now with the Vancouver Canucks.

On July 21, Seattle will hold its expansion draft. As a refresher, each team is allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or eight total skaters and one goalie. The Capitals have some hard decisions to make, but general manager Brian MacLellan has the opportunity to avoid a disastrous loss — something he desperately needs to accomplish.

3 Stars

Washington has built an offensive core that management appears to be committed to keeping intact. Of said core, there are three skaters that are out of contention for a possible move to the Pacific Northwest.

Alexander Ovechkin

Ovechkin is an unrestricted free agent at the moment. Though uncertainty looms while a franchise icon tests the market, it’s highly unlikely the captain will be enticed enough by a different franchise. Washington Owner Ted Leonsis has made it clear that the front office will do whatever it takes to keep Ovechkin — plus, it would just look odd to see the superstar winger in another sweater.

There’s a very slim risk of letting Ovechkin float in limbo, but it’s a move that could benefit the Capitals. With Ovechkin being an unrestricted free agent and confident he will sign a new contract with the team, Washington doesn’t have to protect him during the draft. They can wait until after July 21 to reach a deal with the franchise’s most famed player.

If more titles are the ultimate goal for Ovechkin’s last years in the league, the star must start thinking of giving Washington a hometown discount to save cap room and land a solid name or two in free agency.

Nicklas Backstrom

There isn’t much detail to dissect here. Backstrom has a no-movement clause in his current contract that requires the Capitals to protect him. In 2020, Washington extended the center on a five-year, $46 million contract, which is a tough $9.2 million against the cap through 2024-25.

Despite some doubt, Backstrom has remained steady these last two years. Even though the pandemic-shortened seasons are a rough sample, the center was actually on an 82-game pace to record 72 and 79 points the last two seasons — both were better than his point total (71) during Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup title run.

T.J. Oshie

Oshie was the sexy rumored pick for the Kraken. He’s from Washington, and after the emotional death of his father, it would be fitting for him to return to his home state and be with family. His leadership skills are superior, and he could become the face of a franchise. With Washington facing a $5.75 million cap hit for yet another aging player and Oshie’s status as a fan favorite almost guaranteed in Seattle, leaving the prolific winger unprotected makes sense. That doesn’t seem to be what Oshie or the Capitals want, however.

In 2021, Oshie recorded his second-highest scoring rate as a Capital, registering 43 points in 53 games. Like Backstrom, accumulating points consistently doesn’t seem to be a problem with age. Oshie has been dedicated to the D.C. area and has made it clear he wants to retire there, and his productivity is supporting his argument. MacLellan has also made it clear he wants Oshie to remain a Capital.

Perhaps surrounding the elders with youth can make the latter decision easier, and there’s room to do so.          

The Kuznetsov Conundrum

Evgeny Kuznetsov is becoming a problem, and Washington should seriously consider trading their top center. There are multiple reasons for making such a move. Kuznetsov’s productivity is declining, he has the third-highest salary on the team, which adds up to $7.8 million against the cap through 2024-25, and his off-ice issues have become a trend rather than a learning experience.

Since the center’s great 2017-18 campaign where he had 83 points and was key in the Stanley Cup run, Kuznetsov posted 72 points in 2018-19, and during the last two shortened seasons, he was on an 82-game pace to register 68 and 58 points, respectively. Reference Backstrom’s point totals and pace in the same span.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As strange as this may sound, leaving Kuznetsov unprotected isn’t the worst thing. If the Kraken were to select him, the Capitals would open up significant cap space, and there’d be fewer distractions. Plus, it would allow the team to protect someone like Lars Eller, who has always held tremendous value as a third-line center, or protect both Daniel Sprong and Conor Sheary.

The best option would be to trade Kuznetsov. He does have issues away from the ice and can appear lazy or unmotivated while skating, but he’s still good. If the Capitals can trade the center before the draft, they won’t just take care of the off-ice problems, but they also could possibly recoup some much-needed draft picks and/or prospects. It’s all about the value of the return, which is something that has been lacking the last few seasons.   

Protection Projection

The Capitals are in a better position with this expansion draft than they were in 2018. They can make some moves to free up cap space before and during the draft. In order to accomplish this, the Capitals may give up another defenseman to a new team.

Nicklas Backstrom (C)Nic Dowd (C)Alexander Alexeyev (D)
Lars Eller (C)Carl Hagelin (LW)Kody Clark (RW)
Evgeny Kuznetsov (C)*Garnet Hathaway (RW)Martin Fehervary (D)
Anthony Mantha (LW)Conor Sheary (LW)*Tobias Geisser (D)
T.J. Oshie (RW)Brenden Dillon (D)Hendrix Lapierre (C)
Daniel Sprong (RW)Nick Jensen (D)Brett Leason (RW)
Tom Wilson (RW)Michal Kempny (D)Philippe Maillet (C)
John Carlson (D)Trevor van Riemsdyk (D)Connor McMichael (C)
Dmitry Orlov (D)Ilya Samsonov (G)Bobby Nardella (D)
Justin Schultz (D)Phoenix Copley (G)Aliaksei Protas (C)
Vitek Vanecek (G)Zach Fucale (G)Damien Riat (LW)
Joe Snively (LW)
Riley Sutter (C)
*If Kuznetsov is traded, Sheary would likely be protected.

Washington would be best off if Seattle selects Dillon or Jensen, primarily the former. Dillon will make $3.9 million this coming season, and Jensen sits at $2.5 million. Both players have somewhat underperformed since the Capitals acquired them, and both are now 30 years old. With Michal Kempny set to return in 2021-22 from injury, Martin Fehervary showing signs he’s ready to make the jump from Hershey and some extra cap room to sign a young free agent or another veteran leader at a discount, losing Dillon or Jensen wouldn’t be big — especially considering the team will still retain one of them.

The big risk is at goaltender. Washington must leave either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek unprotected. Both are young, and only one can be the future. Their stats were almost similar last season. Samsonov was 13-4-1 with a 2.69 goals against average and a save percentage of .902. Vanecek was 21-10-4 with a 2.69 goals against average and a save percentage of .908.

Samsonov had similar issues to Kuzentsov off the ice but has more of a window to redeem himself. He was erratic at times in net but also brilliant. Vanecek was slightly better statistically and saved (pun not intended) the team during some key stretches without star players. The issue is: was 2020-21 a large enough sample size for Vanecek to prove he can be a franchise goalie for either Seattle or Washington?

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vanecek may be protected for one main reason: his cap hit is only $716,667 next season.

If Kuznetsov isn’t traded or left unprotected, Washington will have to choose between Sprong and Sheary. Both proved to be valuable last season, but Sprong is younger, has more upside, and comes at almost half the price of Sheary next season.

Lastly, the Capitals fourth line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway, and Carl Hagelin, which you could argue was their most consistent and important line for the season, will be left unprotected. Seattle could just mess with Washington and snatch one of those players, but it’s highly unlikely.        

Kraken Selection

The Seattle Kraken select… Brenden Dillon.

Brenden Dillon Washington Capitals
Brenden Dillon, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Seattle will take a hard look at Samsonov, Jensen, and Sheary (pending a Kuznetsov trade). But in the end, a veteran defenseman who has played out west and can easily play a top-pairing role will benefit the Kraken. It will also benefit the Capitals.

Sign up for our regular 'Capitals Newsletter' for all the latest.