One of the most highly anticipated events on the hockey calendar is the NHL Trade Deadline. February is right around the corner and every NHL fan has begun piecing together their hypothetical stance on what the hometown team should do. On top of emailing their suggestions to the team’s general manager, it’s safe to say an extensive amount of fans will be booking Feb. 24 off to stay on top of every move that occurs.
One NHL team that is sure to be watched closely this year is the Washington Capitals. With minimal salary cap space available, two giant expiring contracts (Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby) and as deep a roster as we have seen them boast, it’s easy to understand the intrigue. This poses the question – what should the Caps do at the deadline?
When you dive into the hypothetical world there are a million possible strategies and concepts. In reality, only a rare few are feasible. For NHL teams, the gameplan becomes centered on a few questions:
- Where do we stand for this season? Are we competing for a championship, scraping into the playoffs, or focusing on the future?
- What needs to be our long-term outlook? Are we in win-now mode, or is rebuilding the priority?
- Which players are we building the franchise around? Of the expiring contracts who are the priorities, and who could we live without?
- What do our fans want to see? What areas of the organization are we weak?
The role of a general manager (GM) is a complex one, to say the least. All of these questions need to be answered before considering the trade deadline options. For the Capitals and GM Brian MacLellan, the answers are easier than most: it’s all about “win-now” mode and battling for another championship before Alex Ovechkin’s age starts catching up to him. The Capitals have one of the greatest goalscorers of all time and his window is as open as it will ever be.
Washington is at the peak of the NHL’s standings (yet again) and their roster is as competitive as they have ever been. Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and Lars Eller have taken on more prominent forward roles this season, and Michael Kempny, Dmitry Orlov and Radko Gudas have solidified the backend. What should the Capitals do to bring it all together for another deep cup run?
Shut Down Defenseman
John Carlson is well on his way to claiming his first career Norris Trophy, and Washington has witnessed an impressive emergence from Orlov and Kempny. Gudas is a tough, rugged and steadfast presence for the penalty kill, and Nick Jensen has been a valuable addition since coming over from Detroit. The one concern that stands out is Jonas Siegenthaler and his ability to withstand the pressure of the NHL playoffs. An ideal situation for the Caps would be securing a veteran defensive rearguard at the deadline (with a minimal cap hit) to round out their defensive unit.
This would allow Carlson and Kempny to continue operating as the top D pairing, Orlov and Gudas (or Jensen) provide a sturdy second group and the third coupling would no longer be a potential burden. When you analyze the Capitals roster from the 2017-18 Stanley Cup run versus the current team, a guy like Brooks Orpik stands out as a missing piece. He wasn’t flashy, and he’s far from offensively gifted, but he was willing to sacrifice in his own end and during the penalty kill. His leadership took stress off Carlson, which allowed #74 to rack up 20 points in 24 playoff games.
Two potential trade candidates are Travis Hamonic (Calgary Flames) and Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh Penguins). Both players have cap hits under $4 million for the year and have been tied to trade discussions recently. The favorite would likely be Hamonic, whose contract would expire in the offseason (relinquishing further cap issues for the organization). The other direction the Caps could look is to the obvious rebuilding franchise, the Ottawa Senators. A veteran presence like Mark Borowiecki could be the perfect piece at a $1.2 million cap hit, and he is also joining the UFA pool at season’s end.
Consider Trading Braden Holtby
Washington needs to make a decision, and soon. If they are going to attempt a magic act in the summer to retain Backstrom and Holtby, they need to commit to that right now. If they know that they are going to let Holtby walk into free agency, because of the pending salary increase and Ilya Samsonov’s development, then it might be worth making a move at the deadline.
If you don’t pull off a blockbuster deal you risk a John Tavares/Artemi Panarin situation, where a superstar walks away for no acquired assets. The flip side of the coin is the Taylor Hall situation where New Jersey got ahead of the curve and acquired a handful of pieces. There are two options to consider (if Washington is indeed going to let Holtby go this summer):
- Do you keep him anyway, because you have a greater chance of playoff success with Holtby as opposed to Samsonov? Is the shot at another Stanley Cup worth losing Holtby for nothing?
- Do you trade Holtby now and give Samsonov the reigns hoping he can pull off a miracle heading into the postseason?
As a Capitals fan, you have to be torn given the circumstances. You don’t want to see Holtby leave the organization, but if he is no longer feasible what do you do? The Tavares/Islanders’ situation hurt to watch because the Islanders lost an all-world talent for zilch. That isn’t ideal for Washington when they could acquire a surplus of talent in return. But at the same time, is Samsonov ready for the responsibility of being the starter on a team expected to go deep into the playoffs? The gut feeling is no, but his numbers thus far say otherwise. Samsonov has a better win percentage (75%), goals against average (2.24), and save % (0.921) between the two goaltenders.
The move – trade Holtby to the Senators for Borowiecki (only a $1.2 million cap hit), multiple picks and a prospect. Ottawa is outside of the division, in desperate need for a veteran star goaltender to lead the rebuild, and has the pieces to make a quality deal work. The New Jersey Devils are another team that would make sense, but trading Holtby outside of the Metropolitan Division is optimal. If Washington is indeed planning on signing Backstrom and letting Holtby go this summer it makes more sense to roll with Samsonov now and build up the organization for a sustainable future.
The Alternative Strategy
Almost like a good cop/bad cop routine, there is another possible strategy the Caps could deploy. This one is a personal favorite (as a biased goaltender), although it still requires tugging on the fan heartstrings a touch. If Washington is hoping to retain Holtby for another one to two years to focus on competing for the Stanley Cup, as well as supporting Samsonov’s development, it poses a dilemma – salary cap room. Nicklas Backstrom is the primary focus for re-signing and is due for a considerable raise (likely a $7.5-$8 million AAV), and so is Holtby after his terrific play over the years. Where does the money come from?
Trade T.J. Oshie in the summer. It’s not pleasant and it hurts to put it out there, but Oshie is the one player that could be dealt and open up enough space to sign the two other superstars. His $5.75 million AAV would give the Capitals just shy of $26 million (according to Capfriendly.com) in space for the offseason, which would provide the necessary resources to lock up Backstrom and Holtby. This is also accounting for the signings of Gudas, Djoos and other depth pieces needed.
The big reason this move would be acceptable is the breakout play of Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson. Both young forwards have excelled this year and taken on considerably more when it comes to offensive production. Washington already has Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Backstrom playing exceptionally well, so Vrana and Wilson would boost an elite forward group. Lars Eller has played fantastic as the team’s third-line center, so Washington would still possess more depth than most NHL rosters up front.
Trading Oshie would be a blow to the city, but it wouldn’t hurt the team more (arguably) than letting a former Vezina winner go. Holtby is one of the best in the world, provides leadership and stability, and brings the best skillset for potential championships over the next three years. His experience and presence boost Samsonov’s development, which bodes well for the young Russian netminder taking over in the next two years. Depth scoring can be acquired, but a young and prepared franchise goaltender is much harder to come by.
The ideal situation looks much like the approach being taken by the Nashville Predators organization. Nashville could’ve easily handed the starting role to Juuse Saros by now, but instead, they are cultivating him behind another elite puck-stopper, Pekka Rinne.
Regardless of the path you feel is ideal for the organization, it’s apparent some major changes are coming down the pipeline for the Capitals. It’s never easy enduring big changes with key personnel, but it’s inevitable for the best teams in the NHL. It’s part of what makes the game of hockey so great because teams experience a type of life cycle and it provides an opportunity for various organizations to rise through the ranks. The Detroit Red Wings are a great example of a legendary roster that’s now undergoing growing pains at the bottom of the cycle.
The good news for Capitals fans is that despite the difficult decisions ahead, there still appears to be plenty of room for success in the near future. What that success will look like is going to rely upon the major decisions made in the very foreseeable future.