With the Washington Capitals’ unexpected first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, general manager Brian MacLellan has some difficult decisions in front of him.
Fresh off the franchise’s first Cup in 2018, he and his front office did everything in their power to maintain the core of the championship squad last offseason, even if it meant shelling out questionable amounts of money to keep players like Tom Wilson and John Carlson in red and blue.
While he successfully kept most of the squad together for another – albeit unsuccessful – Cup attempt in 2018-19, it may not be so easy this time. The Capitals’ roster is a powder-keg of high-priced contracts, expiring contracts, and aging stars. Unfortunately, some of the Caps’ brightest young stars hold those expiring contracts, and even with an expected bump in the salary cap, MacLellan will likely have to make some sacrifices to keep a championship-caliber team together. One of those was Matt Niskanen, who he traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Radko Guas. This trade, and any future ones, will also mean keeping the team young and fresh – easier said than done when the team’s leading scorer, Alexander Ovechkin, is in his mid-30s.
Will Orpik Stay?
Even more venerable is defenseman Brooks Orpik, who comes off his 16th NHL season with his fate uncertain. The 38-year-old showed signs of rust in 2018-19, as an early-season knee injury limited his effectiveness and ability to possess the puck. However, he still showed signs of life in the season’s late stages, most notably with the overtime game-winner against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of their first-round series.
Orpik has not yet decided whether to retire or play another season, but even if he returns, there is no guarantee Washington will retain him after the expiration of his one-year deal. On a team loaded with defensive options, including Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Christian Djoos, there may be no room left for the deteriorating Orpik in the Caps’ system.
Connolly & Smith-Pelly
On the forward line, question marks are hovering over Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly. Both are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, but the paths they took could not be more different.
Smith-Pelly’s eight goals in the 2018 Playoffs made him one of the key pieces of the Capitals’ Cup run. This season, however, he struggled, scoring only four goals in 54 games – a decline steep enough for him to be sent to the minor-league Hershey Bears. Connolly, on the other hand, enjoyed his finest season as a pro. At 27, Connolly has only improved year-over-year as a third-line forward, which this season culminated in 22 goals and 24 assists – plus two more goals in the playoffs.
Priority One – Vrana
Jakub Vrana’s signing may make or break the Capitals’ offseason. In 2018-19, he broke out in his role as a top-three forward, scoring a career-high 24 goals. With his initial contract about to expire, his breakthrough season should give him leverage at the negotiating table. One possible stumbling block is that Vrana had little to no impact in the Capitals’ seven-game loss to the Hurricanes, failing to register a point.
According to NBC Sports, MacLellan is debating whether to approach Vrana with a long-term structured deal or a “bridge” deal – a contract that gives the player one season to prove to the team that he is worth a raise.
Regardless, Washington needs to hang on to all of the young talent they possibly can if they hope to sustain their chances at more Stanley Cups. With only $10 million in cap space at their disposal and just five picks in the upcoming draft, the Capitals have little room to make flashy new signings.
Those flashy signings came last offseason and this is the blow back.