After beating the Vegas Golden Knights in five games to claim the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, the Washington Capitals certainly enjoyed the moment. The team, led by captain Alexander Ovechkin, took the Stanley Cup all over D.C. to celebrate with the fans.
Unfortunately, like all good things, the celebrating must come to an end. Team owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Brian MacLellan have some very tough decisions to make over the offseason. Several important pieces of the team are up for new contracts, and head coach Barry Trotz finished the year without a contract extension.
Capitals Need a New Coach
After speculation, Trotz announced Monday afternoon that he would be stepping down as head coach of the Capitals. Washington now finds itself in the unique situation of having to replace its coach after winning a title.
The Trotz situation was hanging over all of the celebrations, but it was pushed aside as the coach was enjoying the moment with his team. Now that he has decided to leave, there’s been a damper put on things.
Of course, the front office now has a major decision to make. That decision will shape the immediate future of the team and its chances to make a repeat run at the Cup. The obvious choice to replace Trotz behind the Washington bench is Todd Reirden. The former Pittsburgh assistant has spent four years with the Caps and has been in charge of the defense and the power play unit.
Before joining the Penguins in the NHL, Reirden was the head coach of their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It has been a known fact around the organization that Reirden would be a top choice to eventually replace Trotz. Washington even reportedly blocked other teams from interviewing him last offseason. His name is a very popular one whenever vacancies pop up around the NHL.
As for his staying in Washington, Reirden is obviously familiar with the team and would likely make for the smoothest transition heading into next year. He was already promoted Tuesday to associate coach and given the responsibility of running training camp.
Regardless of whether it is Reirden or another candidate, the fact that the Capitals have to replace their coach isn’t the greatest situation to be in after winning the Stanley Cup.
Looming Player Decisions
Just as important as hiring the right coach is keeping the right players to guarantee continued success. The front office has some tough decisions to make very soon regarding upcoming free agents. At the top of the list is defenseman John Carlson. A homegrown product who came up through the AHL, Carlson has been a staple on the blue line for the Capitals. He has recorded 333 points with the Caps and is coming off a huge postseason in which he registered 20 points and a plus-11 rating.
Carlson is obviously an important player for the Caps, but his stellar play has earned him a new contract that will be more than double what it currently is. Carlson will likely command near $7 million or more on the open market — something that will be very difficult for Washington to afford. The Caps already have three defensemen – Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Brooks Orpik – who carry cap hits over $5 million for the 2018-19 season.
Carlson presents a tricky situation, as signing the star blueliner will leave little room for the team to do much else. Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jay Beagle, Michal Kempny and Philipp Grubauer are all free agents. Signing all of them, even without Carlson, will be next to impossible. The Caps are going to need to decide who has a higher value to the team.
Wilson, who has spent most of his career as a bottom-six forward, was valued by the Caps as an enforcer who could show flashes of talent. This past season represented a breakout campaign for Wilson, who suddenly developed into a force on offense. Skating on the top line for the majority of the season, Wilson put up career highs in goals (14), assists (21), and points (35).
Smith-Pelly came out of virtually nowhere to be a powerhouse for the Caps in the postseason. His seven playoff goals, including two game-winners, helped propel the Caps to their success. Smith-Pelly is still likely a bottom-six forward, but he showed the value he can bring during the postseason. His physical play also went hand-in-hand with the type of game the Capitals played in the playoffs.
Beagle has been an important member of the Capitals organization, winning championships at all three levels (ECHL, AHL, NHL). He’s one of the more valuable fourth-line centers in the league thanks to his ability to win face-offs. Losing a veteran like Beagle would be a tough outcome for the Capitals.
Kempny came over midseason in a trade that didn’t make a lot of noise at the time. However, he quickly found a home on the top defensive pairing and blossomed into an important piece of Washington’s late-season run. He put up five points with the Caps in the postseason and showed his value as a true defenseman. Bringing Kempny back should be a top priority of the Caps, particularly if Carlson goes elsewhere.
Perhaps the easiest decision the front office will need to make this offseason has to do with Grubauer. One of the best backup goalies in the league, he should command solid value on the trade block. Washington has the luxury of trading Grubauer due to having Pheonix Copley and eventually, Russian phenom, Ilya Samsonov, as backups. Plenty of teams are in search of a starting goalie, the Caps just need to wait for the best offer for Grubauer.
Clearly, MacLellan and the rest of the Caps decision-makers are going to have some difficult conversations in the coming days and weeks. The celebrating will likely continue all summer for the players, but for the front office, it’s time to get to work.