By Sunday, it will be two weeks since the Stanley Cup Playoffs finally came to an end with the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Championship. While fans from one city are still celebrating another hockey championship, another is still awaiting one for the first time in their soon to be 42-year existence. Now another offseason is upon the Washington Capitals. The Entry Draft will take place in Buffalo tonight followed by the start of free agency on July 1st. After the announcement of Las Vegas becoming the NHL’s 31st franchise, General Manager Brian McClellan will have to tackle the offseason in a way he has never done before. He will have to figure out how to win a Championship in 2017 and how to keep his team as intact as possible in preparation for the 2018 expansion draft.
This is certainly not an easy task, but the best general managers find a way to make it happen. Just look at this year’s Stanley Cup winning general manager. Within the span of 14 months, Jim Rutherford went from being one of the most scrutinized executives in the league to one of the most shrewd. It’s one thing to find the right role players to play with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. It’s another thing to find them while they have been tight against the cap for over three years and with little solutions of getting out of it outside of trading away Malkin, Kessel, Crosby, Kris Letang or Marc Andre-Fleury and making the team worse in the process.
Constant persistence will be critical for a Capitals team that does and doesn’t have time to win a Stanley Cup. There is a younger group of players that have the potential to carry the team the same way Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have done for so long, but all it takes is a career altering surgery here or there and fates can be altered. With that in mind, here’s a big picture outlook for what McClellan has to look at to build a roster for the 2016-17 season.
Thanks to another fantastic season by Braden Holtby, the Capitals are pretty set for starting goaltender for years to come. The rest of the depth in-goal remains a mystery. Philipp Grubauer will be a restricted free agent after this season while Hershey Bears Dan Ellis and Justin Peters are unrestricted free agents. That only leaves 2014 second round pick Vitek Vanecek, who just finished his first professional season in North America, under contract by Washington beyond 2017. Meanwhile, Ilya Samsanov, Washington’s 2015 first round pick, is still signed with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and won’t come to North America until the 2018-19 season. Certainly, Washington will be signing a lesser named backup or two, but don’t be surprised if they go a third straight year in selecting a goaltender among its six draft picks.
The most obvious transaction that will happen amongst the defense corps will be allowing Mike Weber to sign with another team. As Washington’s eighth defensemen, he was only used as cover in case of mass injuries and that had been the case during the regular season and playoffs. However, McClellan is looking for players that can make an upgrade to the team’s speed and overall talent. Bluntly, Weber doesn’t bring that.
As for the rest of the left-handed defensemen, there are a boat load of them and not enough to protect from the expansion draft. While it is certain Brooks Orpik will return for a while because of the years left on his hefty contract, the futures of Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are the polar opposite. Orlov will certainly resign with the Capitals as the team hopes to avoid going to arbitration with him, but Alzner and Schmidt will be out of contract in 2017, with the former being an unrestricted free agent. Their usual seventh defenseman, Taylor Chorney, resigned to a two-year contract in the middle of the season that will start in October.
Down on the farm, the team has plenty of options in Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Stanton and Christian Djoos. However, Aaron Ness will be out of contract after looking like a positive puck mover in his short stints with the NHL team. Mike Moore will also be an unrestricted free agent, but at 31, it is doubtful he will return to the Capitals organization. Who knows if the Capitals will add more talent along this side of the blueline, but you can’t count out that the injury bug usually hits over there and depth is critical.
Meanwhile, the other side of the rink along the blue line looks quite barren. Fortunately, the Capitals are pretty set with long-term contracts as Matt Niskanen and John Carlson are locked up until 2021 and 2018 respectively. Eventually, Carlson will have to be paid properly considering he is one of the league’s better two-way defensemen (poor puck possession numbers in 2015-16 aside), but that is an issue for another time.
Down on the farm, Madison Bowey and Tyler Lewington will continue to develop in Hershey after trying but eventually successful rookie campaigns. Meanwhile, Connor Hobbs has been so impressive for Regina, that he was selected for the development camp of the Canadian Junior National Team. There is a chance a veteran can be added here. Still, it’s not the end of the world to have five players with high upside with right-handed shots from the point.
As we get to the forwards, it is understandable that certain players can fall under more than one type of position. For example, Jay Beagle, Michael Latta, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson have been used as centers, but have mostly played on the wing last year. We will take this into account on this post but we’ll mention each player under their respective playing position by how they best fit on the team.
Barring anything shocking, Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky should be here to stay. The latter will be a restricted free agent after 2017, but at his age and his talent level, he should be resigned and to a hefty term and amount. Meanwhile, Ovechkin is still under contract until 2021. The next two players that played on the left-wing are what will make or break Washington’s offseason.
Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera are out of contract. While Johansson is a restricted free agent, Chimera can go to any team he wants. For Johansson, the cap hit that will come out of his new contract will determine how much money Washington will have to work with free agency. When considering how bottom six forwards are usually cheap assets, every dollar saved matters. As I have stated before, Chimera’s poor puck possession numbers at a time where the Capitals can not afford to be terrible in that department are why the 37-year can not return to Washington. With that said, will they find a replacement for him in the free agent market, or do they already have a star in the making from within the system?
20-year old Jakub Vrana could come into the picture as the team’s answer for third line scoring after putting up 16 goals and 34 points in 36 games for AHL Hershey this season. Others that might end up getting a call-up are 21-year old Nathan Walker and 30-year old Chris Bourque. It is a bit surprising to see Bourque only play 51 career NHL games despite consistently leading the AHL in scoring, but all it takes for one injury to lead to more opportunities. As for Walker, it will be a bit of history if he receives his call-up as he will be the first Australian to ever play in the NHL if were to make it. There is a lack of depth in the bottom six at left-wing and it is a position McClellan would like to fill out at both the draft and free agency.
While there are some worries out at the left-wing, there is a bit more stability at center. For Capitals fans, this is something they are not used to after years of constantly begging for a second line center. With the improved production from Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team finally seems to have one. The next step will be for McClellan to resign the 24-year old Russian to a contract that’s appropriate to his value after his current contract runs out next season. Fellow countrymen Vladimir Tarasenko went on to sign the league-maximum 8-year contract after his age-23 season in 2015 with a cap hit worth $7.5 million per season. Determining Kuznetsov’s value is another fork in the road in Washington’s future as a cup contender. Any dollar amount too high prevents the Capitals from resigning the rest of their veterans and bringing in added depth to the roster without trading one of their more expensive players in the long term. For the exception of Orpik, Washington’s five most expensive cap hits (Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Holtby and Niskanen) are all playing at a high level at the primes of their careers.
Amongst the rest of the centers for the Capitals, Backstrom is still under contract until 2020 while Daniel Winnik is on the last year of his current deal. Both Mike Richards and Michael Latta are out of contract, but Latta should be expected to resign since he is only a restricted free agent. Despite being past his best, losing Richards could be a big loss to the Capitals as he was the cornerstone to the Capitals’ improved penalty kill. Zach Sill will also be an unrestricted free agent, but considering his lack of strong point production at both the NHL and AHL, it will not be the end of the world if he does not return to D.C. Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Liam O’Brien are other names that could get more playing time at the NHL.
There is depth amongst this group, but adding another piece in the draft will not hurt this team in the long run. If Richards does leave the Capitals, it will be fascinating to watch how Latta’s role changes on the team and whether or not he will be a part of the penalty kill when he plays.
Lastly, we go to a group that might see plenty of instability by as early as the end of next season. Both T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, Washington’s free agent pickups from last summer, could hit the free agent market that year while Jay Beagle could follow suit in 2018. Meanwhile, Tom Wilson is a restricted free agent looking for a better contract this summer while Stanislav Galiev will do the same in 2017.
Oshie and Williams are talented players that are undoubtedly valuable to the Capitals, but at 29 and 34 respectively, is it wise to sign both to resign them to any contract worth that of a top six forward, let alone one that is a long-term deal. Yes, the Capitals are here to win a Stanley Cup now, but you can only do so much under a salary cap that only increases a $1 million here or there for 23 players every year. That means having to make tough choices and McClellan already has gone through that in not bringing back Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward last summer. All three made it to the conference finals, with Fehr playing a key role in the Stanley Cup Final winning Penguins and Ward being a player McClellan has admitted he regretted the team missed.
This makes the developments of Wilson’s and Galievs’ respective games so important. Both are still under 25 years old, but are running out of time to see their true potential at the NHL level. Wilson has continuously been scrutinized for not improving his goal scoring numbers at 5-on-5 while Galiev has struggled to get any game time as the team’s 13th or 14th forward. Down in the farm, Riley Barber has the potential to be an NHL mainstay while Garrett Mitchell has played 279 career AHL games but has never received a call-up to the big show. At this point, depth at right-wing throughout the organization could be the team’s biggest weakness and getting reinforcements en masse will be important this summer.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork