Now that the Washington Capitals have had a few weeks pass since their latest playoff elimination, the team will now gear up towards a prospectively less eventful, but still important, offseason. There are only three unrestricted free agents out of the 24 regular players on the NHL club and the salary cap is expected to go up from $71.4 million this season to $74 million next year. Along with that, general manager Brian MacLellan will have almost $15.4 million to work with in salary cap space.
However, a massive chunk of that budget will go towards their four restricted free agents they will need to resign. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current Capitals players hitting the open market that MacLellan will have to pay attention to the most.
5. LW Jason Chimera
Jason Chimera is mentioned because of one reason and one reason only. He has to no longer be a member of the Washington Capitals if they ever want to improve their chances of winning a Stanley Cup. Plain and simple, Washington’s third line was the biggest weakness of the team all season and MacLellan was not afraid to point that out. Within that weakness was one player who played in that line almost the entirety of the regular season and playoffs. While playing all 82 games in the regular season, Chimera’s relative score-adjusted puck possession at even strength was -4.17-percent. Only Tom Wilson’s -5.61-percent is way worse (more on him later).
Yes, Chimera went on to record 20 goals this season, but that is of a result of shooting at a 12.1-percent clip in all situations. That is much higher than his career rate of 9.0-percent. With Chimera turning 37 years old in the beginning of this month, it will be shocking to still see that level of production maintained and under a salary that will be affordable. To top it all off, Chimera prevents more skilled players like Stanislav Galiev, Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky from receiving playing time at even strength and on the power play. Finding a younger, more skilled and cheaper upgrade than Chimera is MacLellan’s number one objective this offseason.
4. RW Tom Wilson
Meanwhile, for the third straight year, Capitals fans still have no idea what to make of Tom Wilson. At 22, he still has time to grow as an NHL player and has shown in the past that he can play well with skilled players when given the chance to do so. Along with that, Wilson developed into a one of the team’s most dependable penalty killers. While he was on the ice in shorthanded situations, the Capitals were limiting opponents 96.1 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour. While that may only be sixth among Capitals’ forwards, Wilson was certainly a part of the best penalty killing unit the Capitals have assembled in recent memory. With an average of one minute and 34 seconds, his ice time is the fourth highest among current Capitals forwards.
The next step for Wilson will have to be developing a much better offensive game, otherwise it is guaranteed that he’ll be given fourth line minutes and roles throughout the rest of his career. With his entry-level contract completed, a raise to less than $2 million sounds likely, but anything over that will certainly sound alarm bells.
3. C Mike Richards
While Tom Wilson discovered what life was like killing penalties at an above-average level, Mike Richards has done it better than any forward of his era. This year was no exception after Washington signed him in January on a one-year contract. While on the ice, Washington was able to reduce opponents to a rate of 94.4 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour in those situations. Offensively, however, is where Richards struggled as he was only able to record two goals and three assists in 39 games. Sadly, this is a trend that has been obvious since his demotion from the top six to the fourth line while with the Los Angeles Kings in their 2014 Stanley Cup playoff run.
At 31, Richards’ days as a goal-scoring two-way player are done and he is nothing more than a fourth line forward that will occasionally pop the odd goal here or there. His $1 million contract reflected that this season and anything more than that would be considered a major risk in Washington’s future plans of maintaining a championship contender.
2. D Dmitry Orlov
Now is the time to talk about the first of two players that have the potential to see a significant raise, with the first being the 24-year old Russian defenseman. This season, Orlov went on to set career highs in goals (eight) and assists (21) and in time on ice in all situations (1,330 minutes) while also being the third choice point shot on Washington’s 1-3-1 power play. While the latter may be an insignificant (39.5 minutes in 81 games) position to be in due to the massive workloads John Carlson and Matt Niskanen receive in that role, it is still an important aspect in case anyone of them get injured.
With a $2 million-per-year contract expiring, Orlov’s extension will be closely looked at by Karl Alzner and his management team because the latter will be hitting unrestricted free agency after the 2016-17 season. It will be important for MacLellan to give Orlov a fair contract, especially after stating that he is expecting more playing time for him this upcoming season
However, Orlov is still expected to be no more than Washington’s fourth most important defenseman after Alzner, Carlson and Niskanen. Washington has already gotten away with paying too much for defensemen to make sure they have as much depth their as possible. The last thing they need is another bad contract on that end of the rink.
1. LW Marcus Johansson
While Braden Holtby’s contract extension was the acquisition that sorted out what Washington was able to do for their postseason plans last year, the same will apply to Marcus Johansson’s next contract this offseason. The 26-year old Swede had another fantastic season playing either as a second line wing or as a third line center hoping to carry a talent-less combination to above-even. Along with that, Johansson continues to be among Washington’s most important players on the power play unit thanks to his excellent work carrying the puck into the offensive zone and being a consistent threat on the base of the 1-3-1 formation.
However, his -1.6-percent relative shot attempt for percentage was his worst since the 2011-12 season despite receiving positive zone starts. Along with that, Johansson’s career puck possession relative to the team has always hovered just above or below zero. There’s nothing elite about him, but he is a skilled player when counted upon. At $3.75 million, Johansson was about as properly valued as he can and that salary was given on a one-year deal after an arbitration hearing last summer. Johansson might be looking for a raise after his playoff run that saw him record seven points in 12 games. However, anything significantly more expensive than what the Capitals are paying him right now might affect Washington’s ability to spend on an impact free agent in the worst way possible.
These are tough decisions for MacLellan and his front office staff to make, but that’s what happens when you have been trying to contend for a cup for almost a decade with the same group of players still together.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork