With the coaching staff set, six prospects picked over a busy two days at the NHL draft and everyone together at the team practice facility for the first time, the new Washington Capitals regime has completed its early offseason checklist. Now the team’s attention turns to free agency.
Though the NHL’s interview window has allowed players to speak in general terms with suitors since last Wednesday, no formal deals can be struck until Tuesday at noon.
The Capitals’ biggest need remains finding a top defenseman, whether in free agency or on the trade market, and rookie General Manager Brian MacLellan has tabbed a veteran backup goaltender as his second area of concern. Talks to re-sign center Mikhail Grabovski, the team’s only unrestricted free agent, hit a snag because Grabovski’s contract demands were “prohibitive,” MacLellan said.
But he said the Capitals head into free agency with a firm plan.
“I’m optimistic right now,” MacLellan said last week. “We’ll see how it goes over the next week or so. But the priority is defense for me. And then we’ll find a good backup and go from there, depending on how much the defense is going to cost us.”
In a saturated market for goaltenders, a serviceable backup might not cost the Capitals more than $1 million per season. If so, how much are they willing to spend to address their blue-line needs? With the salary cap set at $69 million, Washington has roughly $12.7 in cap space.
“I’m not privy to what number we’ll get to, but I do know that if we need to go to the cap, I think we’ll do that,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “This organization wants to win. So I don’t think that’s a question. They’ll be smart. It’s not going to be reckless or anything like that, I’m sure.”
Among defensemen, the Capitals have expressed interest in former Penguin and unrestricted free agent Matt Niskanen, individuals with knowledge of the situation said. Agent Neil Sheehy recently said by telephone that the strong relationship Niskanen developed with new Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden in Pittsburgh is “no secret.” The Minnesota native planned to trim his list of suitors Monday, but Sheehy said he believes Niskanen can command a seven-year deal.
“Certainly there’s not a whole lot of unrestricted defensemen out there, but I may have some contact with them,” Reirden said of Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, another blue-liner he coached in Pittsburgh.
In tabbing a veteran backup goalie behind Braden Holtby, Washington is unlikely to seek anyone who would undermine the 24-year-old’s confidence, particularly since MacLellan named Holtby the starter entering the summer. That would seem to rule out Ryan Miller and Jonas Hiller, but others like Justin Peters (Carolina), Chad Johnson (Boston) and Tomas Vokoun have interest, according to reports and league officials.
“I think the market’s okay,” goaltending coach Mitch Korn said Monday, adding that he anticipated offering advice on candidates to Trotz, his longtime colleague in Nashville. “We hope that we’re going to be in that position at some point where everybody is in-house and we’re not having to go outside of house in that area.”
With Philipp Grubauer likely opening with the team’s minor league affiliate in Hershey this season — and serving as Washington’s No. 3 goaltending option — Korn wants to add someone who can spell Holtby and, if Holtby gets hurt, slide in seamlessly. As for labeling someone a starter or a backup, Korn said that matters far less than production.
“It’s not about the title,” he said. “It’s a matter of the relationships, how they perform, what they do.”