Among the emotions expressed by Washington Capitals management at the end of the season – optimism despite another second-round exit, hope their restricted free agents would re-sign in timely fashion, acceptance that familiar faces might exit just the same – Coach Barry Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan pitched a unified front concerning forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and the position he occupied for most of his rookie season.
“We always said there’s a hole at second-line center; I think we’ve filled that hole,” Trotz said.
“He filled a hole in the second-line center that we’ve been trying to fill for a number of years,” MacLellan said.
For now, though, this might be the Capitals’ solidified spot down the middle. Top-line mainstay Nicklas Backstrom continues to recover from arthroscopic hip surgery and could be sidelined into training camp. The third-line spot, mostly fortified by unrestricted free agent Eric Fehr last season, could be filled by several in-house options such as Jay Beagle, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich or even second-year youngster Andre Burakovsky, but Washington has also made clear its intention to continue exploring affordable, outside help.
“I think we’re going to let it play out,” MacLellan said. “We could address it internally, the third-line center spot, and also depending on how the contract situation plays itself out, there’s a couple options in the free agency market that we see, and we’ll explore the trade market up until training camp. There might be something in that venue.”
Trotz, meanwhile, deferred all trade speculation and free agency talk to MacLellan, instead focusing on options currently on the active roster. He mentioned Burakovsky, whom Trotz switched to center last summer, started him on the second line for opening night against Montreal, later ushered him back to his native wing and now will “probably put him at center” for this upcoming preseason, given Backstrom’s situation. He mentioned Laich, a bottom-six presence for 66 games under Trotz who, despite staying healthier than he had been in two seasons, struggled to find consistency on the offensive end.
He even mentioned minor leaguer Chandler Stephenson, most likely only a stopgap option if Backstrom’s hip creates a vacancy during training camp, but an option just the same.
“We have some options, but at the same time I know we’re not done looking and we don’t have a lot of room,” Trotz said. “We’ll look internally within our own group first, and if something is the right fit, I know Mac will go out and do an excellent job like he has and fill a hole if we feel we have one.”
If the Capitals indeed wade into the open market for help or hunt for a trade partner, the salary cap becomes an issue. According to GeneralFanager.com, Washington holds $10.89 million in open space, with goaltender Braden Holtby and Johansson left to re-sign as restricted free agents. (That figure comes with two caveats. First, teams can go 10 percent over the ceiling until training camp starts. Second, whichever backup goaltender – Justin Peters or Philipp Grubauer – winds up in the minors, the value of their one-way salary will be exempt from a cap hit, according to the collective bargaining agreement, so some money gets freed up there.)
If Holtby and Johansson arrive at team-friendly extensions – Holtby is seeking a deal north of $6 million, a source said recently, while Johansson is believed to be hovering around the $4 million range – MacLellan could reasonably squeeze another center into the forward corps. If not, and if the Capitals hold pat, Trotz seemed content choosing between Beagle, Laich, Johansson, Burakovsky and Michael Latta for two bottom-six center spots.
“Obviously we can put some people in the middle,” he said. “If we do nothing right now, we can put some people in the middle.”
Of course, everything hinges on the status of Backstrom’s hip.
“I think with Nick, if he’s on schedule, which he is right now, he will be skating at training camp,” Trotz said at a recent appearance at the National Press Club, adding that Backstrom began feeling discomfort in February and played the rest of the season with the issue. “Will he be in exhibition games? We don’t know where he’ll fit in there, but we’re hoping that’ll be the case. But we’re also preparing, if Nick’s not ready to start the season, who fills that role?
“We’re still looking at another centerman. If not, then we can put Brooks Laich there, we signed Jay Beagle who to me is a real good signing for us, then we have young Burakovsky who I played a little bit at center, knowing these good, young players we have, they may have to fill those roles. Someone will have to step up.”