“Later” arrived sooner than anyone in the Capitals’ organization would have hoped after another second-round exit. Now, with roughly half the roster in need of a new contract and an expansion draft looming, MacLellan has a busy offseason ahead with decisions that could affect the core of the roster. Here are some things to keep in mind as summer begins for the Caps:
With just three unrestricted free agents coming off the books last summer, there wasn’t much flexibility — or desire — to upend their roster. Washington was the league’s best regular-season team, and MacLellan reasoned that with a few tweaks to give the team a more balanced lineup, the Capitals would be in a better position to contend for the Stanley Cup this season.
Now, change is unavoidable and it’s possible MacLellan wants to go in an entirely new direction after this group of players twice failed to advance to at least the conference finals with one of the league’s most talented rosters. Eleven players are entering restricted or unrestricted free agency. With some key young players due pay raises and Washington already facing salary-cap constraints, the team may not be able to re-sign any of its five pending unrestricted free agents — Kevin Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik and Karl Alzner.
The Capitals acquired Shattenkirk as a rental defenseman to help them in the playoffs, so he and Washington will likely part ways. Of the other four, the Capitals seem to have the most interest in bringing back Oshie, who scored a career-high 33 goals this season. But unless Washington moves salary, it seems unlikely they can afford to give him — in terms of both the length of the deal and the money — what he could receive on the open market. Last summer, 28-year-old right wing Kyle Okposo signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres, and he was coming off a 22-goal season. David Backes was 32 when he signed his five-year, $30 million contract with the Boston Bruins, and his last 30-plus-goal season was in 2010-11.
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov seems poised to receive a long-term deal in restricted free agency, while forward Andre Burakovsky will likely get a shorter bridge contract with less money. Defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are also due pay raises, and with the expected departure of Alzner, both could factor into the team’s top four next season. Forward Brett Connolly is also a restricted free agent, and he seemed to have a promising season with the team after scoring 15 goals, but his future in Washington is unclear after he was a healthy scratch for the majority of the playoffs.
An already hectic offseason for MacLellan will be further complicated by the looming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights. Washington isn’t obligated to protect any players because it has a roster free of no-move clauses, but expect the Capitals to choose the option of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. That still leaves a potential problem with the defense corps.
An impressive backup to Braden Holtby this season, goaltender Philipp Grubauer could be the Golden Knights’ choice after he posted a .926 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average in 24 appearances. But assuming Washington protects John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Orlov on its blue line, the team has reason to be concerned that Schmidt could be appealing to Vegas.
Schmidt is the Capitals’ best skater among their blue-liners, and as the NHL moves more toward speedy play, his value increases. It’s possible MacLellan orchestrates some behind-the-scenes horse trading to keep the Golden Knights from drafting Schmidt, perhaps offering them a draft pick not to select him. The issue there: Washington doesn’t have many of those left; the organization won’t pick until the fourth round this summer.
The most fascinating part of this offseason will be what approach MacLellan takes for the future. This season was the second of what he previously called a “two-year window” for this group of players, and the future of the franchise has been mortgaged to a degree with the team trading away several future draft picks in the interest of acquiring players such as Oshie, Shattenkirk and center Lars Eller.
MacLellan could make trades to reacquire some draft picks in the interest of restocking the cupboard for future seasons — for instance, trading the negotiating rights to Shattenkirk for a low-round pick (though the Caps would have to then return a lesser pick to the Blues, per the conditions of the original trade). To obtain any early picks MacLellan would likely have to part with either valuable roster players or prospects.
At 31 and 29 respectively, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom aren’t getting any younger, and Ovechkin played through an undisclosed lower-body injury in the postseason. If Washington wants to quickly make another Stanley Cup run with them, perhaps the team could follow Pittsburgh’s model, spreading their core players down the lineup and then surrounding them with inexpensive prospects.
Jakub Vrana, a 2014 first-round pick, is expected to make the jump to full-time NHL duty next season, and forwards Riley Barber and Travis Boyd could also get some consideration. Washington is high on defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos, and there could be an opening on the Capitals’ third pairing next season.