A lot of attention has been placed on the inevitable roster turnover that awaits the Washington Capitals this offseason with 11 players entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency. But what of the players who are expected back next season? Their projected roles will impact a series of critical decisions by General Manager Brian MacLellan.
What follows is the second installment in a three-part series looking at the offseason ahead for the Capitals. The Washington Post is examining the organization’s summer plans, including how the expansion draft will affect the team, what will happen to the players from this past season and what external solutions could aid the Capitals in the season to come.
MacLellan is conducting a “thorough evaluation” of the team after the Capitals had yet another disappointing postseason run with an exit short of the conference finals. Alex Ovechkin’s role going forward, how to fill expected holes in the forward corps and blue line and which prospects might find themselves in Washington next season are possible considerations for MacLellan.
What’s the future for Alex Ovechkin?
This past season was frustrating for Washington’s superstar winger. Ovechkin’s minutes were reduced by roughly two per game, and his 33 goals were his second-lowest over an 82-game season. More concerning: Just 16 of those goals came at even-strength, a career low.
He ended the postseason playing on a third line alongside center Lars Eller, a move Coach Barry Trotz said was intended to spread the team’s scoring through the lineup. Ovechkin was also hurt for most of the playoffs, suffering a knee injury on a hit by Toronto’s Nazem Kadri in the first round, then injuring a hamstring going into the boards in Washington’s second-round series against Pittsburgh.
When Trotz spoke to reporters two days after the Capitals’ season ended, he indicated a bottom-six role isn’t in Ovechkin’s future.
“He’s a prominent big-time player, no question,” Trotz said. “Every series, there’s always a tweak. I think probably very similar to last year. He’s been in the top six, top three really, through his whole career. And when I go top six, I can play him with [center Nicklas Backstrom] or play him with [Evgeny Kuznetsov]. It’s not a bad option. … He’s still got game. No question. He’s still a pretty productive player for us.”
So, what does the future hold for Ovechkin? The popular suggestion that he should be traded isn’t realistic; a deal would require approval from ownership, and Ted Leonsis vows that the team intends to contend for a championship next season. If they traded Ovechkin, they’d have to replace upwards of 30 goals in their lineup. Stripping him of the captaincy, another suggestion to shake up the team, is also unlikely because that could create more locker room tension than it would potentially solve.
The good news for Ovechkin is that he doesn’t require any offseason surgery for his knee and hamstring injuries, and not representing Russia at the World Championships gives him more time to rehab those ailments. But with the league becoming increasingly speed driven, Ovechkin’s game has to similarly evolve to regain the explosiveness he more consistently flashed in his younger years. He’s at his best when he’s using his hulking 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame to play physically, but to avoid becoming a power-play specialist, Ovechkin could become a little lighter and quicker.
“I don’t want to stay on the same level,” Ovechkin said. “I want to be better, I want to get better and I have to work much harder this offseason than those previous to get success and to get the goal of the Stanley Cup. I’m pretty sure everybody wants to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard.”
What happens to the top-six wingers with T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams hitting free agency?
While Ovechkin appears poised to maintain his top-six role on the left side, the right side of Washington’s first and second lines is a question mark. There seems to be mutual interest between the Capitals and Oshie to re-sign, but cap hit and contract term could always put a wrench in those plans.
Like Oshie, Williams, 35, expressed a desire to return to Washington. The Capitals will face salary-cap constraints, and if they want to get younger and faster, he may not factor into their plans despite how the leadership the three-time Stanley Cup winner brought to the locker room.
Williams scored 24 goals, Oshie tied Ovechkin for the team lead with 33. That’s a considerable amount of offense to replace.
Forward Andre Burakovsky spent most of the year on a third line with Eller, and he finished with 12 goals and 23 assists in 64 games, missing some time because of a broken hand. He’s been in and out of the top-six forward corps throughout his first three seasons with the Capitals, and with Washington expected to re-sign the 22-year-old restricted free agent, he should see more regular time alongside Backstrom and Kuznetsov.
When Burakovsky was moved to a first line with Backstrom in the Capitals’ second-round series against the Penguins, his speed and strong puck-possession game were an asset as he had three goals in Games 5 and 6. He also brings versatility by playing on the right or left side. The knock on him is consistency; he’s endured a goal drought of at least 25 games in each of the past two seasons.
At age 24, Brett Connolly scored 15 goals in his first season with the Capitals, and with him entering restricted free agency this summer, Washington owns his negotiating rights. When Oshie missed some games because of a shoulder injury, Trotz often turned to Connolly to fill in on the first line with Backstrom and Ovechkin. A top-10 draft pick in 2010, Connolly has the skill and shot potentially suited for an elevated role, but after he was scratched for most of the playoffs, it’s unclear where the organization stands on his future.
Another internal option to fill a top-six role is right wing Tom Wilson, who occasionally saw playing time alongside Kuznetsov this season. The Capitals hoped to see more offensive production from Wilson, their 2012 first-round draft pick. In his four seasons in Washington, he’s yet to crack 10 goals, but his physical play can often create space for his linemates, and that could be a good starting point going forward.
“I think he’s evolving,” MacLellan said before the playoffs. “He continues to be a good penalty-killer. I think the whole thing for him is to keep improving his skill set, become more offensive. The ability to play with skill players is a challenge for him so we can bump him up.”
In reshaping the defensive corps, could the Caps buy out Brooks Orpik?
The Capitals enjoyed stability on their blue line this past season with all seven defensemen returning from the previous year. But with Karl Alzner entering unrestricted free agency and unlikely to re-sign, Washington will have a vacancy in its top four.
After receiving a one-year deal worth $2.57 million, Dmitry Orlov got an increase in minutes (from 16:02 in 2015-16 to 19:32 this season), and he thrived with more responsibility. He and Matt Niskanen were the Capitals’ most consistent blueline pairing, and they’re expected to be Washington’s top defensive duo next season. Orlov is a restricted free agent this summer, but when MacLellan was asked if he’s part of the team’s future, he responded, “Oh, definitely.” He scored six goals with 27 assists for a career-high 33 points in 82 games.
The most natural candidate to move into the blue line’s top four and play on the left side of John Carlson is 25-year-old Nate Schmidt. In 11 playoff games, he averaged 16:39 per game and had a plus-six rating. He’s the best skater among Washington’s defensemen, and the Capitals might have to maneuver a way to keep the Vegas Golden Knights from swiping him in the expansion draft. If they can keep him, Schmidt could give Washington four puck-movers on the team’s top two defense pairings, which would fit the league trend of an emphasis on swift zone exits.
“I thought the playoffs were really good for me personally,” Schmidt said. “Hopefully the management or whoever, the staff, believes that I can make the next jump into that ever-elusive top four. That’s where you want to be. You want to get better every year. That’s the next step for me, and that’s what I want to do. I think I can put myself in a position to be that type of defenseman for our team.”
One possible consideration for the Capitals will be buying out 36-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik, who’s under contract for two more seasons with a $5.5 million cap hit. A third-pairing role that had him playing fewer minutes and against easier competition suited Orpik with Washington taking 51.5 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice. But his cap hit is big for a third-pair defenseman, and buying him out would free $3 million in cap space this season and next with a $1.5 million cap hit from his contract lingering through the 2020-21 season.
While that would give the Capitals more money to spend in free agency for the next two summers, it would also create an additional vacancy for the team to fill. His bruising style of play offers a contrast to Washington’s other blue-liners, and without him, the team would have an entirely new third pairing. Taylor Chorney is under contract through next season, and he spent most of the season as the Capitals’ seven defenseman, seeing action in just 18 games.
Washington is expected to audition some of its blueline prospects to play on the third pairing next season, and even if the team did increase Chorney’s role in a hypothetical buyout of Orpik, the Capitals would likely have to acquire another veteran defenseman for the roster through trade or free agency to replace him. Some of the salary-cap space they’d save in that situation would inevitably be devoted to that blueline addition.
Which prospects could join the Capitals next season?
After leaning on a veteran roster for the past two seasons, the Capitals will need some of their young, inexpensive talent to transition into full-time NHL duty next year.
With Burakovsky likely to play among the top-six forwards next season, winger Jakub Vrana can be expected to start the season on a third line alongside Eller. Vrana, Washington’s 2014 first-round pick, made this NHL debut in December, and splitting time between the American Hockey League and the Capitals, he played in 21 games for Washington. He scored three goals with three assists, especially shining on the second power-play unit.
Vrana was occasionally scratched in Hershey’s playoff run this spring as his two-way game was criticized. But when Vrana was with the Capitals, the organization found his play without the puck better than expected, and it’s possible his late-season AHL struggles were the result of disinterest. He scored 19 goals and 17 assists in 49 games with the Hershey Bears this year, and he’d provide an injection of speed to Washington’s lineup.
With forward Daniel Winnik entering unrestricted free agency, a spot on fourth-line center Jay Beagle’s wing could also be open to a prospect. Riley Barber is one candidate after the 23-year-old scored 13 goals and 14 assists in 39 games for Hershey, and like Vrana, he made his NHL debut this season. Paul Carey was the Capitals’ extra forward throughout the postseason, and while at age 28 he’s not considered a prospect, his slick skating ability makes him an appealing option for a Washington team that may be looking to get faster.
Centers Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd are also expected to compete for roster spots in training camp, and there’ll be more opportunity after the past two summers saw very few spots up for grabs.
Defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos are likely to both see playing time on Washington’s third pairing next season. MacLellan had intended Bowey to become an NHL regular next season, but a laceration of the tendon in his ankle in December caused him to miss most of the season and slowed his development. He’s yet to make his NHL debut and scored three goals and 11 assists with Hershey.
Bowey has the advantage that his 6-2, 209-pound frame seems more NHL-ready than Djoos, a puck-mover skilled at breakouts. The Capitals are high on Djoos, a seventh-round draft pick in 2012, but they likely want to see him bulk up some as the Swede is listed at just 162 pounds. He scored 13 goals with 45 assists in 66 AHL games.
Coming Friday: A look at the players outside the Capitals roster that could be fits via free agency or trade.