After every season since he became the Capitals’ general manager, Brian MacLellan has made a summer wish list of sorts. Through either trade or free agency, he’s acquired players to improve Washington’s roster and address the team’s most pressing needs. But as MacLellan identifies the Capitals’ potential holes entering next season, he might find that the best available players to fill them are already in his organization.
On one hand, that is an optimistic outlook for the Capitals’ roster concerns. On the other, it speaks unkindly of a lackluster free agent class and trade options that may either be unpalatable or unobtainable for Washington. And it also shows that the Capitals free agents will be some of the most sought after on the market.
What follows is the third and final 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 now, what external solutions could aid the Capitals in the season to come.
After expected free-agent departures, Washington could have an opening in the top-six forward corps and also be in the market for a third-pairing defenseman. The Capitals could fill those vacancies with prospects, but MacLellan has made at least one marquee move per summer and with some roster turnover expected after another disappointing playoff run, it’s worth exploring some options that may be available to MacLellan through free agency or trade.
Free agent forwards
The Capitals’ top unrestricted free-agent priority should be re-signing right winger T.J. Oshie, who had a career year with 33 goals in 68 games. After the season, Oshie expressed his interest in re-signing, but if he hit the open market, he would be one of the top forwards available this summer. Whether with the Capitals or another team, Oshie, 30, is due a significant raise on the $4.5 million salary he made last year.
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.
With salary cap constraints expected because some of Washington’s restricted free agents will command new deals with more money, it’s unclear how much term and average annual value the team will be comfortable handing to Oshie. He’s been a perfect fit on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who experimented with nine different wingers during the 2014-15 season before Oshie’s arrival.
After MacLellan traded for Oshie, the wing has been a stable complement. Retaining him now becomes especially important considering there won’t be a clearly superior player available to the Capitals in free agency.
Right wing Justin Williams is also entering unrestricted free agency, but one of the top-six right wing slots Williams and Oshie are potentially vacating will likely go to 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky. His move up the lineup creates an opening on the third line for prospect Jakub Vrana, Washington’s 2014 first-round draft pick who played in 21 NHL games this past season. For a winger to play alongside fourth-line center Jay Beagle, the Capitals are likely to plug in a prospect or an inexpensive veteran forward from their farm system.
That leaves Washington with one top-six right wing hole to consider if the team can’t afford to bring Oshie back. In that case, the next-best option might be Williams, who scored 24 goals and 24 assists in 80 games. At 35 years old, he’s expected to receive a shorter-term deal than Oshie with a lower cap hit.
The other top free-agent forwards available aren’t as appealing, especially with most of them over 30 years old. After getting dealt to Boston, Drew Stafford scored four goals with four assists in 18 games with the Bruins, and he’s just two years removed from his last 20-goal season. Patrick Eaves is 33, and he impressed considering his low $1 million cap hit, scoring a career-high 32 goals for the Stars and Ducks. Eaves won’t receive as much money as Oshie, but his salary will inevitably increase as teams search for goal-scoring. But how much of an outlier was this past season?
Other options include Thomas Vanek (33 years old), Patrick Sharp (35) and P.A. Parenteau (34). Washington likely won’t be in the market for San Jose pending unrestricted free agents Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but after 31-year-old right wing Kris Versteeg scored 15 goals and 22 assists in Calgary, he could be a potential cost-friendly fit in Washington.
Karl Alzner is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, meaning the Capitals will have an opening on their blue line for the first time in two seasons. The top-four spot Alzner is likely to vacate will likely go to puck-mover Nate Schmidt, expected to play alongside John Carlson.
But that leaves a spot on Washington’s third pair. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, 36, plays on the left side of that pairing, and the Capitals have Taylor Chorney under contract through next season. Washington is expected to use some combination of Chorney and its blueline prospects on the right side of that third pairing. Madison Bowey, the Capitals’ second-round pick in 2013, and Christian Djoos, a seventh-round pick in 2012, should get the first crack at winning that job after patiently waiting in the AHL.
Those cost-efficient options for the blue line seem especially wise given how thin the free-agent market will be for defensemen. The Capitals arguably have the top two pending unrestricted free agent defensemen in Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, though it’s unlikely Washington will be able to afford to re-sign either, especially if the team wants to keep Oshie. Johnny Oduya, 35, could be a fit with top-four upside and a Stanley Cup-winning resume, but it’s unclear that he’s an upgrade over the Capitals’ internal solutions.
Potential trade options
When the Capitals were in need of a third-line center last summer and MacLellan didn’t think there was an affordable fit in free agency, he traded two future second-round picks to Montreal for Lars Eller. Oshie and Shattenkirk were also acquired in trades, and those three moves weren’t cheap, depleting Washington of some of its assets entering this free agency.
The Capitals don’t have a draft pick until the fourth round this summer, and the 2018 second-round pick already belongs to the Canadiens. As Washington explores options for improving its roster, it is low on trading chips.
In exchange for scoring, the Capitals could deal restricted free agent Philipp Grubauer to a team looking for a young goaltender ready for a No. 1 role. But that move could backfire because Grubauer could be an appealing option for the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, and considering Washington already has two-time Vezina Trophy-finalist Braden Holtby on the roster, the Capitals would likely rather part with Grubauer in the draft than a top-four defenseman in Schmidt.
MacLellan has also been hesitant to trade players off the roster, seemingly more comfortable with dealing picks or prospects. All-situations defenseman John Carlson, who’s entering the last year of his contract before unrestricted free agency, would interest other teams, especially with his team-friendly cap hit of less than $4 million. But trading him, potentially in exchange for a top-line, goal-scoring forward would only create a hole in the blue-line’s top four that’s arguably more challenging to fill.
The Capitals also can’t really afford to trade prospects Vrana, Bowey or Djoos unless there’s something substantial in return because those players could be counted on to have roles on the NHL roster next season — at a cap-friendly price.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, one forward who could reportedly be available via trade is Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter, a 24-year-old restricted free agent right wing who scored a career-high 25 goals this past season. The Wild could be looking to get some return on players the team may not be able to protect in the expansion draft, which could also include one of three defensemen — Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba or Jared Spurgeon — should the Wild utilize the seven-forwards, three-defensemen protection option.
The Anaheim Ducks face a similar dilemma with a bevy of young, skilled defensemen. With a no-movement clause for Kevin Bieksa, Anaheim is obligated to protect him, likely leaving one of Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Simon Depres or Sami Vatanen exposed. Should the Ducks opt for the eight total skater option, they’d have to chose between exposing either forwards Jakob Silfverberg (23 goals, 26 assists this past season) or Rickard Rakell (33 goals). They would likely prefer a trade rather than losing one of those players for nothing.
The Oilers could also be looking to move winger Jordan Eberle because of his behemoth $6 million cap hit. It’s unclear whether the Capitals would have any desire to add a player with such a large cap number only to expose an additional forward — likely rugged young winger Tom Wilson — in the expansion draft.