The Washington Capitals had the NHL’s fourth-oldest roster this past season with an average age of 28.6 years old. With salary cap constraints looming this summer, General Manager Brian MacLellan expects the team to have a more youthful look next season.
MacLellan’s priority for the offseason is to re-sign the team’s six restricted free agents, hopeful that those young players are ready to take on more responsibility. The team’s top unrestricted free agent priority is 30-year-old forward T.J. Oshie, and while there’s mutual interest to get a deal done to keep Oshie in Washington, MacLellan said it could depend on if the salary cap ceiling is raised next season.
With money tight, the Capitals are limited in their options to fill the holes left by expected free-agent departures. MacLellan said they’ll have to lean on their prospects to step into more full-time NHL roles, particularly in the team’s bottom-six forward corps and also on the third pairing of the defense. The Pittsburgh Penguins are an example of how a team can succeed with energetic, speedy youth surrounding star veterans, but the infusion of unproven pieces adds a layer of unpredictability to Washington’s roster.
“We’re going to be getting younger, our prospects are developing and they’re going to take a bigger role,” MacLellan said. “It’s just going to be a different feel to it, I think.”
Winger Andre Burakovsky, 22, is expected to move into the top-six next season, which will leave a vacancy on the third line alongside center Lars Eller. MacLellan said he intends to re-sign Brett Connolly, 24, and he would likely start the season on the third line. The third slot could go to 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana, who played in 21 games with the Capitals last season.
While Vrana scored three goals and three assists in his first taste of NHL action, his season was a rocky one. He was an occasional healthy scratch for Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate team during the playoffs. In 49 games with the Hershey Bears, Vrana scored 19 goals and 17 assists, but Coach Troy Mann often didn’t trust him in the defensive zone.
“He’s a young guy that they’re trying to teach the game,” MacLellan said. “Sometimes it’s through video and then sometimes it’s through, ‘you need to sit out and watch.’ I think they’re trying to hold him accountable for the way he plays on the ice. He definitely has NHL speed, [an] NHL shot, NHL goal-scoring ability. We still project him as a top-six guy, but he’s going to have to learn to play the complete game. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to develop him into a 200-foot player down there versus when he comes up here.”
MacLellan said Vrana isn’t guaranteed a roster spot next season, though it would be his third year playing professional hockey in North America and he has the most promising projection of any other forward in Washington’s system. Zach Sanford, whom the team signed last summer out of Boston College, would have likely been a lineup regular next season, but the Capitals traded him to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
To fill the holes on the fourth line, MacLellan mentioned forwards Nathan Walker, Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd as options to play alongside center Jay Beagle. With defenseman Nate Schmidt expected to take on a top-four role next season, Washington will almost certainly move on from pending unrestricted free agents blue-liners Karl Alzner and Shattenkirk.
That leaves a vacancy on the Capitals’ third pairing alongside defenseman Brooks Orpik. Taylor Chorney, who played in just 18 games as Washington’s seventh defenseman last season, is expected to split playing time with a prospect, likely some combination of Madison Bowey or Christian Djoos. The organization is also high on Tyler Lewington.
“We’ll be competitive,” MacLellan said. “It sure looks like Burakovsky is ready to get to the next level. You put him in a top-six role, I would assume he’s going to be successful. How do our bottom fourth line guys pan out, the Hershey guys? I’m not sure. I think we’re going to be a good team still.”
News and notes
Caps have re-signed forward Nathan Walker to a two-year, two-way deal.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) June 1, 2017
The 23-year-old Australian scored 11 goals and added 12 assists in 58 games with Hershey this past season. The contract is worth $650,000 at the NHL level and $125,000 in Hershey, per Mike Vogel.