General Manager Brian MacLellan’s first three seasons with the Washington Capitals were a series of carefully constructed moves, all building to create a roster with Stanley Cup potential last season. He traded for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, winger T.J. Oshie and center Lars Eller, and he also made splashy signings to add Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Justin Williams. MacLellan knew that, like other teams who had gone “all-in,” consequences would follow and the Capitals wouldn’t be able to keep all of their assets.
But he had hoped a championship would alleviate some of that discomfort. Instead, Washington is weathering an offseason of salary cap constraints, forced to part with some valuable players, and unlike other teams who have been in a similar situation before, the Capitals don’t have a Stanley Cup to help justify their moves.
“We spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year, and we maxed it out, both player-wise and salary-wise,” MacLellan said on Monday. “We were expecting to run into some issues here going forward. I think it’s no different than the teams that have won in the past. We have the same kind of hangover, but we haven’t won a championship and we’re dealing with it now.”
While this was always expected to be a difficult offseason for the Capitals with half the roster in need of a new contract, the result has been unexpectedly costly. The proverbial shoe dropped on Sunday night when the Capitals traded 26-year-old top-six forward Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for second- and third-round picks in 2018. That deal came an hour after Washington announced a massive eight-year, $62.4 million extension for center Evgeny Kuznetsov that made him the second-highest paid player on the team.
Kuznetsov’s contract didn’t leave the team with enough salary cap room to re-sign restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer and also field a 22-man roster. That then necessitated the Johansson trade, and with other teams around the league aware of the Capitals’ salary cap crisis, MacLellan didn’t have much leverage and got a less-than-ideal return when he parted with a young, scoring winger coming off a career-best season with 24 goals.
That capped off a two-week period in which Washington also lost puck-moving defenseman Nate Schmidt in the Las Vegas expansion draft and watched unrestricted free agents Karl Alzner, Williams and Shattenkirk sign elsewhere. The team also committed $139 million to Kuznetsov, Oshie and defenseman Dmitry Orlov in that time.
It isn’t clear what trade options may have been available to the team or when they materialized, but with Washington’s season ending on May 10 after a Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals had time to consider their offseason moves and they might have maximized their assets by shedding salary earlier in the summer.
The market is typically good for skilled forwards such as Johansson, especially with him being cost-controlled for the next two seasons at a $4.583 million salary cap hit. Had Washington been able to deal him before the expansion draft, the team may have then been able to use a protection scheme of eight skaters and a goaltender, which would’ve enabled the Capitals to protect four defensemen, including Schmidt. The team instead chose the option of saving seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, and Johansson was one of the forwards saved.
“I did anticipate a little more trade activity during that expansion time,” MacLellan said. “I think there would’ve been a bigger distribution of players that changed teams, but it just seemed to freeze right up. I think everybody in general was a little bit surprised, even Vegas themselves, about the lack of trades going into that. I mean, we were comfortable with our 7-3-1 strategy.”
Even if the Capitals’ trade partners before the expansion draft were limited, they may have had more leverage had they traded Johansson in the nine days after the expansion draft and before the start of free agency on July 1. With the weak free agent class, Johansson would’ve been a better and cheaper option. But once the dust settled after the first day of free agency, many teams no longer had the salary cap room or roster hole for him. Washington’s extensions of Oshie, Orlov and then Kuznetsov also made it apparent that the team desperately needed to move salary, and that may have caused the return for Johansson to diminish.
MacLellan acknowledged that an average annual value of $7.8 million for Kuznetsov’s contract “went a little above” what the team initially expected to pay him. That’s because, like most elite Russian players, Kuznetsov had the leverage of returning to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League for the next two seasons and then returning to the NHL as an unrestricted free agent at age 27. “We lost our arbitration leverage with his ability to do that, so we had to comply with his demands,” MacLellan said.
Coming off a season in which he scored 19 goals and 40 assists, the 25-year-old Kuznetsov is now the ninth-highest paid center in the league. MacLellan said that Johansson was moved because his salary cap hit was the amount the Capitals needed to clear to re-sign Kuznetsov.
“I think the decision at the end was, do we let Kuznetsov walk to Russia and become a UFA in two years, or do we trade Marcus?” MacLellan said.
But Washington had at least one other option with a potential buyout of 36-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has a $5.5 million salary cap hit for two more years and played reduced minutes last season. Had the Capitals bought him out, that would have freed $3 million in cap space in each of the next two seasons while leaving a $1.5 million cap hit on the books until 2021.
“I don’t know that we really considered that,” MacLellan said. “I thought Orpik had a good year last year. I thought him and Schmidt played really well together on our third pair, and I think we value what he brings to young defensemen. I think he was very good for Schmidt, and Schmidt was very good for Orpik. I think we have a bunch of young defensemen who are coming up. I think we have 10 or 12 guys that are under 22 and they’re all pretty good players and we’re going to value the ability of Orpik to mentor these guys. So, I didn’t want a buyout on our salary cap going out four years. I didn’t think it made sense to us.”
MacLellan has previously referred to the past two seasons as a window for the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup with a core of players that gave Washington one of the league’s most complete rosters. MacLellan has acknowledged that the team is entering a new chapter now, one in which the Capitals will have to lean on young, unproven players in their top-six forward corps and also on the second defense pairing.
MacLellan said the expectations haven’t changed and Washington is a “good team still,” but the transition to this new phase hasn’t been easy.
“I’m bothered by it,” MacLellan said. “I mean, it hurts. We spent three years trying to get to that lineup that we had last year where I think it was a complete lineup and we knew that this point was coming in time where we weren’t going to be able to keep everybody and we were going to lose people that we really liked. I don’t like losing Justin Williams. I didn’t want to lose Oshie. We had a lot of good players and a lot of good people here, so it’s tough to let them go. The [salary] cap only went up $2 million to $75 million. I think that hurt us a little bit, too.
“So it’s just we’re maturing, we’re getting a little more top-heavy as a team, like Chicago, like Pittsburgh, and we’ve got to pay the result for it.”