Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan had just watched his two franchise cornerstones, captain Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, hoist the Stanley Cup together. He was happy for his players and filled with a sense of validation after a season most doubted would finish successfully. So roughly 30 minutes later, he was asked the question that every champion gets: Can you do it again next season?
“I would assume we get some confidence out of this, you know?” MacLellan said. “Our young guys are growing. Our older guys are experienced with how to handle the pressure, how to handle tough situations. I see no reason why we can’t keep it going.”
The Capitals’ window for a championship with this superstar core appeared to be shrinking going into the year, and some questioned whether the roster was even good enough to make the postseason. But now that the team is celebrating its first Stanley Cup, the challenge will be in keeping this improbable group together for a potential repeat. In the afterglow of victory, Washington will have to address the future of its coach as well as several pending unrestricted free agents under salary cap constraints.
This season was the last of Coach Barry Trotz’s four-year deal, and when he didn’t get an extension before the season, both Trotz and Washington’s front office agreed to wait until after the season to address his future. His regular season résumé includes two Presidents’ Trophies and three division titles. The Capitals advanced to the second round of the playoffs in each of his first three seasons with the team, and had Washington not gotten past that point this time, the team would have almost certainly moved on.
“If he wants to be back, he’ll be back,” MacLellan said in Las Vegas on Thursday night after Washington’s Cup-clinching victory.
Immediately after the win, Trotz said he “absolutely” sees a future for himself in Washington after spending the season as a lame duck. But he also has options. The New York Islanders have a head-coaching vacancy that could appeal to Trotz, or perhaps at age 55 he simply wants to step away. If Trotz did decide to walk, the job would almost certainly go to associate coach Todd Reirden. When the team visited Nationals Park on Saturday with the Stanley Cup, Trotz said he has yet to enter into contract talks with the organization because, like his players, he has been too busy celebrating.
“I’m not in any state to talk,” Trotz said. “I always talked about having really good clarity and calm and all that. I don’t have a lot of clarity right now. That’s self-inflicted.”
Inexperience was considered this team’s greatest flaw going into the season, but the development of its youth could result in an even better position next year. Rookies Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos all played the majority of the postseason and are expected to improve in their sophomore campaigns. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov solidified his emergence as a member of the Capitals’ superstar core with 32 points in 24 playoff games, making him the league’s top postseason scorer. After not picking until the fourth round of the draft a year ago, the Capitals have a pick in each of the first three rounds this year.
“I think our young guys, I mean, they’re still improving,” MacLellan said before the Stanley Cup finals. “We have Vrana, [23-year-old Andre] Burakovsky’s still improving, Stephenson’s improving, [24-year-old Tom] Wilson’s improving. I look at our group this year and I think we play a little bit of a different style. It’s a faster style. We’re a younger team. We play a little more north-south than east-west and the structure of the team, the team defensive structure, is better than it’s ever been, too. I think as these guys keep improving, I think it should be good for our core guys — for Ovi, Backstrom, [T.J. Oshie]. They’re going to be good complements because of the style they play.”
Washington’s top free agent priority will be John Carlson, who is expected to receive a significant pay bump after a career season with 15 goals and 53 assists to lead all NHL defensemen in scoring. He showed he can be counted on as a top blue-line player, averaging 24:47 per game during the regular season and 25:38 during the playoffs. He has been on a cap-friendly contract with an average annual value of roughly $4 million the past six seasons, and some project that his next deal will pay twice that much, even if Washington gives him a maximum term of eight years. MacLellan said the Capitals are “going to do our best with John.”
“It depends on how much money he wants,” MacLellan said before the postseason. “It’s going to be a trade-off on, do we want to create some space, or what the salary level we’re willing to go to and he’s willing to accept.”
“When we sat down and chatted, he basically said, ‘Look, we really would like to keep John,’ ” Rick Curran, Carlson’s agent, recently said of his conversation with MacLellan during the season. “I assured him that John’s preference would be to stay in Washington. We both recognize that neither one of us were really in a position to say much more about it because Washington doesn’t have any cap space at the moment.”
Even with the salary cap expected to rise from $75 million to $80 million next season, it could be a tight squeeze for the Capitals. Wilson is a restricted free agent, and after his career season — 14 goals and 21 assists while playing mostly on a top line with Ovechkin — he has earned a raise from his two-year, $4 million bridge deal. Before the playoffs started, MacLellan said re-signing defenseman Michal Kempny, a rental trade-deadline addition, was a consideration after how well Kempny fit into the Capitals’ top-four corps beside Carlson. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored seven playoff goals, is a restricted free agent, and his postseason was so impressive that it’s unclear if Washington will now be able to afford to keep him.
Fourth-line center Jay Beagle is an unrestricted free agent, and with the expected constraints, it’s likely the Capitals will choose to replace the 32-year-old with less expensive options such as Stephenson or Travis Boyd. Beagle, who made his NHL debut with the Capitals in 2009, is one of the longest-tenured members of the team.
One way the Capitals could clear some cap room is by trading backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Washington signed vaunted goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov to an entry-level deal in May, so the 2015 first-round pick is expected to play his first season in North America next season. That means the Capitals will have to clear some room on their organizational depth chart to make way for Samsonov, who is expected to start in the American Hockey League next season. Grubauer played a career-high 35 NHL games this season, splitting time with Braden Holtby for the last month of the season when Holtby temporarily lost his top job. Grubauer was even named the postseason starter before Holtby reclaimed the net for good in Game 3 of the first round.
Though he didn’t hold onto the starting gig in the playoffs, Grubauer showed he is ready for more responsibility, making it doubtful that the Capitals will be able to afford both him and Holtby as a tandem for another season thanks to his impeding status as a restricted free agent. Washington could trade Grubauer’s rights and promote Pheonix Copley to the role of Holtby’s backup next season, saving some money in the process because Copley makes the league minimum. Washington could get a mid- to high-round draft pick in exchange for Grubauer.
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