DALLAS — The Washington Capitals traded goaltender Philipp Grubauer and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche for a second-round pick (No. 47 overall) Friday night at the NHL draft, a move that clears Orpik’s $5.5 million salary cap hit for next season and gives Grubauer an opportunity to be a starter. The defending Stanley Cup champions now have more than $21 million in cap room to potentially re-sign top defenseman John Carlson and other key pending free agents.
General Manager Brian MacLellan said Friday night that the Capitals are “really close” to striking a deal with Carlson, who could get a deal worth more than $8 million per season with an eight-year term after a career season with 15 goals and 53 assists. That would make him the second-highest-paid player on the team behind captain Alex Ovechkin. MacLellan and Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, met Thursday night, and in a text message, Curran said he was “certainly encouraged by the move to create the necessary cap space.” MacLellan said the Capitals aim to re-sign Carlson before he can start meeting with other teams at noon Sunday.
“We’re going to do our best to sign John,” MacLellan said. “We’ve said it all along. We waited until the end of the year, we’ve had discussions, and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”
Orpik, 37, is entering the final season of a five-year contract, and though the alternate captain was one of the most respected players in Washington’s dressing room, he had been reduced to a third-pairing role as a stay-at-home, physical defenseman in a league that has trended toward puck-moving, mobile blue-liners. Along with re-signing Carlson, the Capitals also intend to retain pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny, which means Washington would be returning the top four defenders from its Stanley Cup run. The salary cap for next season will jump to $79.5 million, a $4.5 million increase.
Orpik, now a two-time Stanley Cup champion, played an average of 19:22 for the Capitals this season, but Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic told reporters he’ll either trade Orpik or buy out the final year of his contract. Orpik was one of the first players MacLellan signed when he got the GM post four years ago, and Orpik was considered a mentor to several players and was called “Batya” by the team’s Russians, a term of endearment that translates to “Dad.”
“Both him and Grubi are really good people, well-liked by their teammates,” MacLellan said. “You don’t like trading away good people, but it’s what we had to do to move forward with the team.”
Grubauer was the incentive for the Avalanche to take Orpik’s contract without Washington retaining any salary. After the Capitals’ championship run reinforced Braden Holtby as the team’s undisputed No. 1 netminder, Grubauer told the organization he wants to be a starter somewhere, and MacLellan said he would try to accommodate those wishes. This is not the first time the organizations have made a deal involving a goaltender: The Capitals in 2011 dealt Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a first-round pick and a second-round pick, and Grubauer will share the net with Varlamov next season. Sakic said the team has “two No. 1 goalies,” but Varlamov has just one year left on his contract.
Grubauer is coming off a career season in which he made 28 starts, outdueling Holtby down the stretch to start the first two games of the playoffs. In the 27 appearances since he recorded his first win in late November, Grubauer was the steadiest goaltender in the league with a .937 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average. But he lost his starting job three games into the playoffs, and because he is a restricted free agent this summer, Washington likely couldn’t have afforded to pay him. Pheonix Copley, a 26-year-old who has appeared in two NHL games (with the St. Louis Blues), is expected to be the backup goaltender next season.
MacLellan said Thursday that interest in Grubauer was “pretty good,” and Washington was expected to get a late first-round pick for him. But the Capitals were willing to settle for a second-round pick in exchange for shedding Orpik’s salary. A year after Washington didn’t have a pick until the fourth round, the organization has three selections in the top 50 this year. The Capitals capped an eventful Friday night by selecting hulking Russian defenseman Alex Alexeyev with the draft’s 31st pick, the last selection of the first round.
Alexeyev quickly connected with Ovechkin on FaceTime, and he said Ovechkin, an idol of his growing up, congratulated Alexeyev and stressed the organization’s need for defensemen. Alexeyev then asked Ovechkin about his now-infamous celebration in the Georgetown Waterfront fountains after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.
“It was crazy,” Alexeyev said. “I’m so happy.”
A 6-foot-3 left-handed shooter, Alexeyev probably will return to his Western Hockey League team, the Red Deer Rebels, next season. He said he has modeled his game after Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov as well as Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, an offensive blue-liner with poise and personality. The first time he met with Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney, he was eating vanilla ice cream. Mahoney suggested the treat wasn’t good for Alexeyev, but the player chuckled that something during the interview must have gone well for him.
“That’s why I’m wearing the jersey, I think,” he said.
Read more on the Capitals: