By the time the Washington Capitals held their formal exit meetings, they had each taken a turn hoisting and kissing the Stanley Cup, partying with it for three straight days and then enjoying one last team celebration with a parade down Constitution Avenue. That rally June 12 on the Mall marked the end of the 2017-18 season for the team, and players had long ago accepted that professional hockey is first and foremost a business, so it was unreasonable to expect the roster to remain unchanged through the summer.
But as each player sat across from General Manager Brian MacLellan in his office the following day for those exit meetings, the feedback was unanimous: Keep as much of this group together as possible for a repeat bid.
A year earlier, MacLellan had been conflicted. Several players expressed a desire for significant roster shake-up after yet another postseason exit in the second round. What followed was a difficult offseason in which he lost defenseman Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft, parted with blue-liners Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency, re-signed center Evgeny Kuznetsov, right wing T.J. Oshie and defenseman Dmitry Orlov to expensive long-term contracts and committed to a lineup that wouldn’t be as deep, as experienced or as talented on paper.
Trying to preserve this Cup-winning roster this offseason proved just as tricky, especially since the long playoff run meant MacLellan had less time to work with before free agency. On June 13, he paused the celebration and began a process that ended with the Capitals retaining 18 of the 20 players who dressed in the Stanley Cup finals against Vegas, an unprecedented feat for a salary cap-strapped team coming off a championship.
The Capitals typically wait until after the season to address pending free agents, but had they not signed third-line center Lars Eller to a five-year extension in February, his impressive postseason would have priced him out of Washington. Waiting on John Carlson’s contract came at a cost, and once MacLellan was sure he wanted to re-sign the top defenseman on the market, he knew he would have to pay a premium. The 28-year-old was coming off a career season, leading all blue-liners in points with 68, on 15 goals and 53 assists.
Carlson wanted to stay in Washington, where he met his wife and has made his home in the offseason. But to not get swept up in sentimentality, he reminded himself that playing careers are short, that he wouldn’t get another opportunity to sign a big-money, long-term deal, that he had two young sons to consider.
“You look out for yourself in situations like this,” he said. “No matter how much I wanted to be here and loved being here and loved the coaches and loved the area and loved the teammates, you have to look out for yourself, so once the season’s over, you think about putting yourself in the best situation.”
MacLellan arrived at the NHL draft in Dallas already planning to trade goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who wanted more responsibility elsewhere after he appeared in 35 games last season with a .923 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average. The Capitals could’ve gotten a late first-round draft pick for Grubauer alone, and his strong season as Braden Holtby’s understudy had driven the price up from a year earlier, when Washington received trade offers of a second-round pick or a comparable prospect.
But as MacLellan met with Carlson’s representation and learned what it was going to take to re-sign him, the trade conversations around Grubauer changed. MacLellan needed to create salary cap space, so taking veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit would have to be part of the deal. By the time the first round started, Orpik and Grubauer had been packaged to the Colorado Avalanche for a second-round pick, 47th overall.
“When I saw that, I was upset to begin with, just because I love Brooks,” Carlson said. “But maybe that was kind of a time where I started thinking that maybe it would be a little more serious in terms of negotiations and stuff.”
Orpik found out about the trade when he received a call from Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic. Four years earlier, when Orpik had been an unrestricted free agent, Colorado was a team he seriously considered. When he picked Washington instead, he phoned Sakic to deliver the news. “I don’t know if that had any effect on this situation four years later, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt,” Orpik said.
Sakic was planning on trading Orpik, but Orpik asked that the last year of his contract be bought out instead. He told Sakic about a situation with his family — Orpik declined to disclose details — that made it important for him to be near the D.C. area, so a trade would’ve been troublesome. Sakic told him he needed ownership approval for a buyout because it left a cap hit on the books for this year and next. At midnight, he called Orpik back and said the team could oblige his request. Orpik would be a free agent July 1.
Two days later, the Capitals and Carlson agreed to an eight-year, $64 million deal, and MacLellan checked the team’s biggest free agent priority off his to-do list.
The week before free agency
Devante Smith-Pelly had been caught off guard a year ago when the New Jersey Devils informed him they were buying out the last season of his contract just minutes before the deadline to do so. Smith-Pelly and his agent were left scrambling, ultimately settling on a one-year deal with Washington. But after a dazzling postseason in which he scored seven even-strength goals in 24 games to match his regular season total, this summer was supposed to be devoid of surprises.
He was a restricted free agent, so the Capitals owned his rights and tendering a qualifying offer to maintain those is typically just a formality. But because Smith-Pelly had arbitration rights, the Capitals didn’t want to risk getting locked into a term or cap hit they weren’t comfortable with if talks dragged and required third-party intervention.
MacLellan was mindful not to get swept up in Stanley Cup euphoria and award contracts longer than a year to depth players, especially since young forwards Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky and Chandler Stephenson are due new deals after this season. On June 25, the team chose not to qualify Smith-Pelly, which meant he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Washington still planned on negotiating with him in the meantime, but for a player who felt he had finally found a good fit after playing for three teams in the six seasons prior, he suddenly was faced with the option to go elsewhere.
“I had some different offers from different teams, but at the end of the day, this was my first choice,” Smith-Pelly said.
Three days later, Smith-Pelly turned down more lucrative offers to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with the Capitals, meaning the team would have all but one forward back from last season’s lineup. MacLellan had stayed in contact with longtime center Jay Beagle, and once he heard Beagle would land a four-year, $12 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks, MacLellan knew Washington wouldn’t be able to offer anything close.
He instead turned his attention to his next free agent priority: defenseman Michal Kempny. In February, the Capitals traded a third-round pick for the Czech 28-year-old, and after he had been a healthy scratch with the Chicago Blackhawks for half the season, Kempny was considering leaving the NHL altogether and returning to Europe. But the Blackhawks’ playing style didn’t showcase Kempny’s strong skating in the way Washington’s did, and Kempny complemented Carlson. “I really liked the chemistry between them,” MacLellan said. With the Capitals already bringing back Carlson, it made sense to keep Kempny, too.
“As soon as the season ends — I mean, it’s been an intense year — our work starts, and we’re a little vulnerable in that we could’ve lost two of our top four defensemen,” MacLellan said. “There is a little anxiety as you’re going through the whole thing that you won’t be able to bring either one of them back.”
Kempny was fielding interest from five teams, with the New York Islanders the most serious. While on vacation in Sicily, he was glued to his phone. MacLellan had submitted a multiyear offer back at the draft, and June 29, the day after Smith-Pelly re-signed, Kempny agreed to a four-year, $10 million contract with the Capitals. Teams often overpay for Stanley Cup champions, prizing the experience they can bring to a locker room. What worked for MacLellan in both situations was that Smith-Pelly and Kempny wanted to stay in Washington more than they wanted to cash in on the playoff success.
“Of course, I wanted to be here,” Kempny said. “Washington Capitals gave me the chance to play here and play in the playoff. I really enjoyed last season every day. And I wanted to be here.”
One last move to make
Less than a week after Orpik was traded so that the Capitals could re-sign Carlson, the two were on the golf course together. On June 28, they attended the first day of the Quicken Loans National, the PGA Tour event at TPC Potomac, and coincidentally, that was the first day Orpik heard from MacLellan. He had been happy with Orpik’s postseason play and was interested in re-signing him.
The NHL doesn’t allow contracts to be restructured, so if a player has his deal bought out, he can’t re-sign with that team for a full calendar year. Since it was the Avalanche that bought out Orpik’s deal, technically there was nothing preventing Orpik from signing with the Capitals, but his agent reached out to the players’ association just to be sure. No player had ever gone that route in the salary cap era.
Orpik was still unsure how genuine the Capitals’ interest was, and with MacLellan undergoing shoulder surgery in early July, the two fell out of touch. Orpik, who turned 38 last week, received two-year offers from some teams but preferred a one-year deal.
“I’m kind of on a year-to-year basis right now,” he said. “I think if you sign a two-year deal and all of a sudden you don’t want to play anymore, I think you kind of feel obligated to fulfill the contract you sign.”
Washington eventually proposed a one-year, $1 million contract, and to lessen the potential salary cap hit, the team added $500,000 in performance bonuses contingent on how many games Orpik plays. Should Orpik appear in at least 40 games, the Capitals can choose whether the bonus counts against this year’s salary cap or next year’s. The sides agreed to the deal and then announced it July 24. But the NHL held off on registering the contract because other teams had argued Washington exploited a loophole that enabled it to significantly slash Orpik’s salary cap hit.
After a deposition with a league investigator, Orpik turned over relevant text messages and voice mails that he said made it “more than obvious” that the chain of events wasn’t preplanned. The other teams he had been talking to had signed other defensemen by that point, so his opportunities had diminished if the NHL decided the deal was illegal.
“As much as I knew that nothing was prearranged, I didn’t know if the league wanted to come down hard and kind of set a precedent because it had never happened before,” Orpik said.
The contract was officially registered in August, by which point the Capitals had also extended right wing Tom Wilson with a six-year, $31 million deal. When players settled back into the practice facility in September, the stalls were in the same spots, with just a handful of new nameplates — and Stanley Cup logos suddenly emblazoned on everything.
“There’s a belief they have in each other that at the end of the previous season [2016-17], that wasn’t there. There was turmoil,” MacLellan said. “Now, they enjoy playing with each other. And they expressed it; they wanted everybody back because they get along well and play well together. Does it translate to winning another championship? I don’t know. But they have the ability to get to another level than they were last year if they start where they finished up.”
More on the Capitals and the NHL: