The places the people plan to take the Stanley Cup this summer involve cross-country and trans-Atlantic travel. Only one itinerary might not extend past the Potomac. A day with the Cup in Washington?
“That’s my plan,” John Carlson said.
He is the one Washington Capital who, at the end of this crazy stretch, is both the most grounded here and the one on the uneasy footing. His wife grew up a Washingtonian. He owns a house in Chevy Chase, just over the District line, where the couple are raising their young family. He played more minutes than any Capital in the regular season and again in the playoffs. He registered more points than any defenseman in the NHL in the regular season and again in the playoffs. He is a sturdy, steady force — and he has no idea where he will play next year.
Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the annual start of summer for the local hockey team. Usually, it’s tinged with sadness and remorse. This year, nothing but smiles. As we have realized over the past week, the Cup changes everything.
Er, almost everything. As the Capitals blink their eyes clear and knock the cobwebs from their brains, there is a reality that the people who departed their Arlington training complex Wednesday afternoon won’t all return.
“That’s sad,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. But it’s also inevitable. It would have been true had they lost to Columbus in the first round. It remains true after winning the Cup.
What’s also true: John Carlson is about to get paid. The list of unrestricted free agents available to all 31 NHL teams when the bidding opens July 1 includes New York Islanders center John Tavares as the most impactful performer. And then . . . Carlson, the 28-year-old forever Capital who followed his best regular season with 20 points in 24 postseason games — and a turn with the Cup.
“Teams overpay for guys that are on winning teams,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, himself a guy who was overpaid for being on a winning team. “Everyone’s aware of it.”
“Big, strong, right-shot defenseman that’s offensive and skates well,” Niskanen said, “they don’t grow on trees.”
And this tree was planted and nurtured by the Capitals and has flourished here. “This is all I know,” Carlson said. He was drafted by the Capitals in the first round in 2008. He made his NHL debut here in the fall of 2009. He made the U.S. Olympic team as a Capital. He spends every summer here as a Capital. He scored a career-high 15 goals and added a career-high 53 assists in this, his ninth season, right here as a Capital.
“I want to stay here,” Carlson said, “but there’s more to it than that.”
Remember last summer, when the salary cap tore at the core of the Capitals’ lineup? The team knew that Presidents’ Trophy-winning roster wouldn’t be back intact. But at that point, who cared? After all those years of heads banging against walls, something had to change lest a permanent welt develop.
But this summer, that feeling is different. If the Stanley Cup was won by banging your head against the wall, well, by all means, keep banging. Yet the 2017-18 salary cap was $75 million. According to CapFriendly.com, which tracks NHL salaries, Washington should have roughly $11 million available this offseason if the salary cap stays the same. But it’s likely to go up, perhaps significantly.
“The higher the better for me,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said.
Try squeezing Carlson, center Jay Beagle, playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly, trade acquisition Michal Kempny plus a healthy raise for forward Tom Wilson — who now seems essential — under one roof. That cap better be high.
But it all starts with Carlson because he will get the most years and the most dollars. The highest-paid defensemen in the NHL this past season were San Jose’s Brent Burns (who also has spent some time as a right wing), Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Montreal’s Shea Weber, Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien, Minnesota’s Ryan Suter and Florida’s Aaron Ekblad. Each had a cap hit of between $7.5 million and $8 million in 2017-18, according to CapFriendly.com.
Where does Carlson fit in that group?
“I’ve always thought he is one of the better defensemen that I’ve ever played with, and this year, he elevated that quite a bit,” said forward T.J. Oshie, who was staring at the same uncertainties about his future at this time last year. “He’s, in my eyes, he’s got to be [a] top three-to-top five defenseman.”
If that’s the price, then . . .
“We’re going to be limited to a certain extent to what we can offer,” MacLellan said. “But hopefully we can find a spot that satisfies both parties.”
This is a difficult spot. Not only is Carlson at an age when he still could improve — “I think he’s still got a lot of room to grow,” Orpik said — but he soon will have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup with the first group of Washington Capitals to have that honor. This could be a business decision. Winning a championship makes it an emotional one, too.
“I wish I had all the answers,” Carlson said.
MacLellan said he wants to bring Carlson back. Carlson said he wants to be back. That’s all good. But the market hasn’t spoken yet. And the market will get its chance to speak when free agency begins in — wow — just more than two weeks.
Still, this transaction is clearly more straightforward than the upcoming negotiation with Coach Barry Trotz. Trotz also said he wants to return. MacLellan also said he would extend an offer. But it doesn’t take a linguistics expert to figure out that when Trotz mentioned the two sides had to “work through some issues” before reaching an agreement it means this isn’t just financial. Clearly, Trotz would like at least one change to his coaching staff — and who knows what else?
That situation will be one to watch in coming weeks. But so will Carlson’s.
“This has been my home,” Carlson said.
It’s also home, for the time being, to the Stanley Cup. Wouldn’t it be nice if the defenseman who played such a huge role in bringing it here got to keep his home right here, too?
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