All that business about winning the Cup has quickly — too quickly, it seems — distilled to, simply, business. The Washington Capitals hoisted the first Stanley Cup in franchise history less than three weeks ago. They held a championship parade on the Mall two weeks ago Tuesday, when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom shared the final bus with the Cup and Brooks Orpik.
Now we wake in a world in which Orpik has been traded — and that’s welcomed as a glorious development. Business, man. Business.
The personification of the reason Orpik was traded stood before a microphone Monday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and said, among other things, “I love the city. I love being around here. It’s my home.”
That would be John Carlson, who entered this season as a lifelong Capital, entered the offseason uncertain he would remain so, and at the moment is the second-highest paid defenseman in the NHL.
A Stanley Cup winner is expensive to keep together, and Carlson is the first indication of that. Yes, he wanted to be here, but he needed eight years and $64 million to make his wants match his market. That’s not a hometown discount. That’s a deal dictated by what the market would have paid had he gone to free agency July 1. The Capitals paid a premium for a 28-year-old player coming off his best season — but one they believe can be better.
“I want to be the best defenseman in the league every single year,” said Carlson, whose 68 points led all defensemen during the regular season. “I’m sure I’ll get more questions about it now.”
The questions come with such a contract. Carlson needs to be one of the best defensemen in the NHL because he is being paid as such. He needs to maintain the level of consistency he showed in the run to the Cup because, without Orpik around, the younger defensemen will need someone to set an example.
Without Orpik. What a phrase. Yes, there were times when Capitals fans wanted to run the 37-year-old defenseman off the ice. (Note to those fans: We know you think it would take a good, long while to run Orpik off the ice. We get it. He’s slow.)
Carlson’s job isn’t to construct the roster. It is, however, his job to get the best deal for himself. And so the math here was that the Capitals couldn’t afford to pay Orpik the $5.5 million remaining for the final year of his contract and keep Carlson as part of the core.
So Carlson has two people to thank for his new deal: Brian MacLellan, of course, and Philipp Grubauer, oddly.
MacLellan’s role is obvious. As the Caps’ general manager he not only negotiated the terms, but he facilitated the trade that freed up the money. That trade — with Colorado on Friday night — sent Orpik and his contract west to the Avalanche. But the only reason Colorado was willing to take on Orpik’s money was because it also received Grubauer, the Capitals’ backup goalie.
A year ago, the Capitals were willing to part with Grubauer, a talented German who was blocked in Washington by incumbent starter Braden Holtby. But because Grubauer had never played in more than 24 regular season NHL games in any one season, potential trade partners wouldn’t pay for a starter. They tried to get him cheap. Washington didn’t budge.
This offseason, Grubauer was coming off a season in which he started a third of the team’s games and posted a 2.35 goals against average. He bumped Holtby from the net to start the playoffs. He had value, enough that MacLellan was able to find someone to agree to take Orpik’s salary and give up a second-round pick to make Grubauer their potential starter in the future.
Nice work. But there’s still more to do.
The rest of the offseason hinges on two developments to come: How much money forward Tom Wilson will make as a restricted free agent and whether the Capitals can find a deal to bring back defenseman Michal Kempny.
Wilson’s is an interesting case. He is only 24. He has never scored more than the 14 goals he netted this season. He is valued for the brutality he brings with each shift — but played most of the year on the Capitals’ top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. He is a third-line grinder adding value to the top line. How do you put a price on all that?
Kempny, the key acquisition at the trade deadline who ended up pairing perfectly with Carlson on the run to the Cup, would like to return. The Caps would like to have him. Carlson called him “pretty much textbook what you want to have on your team.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they went to three years to keep him.
If that were to happen, as The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan has pointed out, the defending Stanley Cup champion would have its top nine forwards (Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Brett Connolly) and its top four defensemen (Carlson, Kempny, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen) all intact in front of Holtby.
That’s remarkably little turnover. Worst case, at this point, is the numbers on Wilson and Kempny are a little high, and the Capitals can’t afford to keep playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly. It seems unlikely fourth-line center Jay Beagle, a fixture on the penalty kill, would get more than a one-year offer in Washington. If he can do better for himself elsewhere, well, then, you always will have the Cup, Beags. It’s even possible that the Caps would talk to Orpik about returning on a one-year, low-cost deal.
“It’s been busy, that’s for sure,” said Carlson, whose second child, a son named Rudy, was born in the midst of the playoff run. Seven weeks to have a kid, win a Cup and sign a contract.
Have we mentioned that the Caps still need a coach? At this point, if it’s not Todd Reirden, the top assistant to the departed Barry Trotz the past four years, then something has gone totally awry.
“A lot of great memories in a short amount of time,” Carlson said, “and looking forward to getting back to real life.”
Real life in sports is that the Cup was won last year. Next year is now. John Carlson is here because Brooks Orpik is not, and the business doesn’t stop even if you want the celebration to rage on.