Caps Still A Contender Despite Off Season Losses

July 03, 2017 | Ed Frankovic

For the past three years Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan built a squad to compete for the Cup with entry level or bridge contracts working in his favor. Unfortunately, despite having a complete roster this past season, which led to a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, they did not get the job done.

The Caps had the best team on paper this past spring, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, once again.

Bottom line, they couldn’t handle the pressure of the top seed and they under performed.

They choked.

There is no way around that, all you have to do is go back and watch the panic they displayed in game seven after the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.

But we’ve already dissected that loss and the disappointing end to the season, so it’s time to move on.

On this journey, however, MacLellan, while talking about what he called a two year championship window (2015-16 and 2016-17), also clearly pointed out that after those two years were up that roster changes were inevitable due to the salary cap.

As the Caps GM and anyone else that closely follows this team knew all along, they had 11 players from this past spring’s roster that were up for new contracts.

Eleven!

So there was NO WAY this team was going to be the same and they were going to lose many pieces, especially with the salary cap only going up to $75M after the NHLPA mistakenly didn’t take advantage of the full escalator clause. That error is now putting many veteran NHL players out of work and could force many of them to have to take major pay cuts just to stay in the league.

So with five unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents and the expansion draft guaranteeing one unprotected player was going to be taken by Vegas, the Caps GM had his work cut out for him.

MacLellan wisely took a strategy that focused on keeping the core of the team intact while letting players be exposed, unsigned, or traded where they had other options in the pipeline at those positions, such as on defense and at wing.

For the expansion draft he took the 7-3-1 protection approach which left them most vulnerable with either their 4th defensemen (Nate Schmidt) or the backup goalie (Philipp Grubauer). Leaving just those spots exposed was good asset management, especially when the Capitals knew they were losing one good player NO MATTER WHAT. That turned out to be the very popular, but still relatively inexperienced Schmidt. The 88 car, who is a very good skater and a positive player, was an undrafted free agent that had yet to play a full 82 game season and playoffs as a top four defensemen. The Capitals clearly liked Schmidt and openly stated the plan was for him to have the first shot at the fourth blue line slot this upcoming season, despite not having lengthy experience in that position at the NHL level.

Vegas GM George McPhee, who knew Schmidt well from his days with the Caps, opted to take Nate instead of Grubauer and the first roster hole became official.

Immediately after the expansion draft, the T.J. Oshie signing occurred allowing Washington to keep the 33 goal scorer and top line right wing at a bargain price of $5.75M for eight years.

This past weekend, with the start of free agency on July 1st, MacLellan focused his efforts on signing his restricted free agents. He inked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six year $30.6M deal, winger Brett Connolly to a two year $3M contract, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight year $62.4M monster extension. Over the same period unrestricted Washington free agents Karl Alzner signed with Montreal, Kevin Shattenkirk went, as expected, to the Rangers, and Justin Williams received a high paying two year deal ($9M) to return to Carolina.

The problem with the Caps signings was that the Orlov and Kuznetsov numbers came in a bit higher, especially in Kuznetsov’s case, than originally anyone expected. Both had leverage with the KHL, primarily Kuznetsov, and with Washington thin at center in the organization, Kuzy had even more extra leverage to get a big pay day. After all he could bolt to Russia, play in the Olympics and KHL this season, log another year overseas and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in the summer of 2019. With no clear top two centers in the Capitals organizational pipeline, MacLellan had no choice but to re-sign Kuznetsov, mostly on #92’s terms. At that point, with restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer still the only ones needing new deals, someone was going to have to be moved now or in the future to make the overall salary cap dollars work.

The NHL allows teams to carry up to 10% over the salary cap until final roster cut downs, but with so many veteran players on the market likely to be cheaper going forward due to the small salary cap increase (bad move again, NHLPA) it was clear that the trade market was going to be decreasing rapidly going forward. Add in the fact that most teams spent a lot of money to give big increases to their own players (see Connor McDavid and Carey Price) and you can see why there hasn’t been a big trade market since the NHL expansion draft.

Case in point, just last week Vegas GM George McPhee, who selected top four defensemen Marc Methot from Ottawa in the expansion draft, was only able to obtain from the Dallas Stars a 2020 2nd round pick and goalie Dylan Ferguson (a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft) for the blue liner. You read that correctly, it’s the year 2020 for that second round pick!

So with MacLellan needing to deal because the trade market was looking bleak going forward, the Caps GM had to pick a player to move for salary cap room while also finding a dance partner. Marcus Johansson, who carries a $4.583M cap number, was the most likely candidate, especially with Burakovsky and 2014 NHL first round pick Jakub Vrana in place and ready to move up the depth chart at wing. Luckily the New Jersey Devils, who had set aside money to try and lure Shattenkirk to their club on July 1st, but failed to do so despite likely offering more money than the Rangers, had remaining budget and needed to make a splash to improve their team and appease their fan base.

So on Sunday night, just after announcing the blockbuster Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded Jojo to the Devils and received 2018 2nd and 3rd round picks for the forward who just completed a career year in Washington with 24 goals and 58 points. 19 of those 58 points came on a first power play unit with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie, but Marcus did his share to earn those points by being the best on the team in man advantage zone entries (Kuznetsov will assume Johansson’s 1st PP spot going forward).

With the departure of the also very popular Johansson to go along with Schmidt and the three EXPECTED unrestricted free agent losses, some in the fan base and local and national media went nuts. This despite the fact that MacLellan had managed to pretty much ensure he’d re-sign six of the 11 players that needed new contracts for 2017-18 while also getting two draft picks for the departed Johansson to fill in holes that they had in the 2018 draft as a result of previously traded choices. Those draft picks should prove to be valuable going forward.

Following the Johansson trade, the fan response on Twitter and blog/Twitter posts of some in the local and national media were emotionally charged and a major overreaction in a negative sense. It seems that many conveniently forgot the facts, or chose to ignore them: the Caps were going to lose good players this off-season and when prices went up in the restricted free agent market, it likely cost them one more that they did not originally expect or could reasonably prepare for given the expansion draft.

Suddenly MacLellan, who along with Coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of turning around a team that was an absolute train wreck just three years ago, had become the village idiot on Twitter for losing Schmidt and Johansson. But in reality they are two replaceable players in the grand scheme of things when you look at the Capitals organizational depth. They have young quality defensemen in the organization and at wing both Burakovksy and Vrana are ready to move up to fill in the gaps left by the departure of Jojo.

Overall, the expansion draft and the upward costs of the restricted free agents resulted in the loss of those two players in addition to their unrestricted free agents (although MacLellan did keep Oshie from the UFA pile). In my opinion, however, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other two players from the 7-3-1 protected list and restricted free agent crew that make the dollars work while resulting in a better overall scenario for Washington going forward, especially given the other assets they currently have in the organization for replacements. Keep in mind that Vegas had the final say for the expansion draft, too, so the Caps did not get to choose who the Golden Knights selected. In addition, the idea of buying out Brooks Orpik was never a viable option and it would not have resulted in enough salary cap savings (only $3M) this season to allow all of the restricted free agent signings to occur (not to mention it would add wasted dollars to the salary cap for the next four seasons).

The Caps lost good players, but let’s get one thing straight in spite of everything that has transpired since the end of the season – the Capitals still have a VERY GOOD hockey team heading into 2017-18.

The projected line-up, based on input from the Caps GM during his Monday morning conference call, is now as follows:

Forwards:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie

Vrana – Kuznetsov – Burakovsky

Connolly – Eller – Wilson

TBD – Jay Beagle – TBD

Defense:

Orlov – Matt Niskanen

TBD – John Carlson

Orpik – TBD

Goalie:

Braden Holtby

Grubauer

The TBD’s at forward, right now, include the possibility of several Hershey players such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber, or recently acquired players such as Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso or Devante Smith-Pelly (signed from New Jersey on Monday on a two way contract for the league minimum, $650,000). On defense, the TBD’s appear to be two of Taylor Chorney, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, and Tyler Lewington.

Yes, this is no longer a 118 or 120 point roster, but it’s still a good one, likely in the 100 to 105 point range given the strong centers, skilled scoring wingers, and quality goaltenders. In my opinion, Vegas not taking Grubauer will be a blessing in disguise for the Caps in 2017-18 because goaltending is the most important position in hockey. There will also be a lot less pressure on this team, the media and many fans have already written them off.

Finally, keep in mind that the other playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division have lost players too, due to the salary cap. In Pittsburgh, the two time defending champs saw Marc Andre-Fleury (expansion draft), Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all depart. Without Fleury, who was a great insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray, the Capitals win that second round series this spring. The Rangers signed Shattenkirk, but they traded their number one center, Derek Stepan, backup goalie, Antti Raanta, and bought out defensemen Dan Girardi in the process of doing so. Columbus traded forward Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, so they are still looking for a number one center to fill their biggest need. Bottom line, nobody has a roster without holes.

It’s clear the fact that the salary cap is impacting all teams gets lost in the noise when some look and analyze the Capitals.

Yes, they’ve become “top heavy” as MacLellan called them, but they are still a playoff team, at a minimum.

Fans are fans, though, so the negativity is to be expected, that’s just the way it is in professional sports. But you’d expect more out of the local and national media. Keep in mind, though, that there are critics in parts of the media who are fans, at heart, of other Metropolitan Division teams (for example, the Devils and the Flyers, to name a couple), or flat out just don’t like the Capitals organization, there’s no denying that. Then there are others who are just not experienced enough when it comes to the workings of the NHL or are trying to make their mark in their craft to move up the sports media ladder via page clicks – so please take their criticism and bashing with a grain of salt. They have an agenda.

In full disclosure, I won’t walk away from the fact that I worked for this organization for 11 seasons either, but my track record of calling the team out when they make mistakes is well documented (see my 2014 end of season fire McPhee and Oates blog or simply check out the first few paragraphs above). If I thought MacLellan did a poor job of handling this off-season, I’d call him out. But given what he was up against and the undeniable rising salary costs for the top players in the game, I think he’s done the best job he possibly could to keep the Capitals a playoff team and, depending on how the new players that make the lineup this fall pan out, still a Stanley Cup contender.

It’s now up to the Capitals star players, starting with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby, to produce their best performances to help carry this club through the regular season and deep into the postseason.