WASHINGTON — The two-year window slammed shut on the Capitals and now the re-tooling begins.
But just how crazy will general manager Brian MacLellan get this offseason? Few executives in any sport are as transparent with their plans as MacLellan, who has yet to speak with reporters since the season ended with another heartbreaking Game 7 loss at home in the second round.
There’s a lot of work to do. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner are all unrestricted free agents. The Caps have three key restricted free agents (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and defenseman Dmitry Orlov). Alex Ovechkin is getting older. There are no top-tier prospects on the horizon anymore – though Washington has some players at AHL Hershey who could probably handle third or fourth-line roles.
But as we’ve seen this postseason – and for years, really – the best regular-season team almost never wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Put your team in position, make the playoffs without killing yourself and hope for decent matchups and some guys to play over their heads. Nashville just made the Stanley Cup final and was the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Washington’s goal now should be to re-construct a team that can reach 100 points the next few seasons, make the playoffs and take another two or three shots during the Ovechkin era. If it doesn’t work out? Then start over. But it’s not time for a complete gutting quite yet. Here are five things the Caps could do this offseason to keep their championship window open for just a little while longer.
Trade Alex Ovechkin?
No. And you don’t take the “C” off his jersey, either. That’s reactionary and pointless, and who cares if the Sharks did it to Joe Thornton and it kind of worked. Few players are as unsuited to that kind of demotion as Ovechkin.
Look – the Caps already won. They are the rare NHL team that handed out a 13-year (!!!) contract when that was the cool thing to do and came through just fine. Ovechkin has scored 50 goals five times since signing that mega-deal in 2008. His cap hit is still fourth in the league ($9.5 million). His overall salary is ninth ($10 million). Washington signed almost the perfect contract. It locked up a star to a long-term deal that is now down to four years and probably won’t turn into a total albatross. Ovechkin scored 33 goals in 2016-17 despite having two minutes shaved off his ice time every night.
He’s absolutely transitioning to a different phase of his career. Fewer minutes, 30-goal seasons instead of 50, 60-point years instead of 80, 300-shot campaigns instead of 400. That’s the reality of aging. The salary is high, but not crippling if Ovechkin can at least give you 30-30-60 and anchor a top-tier power play. But there’s only four years to go here. Washington might as well re-tool around Ovechkin, understanding even an elite winger impacts a game only so much, and let him ride off into the sunset in a few years with 700 goals and a lifetime of memories.
Sign Kuznetsov and Orlov
Okay – this could get tricky for these two restricted free agents. Already, defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s agent is floating rumors that he’s in talks with CSKA, a legendary KHL club. We also have center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s comments to ESPN’s Craig Custance last summer that he would simply head back to Russia if he ever felt the Caps were trying to fleece him in RFA negotiations. Those were theoretical comments at the time. Now? Sure, going home to Russia could just be a leverage play. But that still means Washington will have to shell out more cash to keep two of its key young players and the cap squeeze is already tight.
And more RFAs
Oh – and winger Andre Burakovsky and defenseman Nate Schmidt are RFAs, too. They need raises, especially since both figure to play bigger roles given expected free agent defections (forward Justin Williams, defenseman Karl Alzner). Schmidt, of course, could be in danger during the expansion draft. Everyone expects backup goalie Philipp Grubauer to be Las Vegas GM George McPhee’s target. Each team can only lose one player. But a young defenseman who can skate like Schmidt (25) might fit the bill for the Golden Knights. Burakovsky could probably slide onto the top line at right wing next to Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson.
Buy out Brooks Orpik
Not because you necessarily want to. But everyone knew when that five-year contract was signed, Orpik would struggle on the back end. And there were signs of his play slipping in 2016-17 at age 36. A buyout would save $3 million that could go toward re-signing T.J. Oshie or giving those RFAs raises. It’s not ideal. You need to somehow stitch together a third pairing and there’s no obvious choice in the organization. Journeyman Taylor Chorney – with the Caps the past two seasons – and prospect Madison Bowey as the third pair? There are no perfect options here. Bowey might not be ready. Chorney might not be a full-time player. Christian Djoos, a seventh-round pick in 2012, has now played two full seasons at AHL Hershey and had 58 points this past year. He’s still just 22, but generally not considered a top prospect by scouts and executives in other organizations. Still, he probably deserves a chance as a third-pair option, too.
Cheap options – and trade Holtby?
Even if all of these things work out – Kuznetsov, Orlov and Burakovsky sign, Schmidt stays, Oshie is squeezed under the cap – the Caps still need some younger players to fill in on the third and fourth lines. There’s not really any money left to go after free agents unless you either let Oshie leave, too, or trade someone like goalie Braden Holtby ($6.1 million cap hit) and replace him with the cheaper Grubauer. That actually isn’t all that crazy given you could probably get an NHL-ready prospect back and a third or fourth-line winger for a Vezina Trophy winner like Holtby who has three years left on his contract at a reasonable price. Teams get nuts when they don’t have options in goal. Here’s looking at you, Calgary, Winnipeg and maybe Buffalo.
If you’re not willing to do that, then players like Riley Barber (13 goals, 14 assists in 39 games), Chandler Stephenson (10 goals, 28 assists) and Jakub Vrana (19 goals, 17 assists) will all have a shot at an NHL roster spot to fill out third-line left wing and both fourth-line winger spots. Again, that’s not ideal. Vrana was being scratched during Hershey’s playoff run and is still just 21. The other two are 23 and have a combined seven NHL games between them. Expect a mix of journeymen vets on league-minimum contracts to fill out the competition for those spots. The depth won’t be as good as it has been, but the Caps are just trying to make the playoffs here, not win another Presidents’ Trophy. They’ve had enough of that. Maybe lowered expectations will help them finally break through on a long playoff run. Maybe.
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