Going in, we knew this offseason would be unpleasant. With a bunch of restricted free agents needing fresh contracts, the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights, and several important outgoing free agents, a feeling of disappointment was inevitable for the Washington Capitals. We knew the 2017-18 team would not and could not measure up to the 2016-17 model. The front office knew it too, and, led by general manager Brian MacLellan, they formulated a plan to mitigate the mess.
Whatever that plan was, it did not work. The offseason has been a disaster.
We began with the expansion draft. The Caps made no trades, leaving goalie Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Nate Schmidt (both of whom are pending RFAs) exposed.
If the Capitals, like many others, including us, assumed Vegas would select Grubauer in an attempt to control the goalie market, they were wrong. Golden Knights GM George McPhee instead chose Nate Schmidt, the player he personally signed undrafted in 2013. The Caps reportedly found Vegas’ asking price to select another player too high. As a result the Caps’ projected defense went from this:
Orlov – Niskanen
Schmidt – Carlson
Orpik – ???
Orlov – Niskanen
Orpik – Carlson
??? – ???
In addition to Brooks Orpik likely getting a surprise promotion back to second pair minutes at age 37, the Caps now had two defensive spots to fill – but four RFAs to re-sign first.
Except first they extended UFA TJ Oshie to an eight-year contract, which will bring him up to age 38. Oshie took a cut in annual salary (plus bonuses) for all that term, but his contract will be on the books for the better part of a decade. It puts the team’s top line salary-cap value north of $22 million – or about 30 percent of the total salary cap.
That deal left the team with little spare change to sign all of their restricted free agents and staff up depth. The team pushed forward nonetheless, locking up Dmitry Orlov to a six-year deal for just over $5 million per year, a good price for a contract that will consume a few of Orlov’s UFA years.
The Caps followed that moved with another smart deal: extending forward Brett Connolly for two more seasons at an affordable price. Though Connolly was scratched by head coach Barry Trotz in the playoffs, he scored 15 goals on a very good third line during the regular season.
Those two good contracts did not form a trend. On Sunday the Capitals extended Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to a blockbuster eight-year deal for an average value of $7.8 million per year – a statement that the team believes Kuznetsov is a top-tier offensive talent and will remain so through the mid-2020s.
That $7.8 million is an overpay on Kuznetsov by more than a million dollars, though perhaps it was needed to keep the player in the states and to sate his countryman and captain, Alex Ovechkin. Regardless, the deal made it impossible for the team to fill out its roster under the salary cap, and that’s why the other shoe dropped.
The Capitals traded forward Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for two mid-round 2018 draft picks. It was a lopsided deal for sure, a salary dump of a well-developed first rounder from a desperate team to a division competitor in exchange for two outside chances at a future full-time NHLer. Johansson’s $4.6 million cap hit is a fair price, but Johansson was an important role player for Washington. He was the team’s best zone-entry player, vital to their power play, and part of a very good shutdown line in the postseason. It was a bad deal for Washington, but a necessary one given their circumstance.
The Caps now have a little over $9 million left under the cap. With that sum they’ll have to sign forward Andre Burakovsky (likely between $3 and 4 million) and goalie Philipp Grubauer, as well as fill the gaps on their defense, plus a new gap on the left wing. Even with the emergency release valve from the Johansson deal, the Caps will still be challenged to ice a full roster next season unless they use near-league-minimum call-ups from Hershey exclusively, such as defenseman Christian Djoos.
So that’s where we are, and here’s where we state the obvious: The Caps did this to themselves.
General manager Brian MacLellan is known for calling his shots. He called one early: the team would not buy out veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million contract to get $3 million in savings over the next two years. Instead, in addition to a lean roster, Orpik’s vanishing role will likely have to grow next season.
An Orpik buyout would also have depleted the blue line, but to a far lesser degree than losing Nate Schmidt has – and it would have added cap flexibility in the process. That isn’t to say that it was one or the other, though MacLellan clearly misjudged the goalie market and either Vegas’ interest in Nate Schmidt – or his own team’s evaluation of the Minnesota-born defenseman.
The team was apparently unprepared for losing Schmidt and the ripple effect it would create when combined with TJ Oshie’s big deal – another failure of talent evaluation considering the unsustainable circumstances that led to Oshie’s 33 goals last season and his projected diminishment – not just five years out, but as early as this fall.
Even if the team were still committed to signing Oshie, a more robust gameplan for the offseason would have had one of several contingencies in place before the draft, possibly including:
Instead, MacLellan’s Caps lost a young, mobile, top-four defenseman and a utility forward vital to special teams for nothing, while locking the roster construction into top heaviness for nearly ten years – or until the next ownership-forced lockout. They’ve overpaid for two forwards (in term for one and salary for the other) while simultaneously depleting their defensive corps. They’ve lost their best breakout defenseman and best neutral zone forward.
And they still haven’t signed Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer. And they still haven’t made a move to succeed or extend lame-duck head coach Barry Trotz. (Also: what’s going to happen with goalie coach Mitch Korn?)
Up until one month ago, Brian MacLellan’s tenure as general manager had been mostly flawless. Though it cost many draft picks this past year and beyond, the roster he assembled for 2016-17 was the best in the history of the franchise, and his team has won the regular-season title in consecutive seasons. But through a series of blunders, including flawed player evaluation and negotiation failures, he’s put the Capitals in a dangerous spot. Once they can assemble a full roster, they’ll be older, slower, less balanced, and less in control of the puck for years to come.
Headline photo: Chris Gordon
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