Like Peter wrote on Sunday, we knew this offseason was going to be full of tough choices for the Caps. They weren’t going to be able to bring back the entire 2016-17 team, and some of the decisions were going to hurt. But, the unsettling part of the offseason so far isn’t the decisions that have hurt – but the decisions that make little sense. It seems as if the Caps had limited foresight; they made choices independently, one at a time, without considering the ripple effect each would have on the next.
On Monday, Brian MacLellan spoke to the media. It was the general manager’s chance to explain his thought process for navigating the last month of roster activity. But MacLellan’s explanation only seemed to confirm what we had suspected: the team had tunnel vision, leaving themselves unprepared for the expansion draft, free-agent negotiations, and the domino effect one would have on the other.
The most puzzling part of the press conference was MacLellan’s explanation for how the Caps ended up in a situation where they had to trade Marcus Johansson for cap relief.
“[Johansson] was making the money we needed to shed in order to sign Kuznetsov”, MacLellan said, when asked about the deal. “Do we let Kuznetsov walk to Russia and become a UFA in two years or do we trade Marcus?”
This is a false choice if I’ve ever seen one. MacLellan makes it sound as if the Caps were making their merry way through the offseason, checking off their to-do list, and then, suddenly, when they signed Evgeny Kuznetsov, someone in the room went, “oh boy, did anyone else notice we’re in cap trouble? We’ve got to move out over $4 million in salary, so I guess we need to deal Marcus.”
If the Caps didn’t know the ballpark salaries they’d be handing out to the RFAs two or three weeks ago, when they could have steered this offseason in a different direction, that is a failure of planning by management.
With a little foresight, the Capitals would have had other choices in which they wouldn’t end up losing both Johansson and Nate Schmidt for what amounts to peanuts (second and third round picks are basically lottery tickets with a minimal chance of becoming an NHL regular).
These options include:
In this scenario, the Caps would have protected Nick Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Braden Holtby, exposing Johansson. Losing Johansson for nothing is less than ideal, but it’s preferable to losing Johansson and Schmidt for a second and third round pick. Johansson is gone in either scenario, so this plan boils down to the Caps losing Schmidt, a player penciled into their top four before he was selected, for two draft picks that have a small chance of ever impacting this roster.
There’s also the possibility in this scenario that a player like Lars Eller would have been selected by Vegas. That would have left a hole on the third line, but I’d argue that a hole at third line center is easier to fill than a hole on the second defensive pair. Perhaps Jay Beagle would have started the season as the third line center, which is probably a better outcome than a rookie starting the season on the Caps second defensive pair. Plus, the cherry on top here is that by moving out Eller’s $3.5 million cap hit, the Caps would likely have been able to keep Johansson.
Regardless, losing only Johansson, Eller, or a lesser player for nothing instead of Johansson and Schmidt for two draft picks would have been the preferable outcome.
MacLellan said he sees Orpik as a mentor for all the young Caps defenders coming up in the next two seasons. MacLellan also said, correctly, that Orpik performed well on the third pair last season (although it remains to be seen how much of the credit for that belongs to Schmidt). This is fine, but is a third pair defender/mentor really worth $5.5 million of cap space? Is he worth that cap space if it means losing Johansson? I think the answer here is an obvious no, but MacLellan disagrees.
“I didn’t want to buy out on our salary cap going out four years. I didn’t think it made sense for us,” MacLellan said.
This is not how buyouts work.
Orpik’s contract would not count against the cap for the next four seasons. Instead, the Caps would get a partial savings for two seasons followed by a small cap penalty for two seasons. Per Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a buyout on Orpik would do the following to the Caps’ salary cap versus keeping Orpik on the roster:
So, it’s a little confusing that MacLellan said four years was too long of a time to take a cap penalty, when really the cap penalty is only for two seasons. It is true that the Caps would still carry $2.5 million or Orpik’s salary the next two seasons, and a thin defensive corps would be even thinner. But I’d prefer this outcome over losing a second line winger and key part of the power play for essentially nothing.
I realize this won’t be a popular opinion around here. But if the choice is between Oshie’s age 31-38 seasons for $5.75 million per season or Johansson’s age 27 and 28 seasons for $4.58 million per season – plus either the chance to possibility re-sign him or cap flexibility after that – I’d take the latter without blinking.
Oshie will probably still be a productive player for a few seasons, but he’s very unlikely to be as productive as he was last season. And, even if Oshie does continue to score goals at a career-high rate, his play is all but certain to decline over the course of the deal to the point where his contract will be an albatross in the final seasons.
The choice here is between Johansson, about $1.2 million in extra cap space the next two seasons, and up to $5.75 million in extra cap flexibility over the following six seasons versus Oshie. Again, I think the Caps made the wrong call.
The Caps were destined to return in 2017-18 with a weaker roster, but it didn’t have to be this weak. They did not have to lose Schmidt and Johansson for little in return while hoping that rookies could adequately fill the holes on their second line and second defense pair. This lack of foresight left the roster weaker than it needed to be next season, and it has left the team with less cap flexibility for the seasons beyond that. If the front office had a better plan, this offseason could have been much less painful.
Headline image: Patrick Smith
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