Navigating the Salary Cap is probably one of the more important tasks for any general manager to have. Teams that can avert total cap chaos by walking the tightrope of inking players to deals that match their value (or compensate for future value without breaking the bank) remain successful. Those that don’t see struggles and front office changes.
PHR will look at every NHL team and give a thorough look at their cap situation heading into the 2017-18 season. This will focus more on those players who are integral parts of the roster versus those who may find themselves shuttling between the AHL and NHL. All cap figures are courtesy of CapFriendly.
Current Cap Hit: $70,910,107 (under the $75MM Upper Limit)
F Jakub Vrana ($863K, two years remaining)
This is where the Capitals have gotten themselves into trouble. Playing to win it all for the last couple of years has taken a toll on the depth of the team’s roster as they have chosen to go with veterans rather than allow youngsters to work their way into the lineup. Now that those contracts have become too much and the team has had to purge a number of free agents to stay under the cap, suddenly there is no depth to look to when they really need it.
Vrana, a former 2014 first-rounder returned to his team in Sweden after being drafted, but signed at the end of the 2015 season and joined the AHL Hershey Bears for three games, tallying five assists. He then added six points in 10 playoff games to establish himself as a top prospect. He scored 35 goals over the next two seasons in Hershey before being promoted to Washington last year. In 21 games, he tallied three goals and three assists and appears ready to step in to a bottom line role this year.
There are a number of minor leaguers that may be ready to step into the lineup such as defenders Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos, but none have seen any NHL action so far in their careers and there is no guarantee they will make the team out of training camp.
One Year Remaining, Non-Entry-Level
D John Carlson ($3.96MM, UFA)
F Lars Eller ($3.5MM, UFA)
F Tom Wilson ($2.0MM, RFA)
F Jay Beagle ($1.75MM, UFA)
G Philipp Grubauer ($1.5MM, RFA)
D Taylor Chorney ($800K, UFA)
F Devante Smith-Pelly ($650K, RFA)
The team has already lost several key defenseman in the past few months, including Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner. Could Carlson be next? While the team still has several veteran remaining on their roster, the team might be hard-pressed to avoid losing another veteran defenseman. Currently penciled in to play next to Orlov, at 27 years old, he would be a big loss if the team is unable to bring him back. However, the team will be paying Orpik, Niskanen and Orlov, more than $16MM combined next year. Will Washington find the money for Carlson?
Wilson is a player who the Capitals have high hopes for. The 23-year-old wing is a former 2012 first-rounder and has played four years with the team already, usually among the bottom-tier lines. However, with smoe of the team’s losses on offense, including Marcus Johanson and Justin Williams, this might be the year that Wilson breaks out. He is currently penciled in on the team’s second line and while he managed just seven goals a year ago, he did put up three playoff goals, showing he might be ready for an enhanced role. As a restricted free agent in 2018, the team will have some control on managing his salary.
Perhaps one of the more interesting decisions the team must make is what they plan to do with their backup goalie. Grubauer is considered to be one of the top-young goaltending prospects and while he was not chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, many feel that he could be a solid starting goaltender. However, with Holtby in front of him and locked up for three more years, that role would not likely be given to Grubauer in Washington. With minor leaguer Pheonix Copley looking ready to become the team’s backup and the presence of 2014 second-round prospect Vitek Vanacek and 2015 first-round prospect Ilya Samsonov, the team is loaded with goaltending talent. It seems far more likely the team will move Grubauer at some point, maybe at the trade deadline next season to add much needed depth.
Eller is at best a third line center, who averages between 10 and 15 goals per season. Barring a breakout year and he’s already 28 years old so that seems unlikely, Eller at $3.5MM might be too expensive to bring back in a year, but it’s too early to tell. Beagle did have a career year last year and should challenge Eller for that third-line center job with the loser likely to man the fourth line. Beagle, a faceoff specialist, scored 13 goals last year. If the team can bring them back on relatively cheap deals, they might be able to retain them.
Chorney was used primarily as an extra defenseman last year and only managed 18 games last season. With the team’s lack of depth after their top four, Washington may have no choice but to give Chorney a chance to win one of the last spots. The 30-year-old did manage to get into 55 games a year ago. Smith-Pelly, a quiet free agent acquisition this offseason, scored four goals in 55 games for New Jersey last year. Their futures will be decided by whether they make the team and how they perform.
Two Years Remaining
At 36 now and 38 years old when his contract expires, Orpik’s days could be numbered. While he’s never been a major offensive presence, his defense has helped anchor a Capitals team for several years since coming over from Pittsburgh, but his skills are already beginning to diminish and this deal is considered by many to be one of the worst deals the Caps have made over the last few years.
The player to keep an eye on is Burakovsky, who many believe might have a breakout season now that the team has lightened their forward depth. Burakovsky, a first-round pick in 2013, has 38 goals and 95 points in three seasons and is currently expected to move onto the team’s second line. In two years, he should be a restricted free agent and could ask for quite a contract if he can put together a couple of big seasons for the Capitals. Connolly is another player for the team to keep their eyes on. While the 25-year-old wing had a career year with Washington this year (15 goals, 23 assists), but the team will need to see what he does over the next two before awarding him another deal.
Three Years Remaining
Both players would seem like obvious candidates to be brought back in three years, but there are a lot of factors that determine that. Backstrom will be 33, while Holtby will be 30, so both should still be in their prime. Backstrom’s 23 goals and more importantly, 63 assists were critical to the Capitals success this last year, while Holtby is the cornerstone in goal. There is no guarantee that any youth will step in and supplant them although the Capitals are strong in goaltending depth.
Four Or More Years Remaining
F Alex Ovechkin ($9.54MM through 2020-21)
F Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8MM through 2024-25)
F T.J. Oshie ($5.75MM through 2024-25)
D Matt Niskanen ($5.75MM through 2020-21)
D Dmitry Orlov ($5.1MM through 2022-23)
The Capitals have a great core and the team has obviously planned to put most of their money and years towards Kuznetsov, Oshie and Orlov as well as Ovechkin and Niskanen.
The team’s success has revolved around Ovechkin since the day he was drafted and little will change. He is locked up for another four seasons and no one would be surprised if they brought him back after that at age 35. Even though there was some trade chatter about moving on from their star, Washington will likely do everything it can over the next four years to compete for a championship. However, Ovechkin didn’t fare as well this year. After three 50-goal seasons, the 31-year-old wing dropped to a 33-goal season. Still great, but not his usual standard. Can he take his game back to that previous level?
The team then inked three of their stars to long-term deals this offseason. Kuznetsov is just 25 and should be solid for years, but was he worth $7.8MM per season? That’s a lot of money for good, but not great production. He suffered a down year compared to his 2015-16 season, but he’s coming off a 19 goal, 40 assist season, the Capitals have to hope he can take his game to the next level and fill in the offense they will lose this year. Otherwise that’s a lot of money spent on an average center.
Orlov also was extended this offseason. The 26-year-old defenseman signed a six-year, $30.6MM deal to remain with Washington. He finished the season with six goals and 33 points and may be ready to take over the defensive reigns. Many people thought Oshie would leave during free agency due to the Capitals’ cap issues, but the team found a way to keep the 30-year-old forward, signing him to an eight-year extension at $5.75MM. Whether he will be worth that much in his late 30s is unknown, but his 33 goals last year was a career high.
Niskanen remains solid on defense and will be needed even more with some of the offensive losses. The 30-year-old defenseman put up another solid season, scoring five goals and 34 assists for 39 points.
Best Value: Backstrom
Worst Value: Kuznetsov
The Capitals are a well-run franchise that has done an excellent job of spending money on their core of stars, while drafting well enough to have talent ready to go. They may have overreached themselves this past year as they lost quite a bit of talent and have several gaping holes on defense, but the team seems to have put together a great team that just has not been able to get themselves to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ovechkin still has a number of years left, so expect the Capitals to be aggressive and make moves to add more scoring and more defense over the next year or two. Don’t be shocked to see a goaltender get moved to make room for their prospects, but also to find new talent they can plug into their lineup.