Capitals offseason preview

The tumultuous time in the Toronto bubble has to come to an end for the Capitals after being brushed aside by the New York Islanders in five games. The team walks away with a lot of questions and concerns as it now prepares for the 2020-21 season trying to keep the championship window open.

Here are the biggest things that will need to be addressed during the offseason:

Coaching

With the Capitals facing their former coach in the first round, comparisons were naturally going to be made. While Barry Trotz’s Islanders looked prepared for an extended stay in the bubble, Todd Reirden’s Capitals looked unorganized and unmotivated. Reirden had the impossible task of taking over a Stanley Cup champion, but after two first-round exits in a row, it’s clear the team needs to step in a different direction.

Some will wish the Caps never let Trotz leave, and while I personally would have liked to see him stick around, I don’t really blame Trotz for leaving or the Caps organization for not doing more to have him stay. Trotz did sign a deal where an extension kicked in if he won the Cup, and while it makes sense for him to want to restructure a better deal than what was previously agreed upon, that doesn’t mean the Caps were obligated to match it.

After all, a coach’s lifetime is often short with one team, and Trotz had already lasted four years. The coach was asking for five more years as opposed to the two years on his extension. There were multiple calls for his job in the season leading up to the Cup, and few coaches last over nine years on one team to begin with, so the organization didn’t want to commit that much to a coach who they may have moved on from after two or three more years.

Now on the same coin, owner Ted Leonsis paid Scott Brooks $35 million a year to coach the Wizards, and that has gone no where (although Brooks may not be entirely to blame for that). Still, it’s not difficult to see where priorities lie for Monumental Sports in that sense, but that’s an entirely different topic.

As for the Trotz/Capitals separation, to me, that part isn’t the issue; it’s who they replaced Trotz with that is. In the Alex Ovechkin era, Trotz was the only non-rookie head coach that the team has hired, as the organization has often opted for the less expensive yet less experienced head coach in lieu of veteran coaching talent that could get the best out of the roster.

I can see the appeal of making an in-house hire for a Stanley Cup champion, trying to keep some semblance of the same culture that just won, but after two seasons, it’s clear Reirden just isn’t getting enough out of this team in the postseason. Should the team move on from Reirden (which seems like a given, but in this COVID-influenced economy, may not happen), the team should really invest in a veteran coach.

A couple of big names on the market include Gerard Gallant and Peter Laviolette. Gallant would be an ironic hire, as he coached against the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final as the Vegas Golden Knights’ first head coach in 2018. He was fired in January after a four-game losing streak despite Vegas still having a decent record.

Laviolette, meanwhile, was fired from the Nashville Predators just over a week before Gallant. He had replaced Trotz in Nashville and led the Preds to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has since taken over as head coach for the U.S. National Team. Will Leonsis open his pockets for a coach with a recent history of playoff success, or will it be more of the same story? The answer will affect how long the championship window will remain open, if it hasn’t already closed.

Outgoing free agents

On the main roster, the Caps have four unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents. With a flat cap for the next several years, cap-strapped teams like Washington will suffer. It’s seemed like the end of the road for Braden Holtby for awhile now. With Ilya Samsonov waiting in the wings and the 2021 Expansion Draft on the horizon, there are just too many factors suggesting Holtby will not be re-signed.

We won’t know for sure until free agency passes, but that’s where all signs point. Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and Ilya Kovalchuk are the remaining UFAs; Gudas and Kovalchuk are good as gone, as Gudas’ $2.3 million that come free will be useful in free agency, and the Kovalchuk experiment can be filed away as a failure. The team will have to pay him more than the slashed rate they’ve paid him since the deadline, and he just hasn’t played well enough in Washington to warrant a new deal here.

Dillon looks like the only UFA that could possibly be re-signed, as there is mutual interest between the two sides, although it will likely require a raise from his current $1.6 million salary.

As for the RFAs, Travis Boyd was making just $800,000 this year while Jonas Siegenthaler has reached the end of his entry-level deal. Both are retainable financially, but it will depend on how the team wants to shape its lineup next year. Siegenthaler has proven a solid third-pair defenseman, but with other D-men in their system on the rise, will there still be a spot for him?

Potential incoming free agents

As for potential incoming free agents, it would be wise for the Caps to sign a veteran goaltender on a short-term deal to serve as a capable backup for Samsonov. The team could decide to roll with Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, as the latter served as the team’s backup in the playoffs, but going into the season with just 26 games of experience between both goaltenders is risky.

Samsonov looked great this year but still needs to prove long-term reliability. There’s no doubt he can be the number one netminder going forward, but just in case, a capable veteran to fall back on would be much better for the team.

There aren’t too many attractive options on the market, as it’s mostly made up of declining 35-plus-year-olds or a handful of slightly younger guys that will command a larger role and more money than the Caps can afford to give them. As for the older options, it’s nice to have experience in the crease, but if they’re gonna be a bigger liability than an inexperienced Vanecek would be (and for a larger salary), then it’s not worth the investment. Especially if Vanecek proves to be a suitable NHL backup.

Of the select few that could be fitting options, there’s Thomas Greiss and Brian Elliott. Both are older than 34 and would require anywhere between $2-4 million cap hits (likely on lower side for Elliott).

Greiss just eliminated the Capitals, although he did so on the bench for the New York Islanders. Semyon Varlamov has full control of the starting job on the Island, making Greiss expendable. With Varlamov signed through 2023-24, a much younger (and more promising/less expensive) Ilya Sorokin waiting in line and cap space needed to re-sign Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, it would make sense for the Isles to move on from Greiss.

After posting a 2.74 goals against average and .913 save percentage in 31 games this past season, Greiss would be a solid veteran backup for Samsonov in the short-term. For me, he’s the ideal option in free agency.

Elliott, meanwhile, may be re-signed by Philadelphia as the backup for rising star Carter Hart, but in case the Flyers let him walk, he could be an option for Washington. His numbers are declining, as he posted a 2.87 GAA and .899 save percentage, but if Washington sees him as a capable option and Philadelphia doesn’t retain him, he’ll be a name to watch.

Perhaps they’ll opt for another free agent netminder, but the rest of the options seem either overqualified to be a backup or just not worth signing to play over Vanecek. The options are slim, so it’s crucial that Samsonov is prepared to be a number one goalie.

As for the team’s skaters, there won’t be much cap space to work with, and with most players in the lineup signed for the next two or three years at a minimum, there likely won’t be any big splashes unless it comes through a trade.

In-house Replacements

The Capitals have one of the worst prospect pools in the league; that’s just the price you pay when trying to contend for a championship for over a decade. Still, there are several exciting young prospects that should at least make their first NHL appearance next season even if they’re not on the team full-time.

With Gudas and potentially Dillon and/or Siegenthaler departing this year, Martin Fehervary is the most obvious candidate to be promoted to a full-time role. He is the most NHL-ready and he had limited appearances in the postseason this year.

Alexander Alexeyev is another player to watch next season, as the 2018 first-rounder could see some time at the NHL level next year, especially if he performs well in preseason camp. Both Fehervary and Alexeyev could be the future of the defensive unit, so it would be nice to see what we have in each of them.

For forwards, there won’t be too many openings. With the exception of Ovechkin, Nic Dowd and Jakub Vrana, every forward is signed through 2023 or later. A trade could change that, but for now nearly every spot is accounted for. Kovalchuk will likely depart this offseason, opening a third line spot, and RFA Boyd is a reserve forward, so him staying or leaving won’t have any real impact on the everyday lineup.

Brian Pinho received playing time at center during the playoffs after Nicklas Backstrom’s injury, but it was just 8:11 Time On Ice in Game 3 and 3:28 in Game 4. Reirden clearly didn’t trust him to handle a larger role, and I wouldn’t expect Pinho to crack into a full-time role next season. He’s also an RFA, so it remains to be seen whether the team will re-sign him to another minor league deal.

Daniel Sprong was acquired at the trade deadline, and if the Caps decide to re-sign the restricted free agent, he could be a candidate to fill in somewhere on the bottom six at one point or another. Sprong played 63 NHL games in 2018-19 between Pittsburgh and Anaheim. A poor 2019 preseason camp resulted in his demotion to the AHL.

Sprong was never called on to shake things up in the playoffs this year, but if he can continue to play well in the AHL and the Caps find themselves needing someone else to step in early in the season, Sprong would be a prime candidate within the Capitals’ minor league system.

Of course the most exciting prospect in the organization is 2019 first-rounder Connor McMichael, who had an incredible season with the OHL’s London Knights and was on the Capitals’ expanded postseason roster this year. Fans will be clamoring to see McMichael with the parent club, but as a potential franchise cornerstone, he shouldn’t be rushed into full-time action.

That said, I would expect him to make his NHL debut at some point next season, and if he happens to be ready to play a full-time role, then great. The average age of the forward group this year was about 30 years old, so some added youth in the lineup would be a welcome sight.

Way-too-early, pre-free agency lines

Without too many major changes expected this offseason, next year’s lines shouldn’t look too different than how it did this year. If the series against the Islanders gives any preview of what the scoring depth will be like next year, then there is plenty cause for concern.

That said, two longer-term signings that I’ve been critical of will have a chance to build on a solid postseason performance. Richard Panik and Nick Jensen each have three years remaining on their contracts, and while Panik underperformed on the third line during the regular season, and Jensen played more like a third-pair defenseman than the second-pair blue liner he was paid to be, they were two of the team’s better players in the postseason.

Despite not scoring, I felt Panik played fairly well, at least relative to the rest of his teammates, many of whom underperformed. He was even promoted back to the third line by the end of the series. Assuming Kovalchuk is gone, I’d expect Panik to be on the third line, where he will hopefully play well enough to stick.

Jensen, meanwhile, was arguably the team’s best defenseman in the playoffs. John Carlson was playing on one leg, and was on the wrong side of too many Islander goals, meanwhile Jensen was constantly making goal-saving stops and finally looked comfortable in the Caps’ system. Then again, the defensive system didn’t look like one the team should stick with, but he looked comfortable nonetheless.

Can Jensen be trusted to hold down the second-pair right shot position in the long run? It would make things a lot easier if he did. In any case, here is my way-too-early, pre-free agency prediction of what the lines will look like next season:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – TJ Oshie

Richard Panik – Lars Eller – [Free Agent]

Carl Hagelin – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway

Travis Boyd/[Free Agent]/[Hershey Call-up]

Defense

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Nick Jensen

Jonas Siegenthaler – Martin Fehervary

Michal Kempny

Goaltenders

Ilya Samsonov

Vitek Vanecek/[Free Agent]

I would much prefer to see Carl Hagelin on the fourth line next year. He is still a fast and strong skater, and does well on the penalty kill, but offers so little offensively these days that he’d be much better-suited in a fourth line role. Ideally, a free agent (or even Sprong) will be able to step in on the third line, as Panik will likely replace Kovalchuk on the other wing. It’s not a given that Hagelin will go down to the fourth line, but I’ll predict GM Brian MacLellan will do what’s necessary to give the third line a competent replacement on the wing.

Boyd would probably return as the extra forward, but if he is not re-signed, it would either be a one-year signing that MacLellan likes to add on to round out the bottom of the lineup year-to-year, or someone ready to be called up from Hershey. Pinho and Sprong are both RFAs, but they seem like top candidates if retained. Otherwise, we could see Beck Malenstyn or Garrett Pilon. It won’t be McMichael; if he’s on the main roster, it’ll be because he’s playing. They won’t mess with his development by carrying him as a healthy scratch every night.

On the blue line, Fehervary is naturally a left shot, but he did play on the right for most of the postseason. Michal Kempny hasn’t looked the same since his quad injury that kept him out to start the 2019-20 season, and he fell out of favor by the end of the postseason. If either Dillon or Siegenthaler departs, he will replace one of them in the top six, unless Alexeyev surpasses him instead.

Best-case scenario that definitely won’t happen because it would require way too many things to fall into place lines

If I had to come up with a dream lineup, where everyone involved would play to the best of their potential, it would have the depth required to make it back to the Cup. This isn’t a prediction, this is just me letting my imagination run wild, so take it in, and bear with me:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Evgeny Kuznetsov

Jakub Vrana – [Free Agent]/Connor McMichael – Tom Wilson

Richard Panik – Lars Eller – TJ Oshie

Carl Hagelin – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway

Daniel Sprong/[Free Agent]

Defense

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Martin Fehervary

Jonas Siegenthaler – Nick Jensen

Alex Alexeyev

Goaltenders

Ilya Samsonov

Vitek Vanecek/[Free Agent]

The most striking detail here is moving Evgeny Kuznetsov to the wing. This isn’t an original idea. Given Kuznetsov’s relative lack of effort on defense and poor numbers on the face-off, more and more are believing Kuznetsov would be better served playing on the wing so he wouldn’t be relied on as much in the two-way game. He has actually played on the wing in the past.

Thing is, you don’t make this move unless you find someone competent enough to replace him at center. Backstrom could easily slide in as first-line center, but I’m not sure moving Kuznetsov to the wing is worth playing Eller as second-line center all the time. Eller is fantastic as the 3C, and is capable of filling in on the second line for stretches, as he did this postseason, but it’s not worth hurting the center depth just to maybe improve a single player’s overall production. And this isn’t even taking chemistry into account.

But what if you did find a suitable replacement? Be it the prodigal son of the Capitals’ organization in McMichael or a capable free agent? I would bet against McMichael being ready to play a top six center role next season, so that one is practically a non-starter. As for the free agent market, there aren’t too many top six centers available that the Caps could afford, if any.

Suspending disbelief and assuming McMichael could slot in as the 2C, that would allow Kuzy to move over to wing on the first line, bumping Tom Wilson and TJ Oshie down to the second and third line, respectively. Wilson has already proven a productive top line winger, so teaming up with Vrana and McMichael on the second line would give Washington a ton of youth in the top six, and a look at what could become its future top line.

Oshie is still productive offensively, and is always aggressive on the forecheck, giving 110 percent on seemingly every shift. However Oshie will turn 34 next season, and all that wear-and-tear will start to catch up to him.

Allowing Oshie to play on the third line alongside Eller (whom he has chemistry with already) would not only bring much-needed scoring depth to the third line, but also help preserve Oshie’s talent and energy by requiring fewer minutes per game out of him. By playing with Oshie instead of Hagelin, I’d expect both Eller’s and Panik’s numbers to improve.

Speaking of Hagelin, this would allow for him to comfortably play on the fourth line with incumbents Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. He wouldn’t be relied on as much for offensive production, but he could still use his speed and strength to wear down opponents.

On defense, I have the team trading away Kempny’s contract and bringing up Alexeyev as the extra defenseman to create cap space (which would presumably go to the new second-line center, or perhaps a backup goaltender for Samsonov). I still have Fehervary playing on the right, except on the second pair with Orlov, as I hope Fehervary will be able to play at a top-four level if Jensen can’t carry over his play in the bubble.

If those forward lines clicked and the defense was fully healthy and improved with the full-time additions of Fehervary and Alexeyev, this team would be right back in contention. Unfortunately, I don’t see this being the case. It would take the addition of a truly elite center to allow for the possibility of moving Kuznetsov to the wing, which would require more cap space than the team will have. McMichael just won’t be at that level yet. Maybe they could pull this off in 2021-22, but that won’t happen this year.

This offseason will be an important one for the immediate future of the franchise, so let’s hope MacLellan & Co. make the correct moves.

Cover Photo Credit: Russian Machine Never Breaks

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