With the offseason in full swing aside from the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final, it’s time to examine what each squad will need to accomplish over the coming months. Next up is a look at the Capitals.
It was a tough season on the injury front for Washington with three of their top forwards missing at least 35 games. Despite that, the Capitals remained a top-ten offensive team and were able to get to the playoffs although they were ousted in the first round by Florida. With an aging core, GM Brian MacLellan will have some work to do to keep this group in the playoff hunt as a rebuild isn’t likely in the cards.
Add Short-Term Offensive Talent
The recent news that Nicklas Backstrom has undergone hip resurfacing surgery should open up some LTIR flexibility for Washington. While no firm timetable for a return has been announced, of the handful of players who have had the surgery, the quickest recovery was after an entire season. Accordingly, MacLellan should be comfortable using a good chunk of his $9.2MM AAV on a replacement. But as this hasn’t been termed a career-ending procedure (though it put an end to Ryan Kesler‘s career), the Capitals will be limited in terms of what they can do to replace him.
Since the potential exists for Backstrom to play down the road, Washington should be limiting themselves to looking to either acquire a player on an expiring contract or signing a free agent to a one-year deal. In doing so, they’ll be able to free up the cap space to integrate Backstrom back for 2023-24 without any issue and if he can’t return, then they’ll have the flexibility to spend next summer.
Of course, Backstrom’s injury leaves a big hole down the middle and let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of impact centers available on one-year contracts so the Capitals may need to get creative here. Lars Eller can play in the top six in a pinch but isn’t an ideal fit there for a long stretch, nor is Nic Dowd. TJ Oshie has shifted down the middle to cover for short-term injuries but asking him to do that for a full season would be tough and it’s not as if he’s consistently healthy either. Spending at least part of Backstrom’s money on help at center will be a must for MacLellan.
You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned Tom Wilson here who will be on LTIR as well to start the year. However, since he’s due back a couple of months into the season, the Capitals can’t really do much of anything to replace him outside of recalls although they’ll be able to carry a max-sized roster at least.
Pick A Goalie; Deal A Goalie
When Seattle took Vitek Vanecek in expansion, it looked as if Washington’s decision of who to run with between the pipes had been finalized and that they’d run with Ilya Samsonov moving forward. But a week later, the Capitals reacquired Vanecek and the questions returned. After running that tandem for all of this past season, the questions still remain.
Vanecek’s campaign was practically identical to his rookie year (2.67 GAA, .908 SV% compared to 2.69 and .908, respectively) but his track record is still limited to just 79 games in the regular season. While those numbers are decent, they’re also not starter-level either. Meanwhile, Samsonov saw his numbers get worse for the second straight year (3.02 GAA, .896 SV%, both worse than the league average). That said, Samsonov was a highly-touted first-round pick who has been perceived to have the higher upside of the two even though the results haven’t been there so far.
While it’s possible that the Capitals could opt to bring both goalies back (both are restricted free agents with arbitration rights as well), it feels like the time is right for a chance. Washington was believed to be interested in Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline although making a deal and remaining cap-compliant was next to impossible. But if they were looking for a veteran then and have since suffered another quick playoff exit, it stands to reason they’ll be looking for a veteran upgrade again. If that’s the case, one of Samsonov or Vanecek has to go.
The trade market for goalies rarely yields a significant return although the fact that both are young (Vanecek is 26, Samsonov 25) will help. This is something that they may want to do sooner than later as well. While it’s possible they could wait to see how free agency shakes out to see if there’s a vulnerable team or two, the risk is that if everyone finds alternative options between the pipes, the Capitals could be stuck carrying three goalies into training camp. If they want to avoid that, the choice of who to keep and who to trade will need to be made within the next few weeks before the start of free agency on July 13th.
Round Out The Back End
With justin schultz, matt irwinand Michal Kempny all set to hit free agency this summer, there are a couple of slots to fill at the back of Washington’s back end. The emergence of Martin Fehervary helps in that they don’t necessarily have to look for someone that can fill a spot in the top four although it would be a nice luxury if they opt to reallocate some of Backstrom’s money to the blueline.
Assuming none of those three free agents return, there will be a couple of different roles to try to fill. Schultz took a regular turn on the second power play unit and the Capitals don’t have a lot of players that can run the point aside from their top two. Accordingly, one of their two targets to fill out their defense corps should be someone that can play in that role. The other role is Irwin’s, one that he did a good job with. While he didn’t log a lot of special teams time, he was able to play on both sides and that type of flexibility is something that head coach Peter Laviolette certainly covets.
It wouldn’t hurt if at least one of those spots was filled by someone on a multi-year deal either. The list of Washington’s NHL rearguards that are signed beyond 2022-23 starts and ends with John Carlson. It wouldn’t be ideal to be in a situation where the Capitals are trying to rebuild half of their back end or more a year from now so if they can get a bit of stability with their depth options, it would be helpful.
Orlov Extension Talks
To that end, extension talks for Dmitry Orlov should be high on MacLellan’s priority list. The soon-to-be 31-year-old is actually coming off a career season offensively with 12 goals and 35 points but overall, has been quite consistent with his offensive production, averaging between 0.35 and 0.46 points per game over the last seven seasons . It’s pretty safe to pencil him near that rate for a little while longer yet. Orlov has seen his ice time dip a little bit the last couple of seasons but he was just under 21 minutes in 2021-22. Again, it’s pretty safe to pencil him in around the 20-minute mark for a few more years.
That helps set a ballpark price for what an extension should look like. Orlov is a number two defender who, in an ideal world, would drop down a peg over the next few seasons as he gets older. For that type of role at his age, Orlov should be in line for a raise on his current $5.1MM AAV but not a substantial one. While the total AAV will likely depend on the length of the contract (do they work out, say, a six-year deal with the salary in the final season being a little lower to bring the cap hit down?), it should check in somewhere near the $6MM mark. If Washington is comfortable around that range, they should be trying to work something out soon after he’s eligible for an extension in mid-July and ensure that a second key cog of their back end will be around for a while.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.