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Cruel Summer Leads to Competitive Autumn

July 13, 2017
We’ve made it to the middle of July now, and roughly the middle of the offseason, or at least the midpoint between the Caps’ last playoff game and the start of training camp for the 2017-18 season. Once winger Liam O’Brien is signed to a contract for the upcoming season, all of Washington’s offseason work is done. The Caps will have signed all of their restricted free agents, and any personnel moves made between now and the start of camp in mid-September are likely to be of the minor variety. 

As far as summers go, this one has been particularly tough on Capitals fans. Many stalwart players and fan favorites have departed the District, as we all knew would happen this summer. Such is life in the NHL’s salary cap system, especially over the last few seasons where year-to-year cap growth has not been as fertile as it was a decade or so ago. 

Two of Washington’s top six forwards – Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams – have moved on, and the Caps will also have two holes to fill on the blueline, where Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk have departed.  Fourth-line winger and penalty killer Daniel Winnik hasn’t signed elsewhere yet, but he seems unlikely to return to the District for next season. 

That’s a fair amount of talent – and goals – that the Caps will have to try to replace in 2017-18. That’s how it goes when you have so many individuals having strong seasons; the salaries of those players go up at a much higher rate than does the salary cap. For the last few years, the Caps knew this would be an offseason of reckoning. It’s made all the more painful because the recent vintage Caps were among the best NHL teams of the last half century during the regular season, but they couldn’t get it done when it mattered most, in the postseason. Saying goodbye to stalwarts stings much less when the goodbyes come days after sipping champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup. 

Over the last two seasons, the Capitals rolled up a total of 238 points en route to consecutive Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons. While that’s certainly an impressive achievement and one no other NHL team has managed in nearly 40 years, there’s a hollow feeling locally because the Caps are still without a Stanley Cup championship.

Over the last two seasons, the Caps’ average of 2.24 goals against per game and their 22.5% power play success rate are tops in the NHL. Washington’s average of 3.10 goals per game ranks second, and its 84.5% penalty kill success rate ranks third.

That level of dominance is in the rear view now, and the Caps will need to readjust their expectations going forward. Caps general manager Brian MacLellan and his hockey operations staff built one of the best rosters of the salary cap era and kept most of it together for two seasons, but the same group won only 13 of 25 postseason games over the last two springs, bowing to the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round in both 2016 and 2017. 

“We’ve spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year and we mixed it out, both player-wise and salary-wise,” said MacLellan in a conference call with media last week. “We were expecting to run into some issues here going forward. It’s no different than the teams that have won in the past. We have the same kind of hangover, but we haven’t won a championship and we’re dealing with it now.” 

While the Caps are unlikely to dominate the regular season as they’ve done for the better part of the last two campaigns, we also shouldn’t expect them to free fall into lottery territory. Beginning with ’17-18, the Caps will have a different construct. Washington still has a core group of highly paid key players – eight of them now earn upwards of $5 million. For the first time in several seasons, we can expect the Capitals’ roster to be liberally dotted with a number of young, unproven and inexpensive players. 

The Caps have been the league’s healthiest team these last two seasons, but that good medical fortune has also carried with it a slight downside. Given the combination of a strong roster with relatively few health woes, the handful of young prospects who began their respective pro careers in 2015-16 hasn’t been able to get much in the way of a look-see at the NHL level. Many of them now head into their third seasons as pros without having been seen in a Caps sweater during the regular season.

Defensemen Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and Tyler Lewington all fall into that category, as do forwards Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker, though Walker’s pro career began a year ahead of the others. Each of the aforementioned players has yet to make his regular season NHL debut. In addition to that group, the Caps also have a handful of prospects who have seen at least a touch of NHL duty. That group includes forwards Riley Barber (three games), O’Brien (14 games), Chandler Stephenson (13 games) and Jakub Vrana (20 games). 

Additionally, defenseman Aaron Ness has skated in 39 NHL games over the years and he could be in line for at least a look in camp this fall. The 27-year-old Ness signed a two-year contract with Washington last summer, and his deal calls for him to be paid $612,500 at the NHL level this season. That’s a shade below the $650,000 NHL minimum wage in effect for new contracts at that level, so the Caps would achieve a slight savings if Ness manages to nail down a roster spot.

Washington has four open spots up front, including the 13 th or spare forward roster spot. The Caps signed veteran free agent forward Devante Smith-Pelly earlier this month, and he’s expected to land one of those openings among the forward ranks. The other three forward spots are likely to be filled by three of the aforementioned group of forwards who have been toiling in Hershey for the last couple seasons or more. 

On the blueline, the Caps have an opening on the second pairing alongside John Carlson and another on the third pairing alongside Brooks Orpik. Those slots will almost certainly be filled with players who skated with the AHL Hershey Bears last season.

Should the Caps go outside the organization and wade into the free agency waters to fill one of those openings on defense, they won’t have much money to spend. If they opt not to go with a minimum wage player at one of those blueline spots, for example, they’ll only be able to spend a maximum of roughly $1.2 million to fill that spot. The difference between a player at that price point and one making minimum wage may not be enough to make up for the corresponding loss in salary cap cushion.

For the first time since 2010-11 when rookies such as Carlson, Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby (among others) dotted the Washington roster, the Caps appear likely to amass over 200 man-games from players with rookie status in 2017-18. 

While MacLellan has confidence that enough of his young players will step forth to fill the vacated roster holes, he’s also as stung by the process as the fans are. 

“I’m bothered by it,” admits MacLellan. “It hurts. Like I said, we spent three years trying to get to that lineup that we had last year, where I think it was a complete lineup. We knew that this point was coming in time, where we weren’t going to be able to keep everybody and we were going to lose people that we really liked. 

“We have a lot of good players and a lot of good people here, so it’s tough to let them go. And the cap only went up two million [dollars] to $75 million. I think that hurt us a little bit, too. We’re maturing. We’re getting a little more top-heavy as a team – like Chicago and like Pittsburgh – and we’ve got to pay the result for it.”

When MacLellan says “top heavy,” he’s referring to the team’s salary structure. In addition to the eight players making over $5 million a season, the Caps also have seven players earning between $1.5 and $4 million a season. What will be markedly different will be the seven players earning south of a million bucks this season, many of them at or near the league’s minimum wage. 

While Washington entered each of the last two seasons with its roster virtually set in stone, the Caps figure to conduct much more of an open casting call this time around. Three spots are available up front. Two more are there for the taking on the blueline. In addition to the 10 prospects mentioned above, the Caps also have first-year pro defensemen Lucas Johansen and Jonas Siegenthaler in the mix, as well as second-year pro blueliner Colby Williams. 

That’s seven defensemen fighting for two roster spots, and six forwards likely scrapping for no more than three spots. It should make for a competitive training camp environment two months from now.