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Caps Manage to Keep Cup Core Together for Another Run

June 29, 2018
Development camp is winding down at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, as a couple dozen hockey hopefuls finish off an intense week on Saturday with a morning scrimmage before scattering back to their respective homes around the globe. Off the ice, the Capitals’ hockey operations department continued its short and busy summer by bringing back a couple more pieces of the team’s 2017-18 Stanley Cup championship group.

Washington announced on Thursday morning that it has come to terms with forward Devante Smith-Pelly on a one-year contract extension at a salary cap hit of $1 million. On Friday, the Caps announced that they’ve come to terms with defenseman Michal Kempny on a four-year contract extension worth a total of $10 million, or an annual salary cap dent of $2.5 million. Kempny is the first trade deadline acquisition to sign an extension to stay in the District since Sergei Fedorov inked a one-year deal to stay with the Caps 10 years ago this summer.

With the signing of Kempny, the Caps now have each of their top four defensemen locked up for the next three years at a reasonable total salary cap hit of $21.35 million. Washington’s only unsigned defenseman is RFA sophomore Madison Bowey, though the team may look into bringing back veteran Brooks Orpik after his contract was bought out by Colorado. The signing of Smith-Pelly gives the Caps 10 of their dozen regular forwards from last season, with only RFAs Tom Wilson and Travis Boyd and UFA Jay Beagle still unsigned. 

Kempny arrived in D.C. after a Feb. 19 trade with Chicago. In the second year of a two-year deal with the Blackhawks, Kempny had fallen out of favor in Chicago and was a frequent healthy scratch. He soon found his footing in D.C., and emerged as a virtually perfect partner for John Carlson, and he quickly became an integral component on the Caps’ drive to their first Stanley Cup title. The 27-year-old Czech defender is now signed through the 2021-22 season.

The 26-year-old Smith-Pelly recorded seven goals and 16 points for the Capitals in 75 regular season games in 2017-18, and he added seven more goals and nine points in just 24 postseason games.

In his first season with the Capitals, Smith-Pelly proved himself to be a fearless shot blocker and a strong forechecker who could play either wing and could move up and down the lineup. In the playoffs, he continued to perform those duties while chipping in with more than a few goals, and most of them at critical junctures of important contests.

Smith-Pelly blocked 62 shots during the regular season to rank 27 thamong all NHL forwards, and second among all Washington forwards, trailing only Lars Eller (69). Most of those ahead of Smith-Pelly on that blocked shots ledger saw a lot more playing time than the Washington winger in 2017-18, too.

Two of his seven postseason goals were game-winners, and he also supplied a go-ahead goal in the third period of Game 1 against Columbus, a critical insurance tally in Game 6 against Tampa Bay and his final goal of the playoffs tied Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final series against Vegas midway through the third period, just minutes ahead of Eller’s Cup-clinching tally.

With the signing of Kempny and Smith-Pelly, the Caps have roughly $9.7 million worth of cap space remaining, according to capfriendly.com. They still need to sign restricted free agent defenseman Madison Bowey and RFA forwards Travis Boyd and Tom Wilson. The Caps would likely still have enough cap space remaining with which to bring back center Jay Beagle, but the popular pivot is almost certain to be able to get more money and more term elsewhere.

Why not give term to Smith-Pelly – who admitted to leaving money and term on the table to return to Washington, where he found an extremely good fit for himself – and Beagle? Mostly because in doing so, the Caps would probably be road-blocking a slew of young forwards who are set to embark upon their pro careers this fall.

With newly named head coach Spencer Carbery at the helm, the AHL Hershey Bears figure to have one of their deepest freshman classes ever. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov is set to make his North American pro debut there in the fall, and first-year forwards Shane Gersich, Jusso Ikonen, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Max Kammerer, Beck Malenstyn, Garret Pilon and Brian Pinho are poised to do the same.  

If one or two of those seven first-year forwards is ready to compete for an NHL job as early as 2019-20, doling out too much term to current RFA and UFA vets may prove counterproductive down the road. As it is, the Caps will be facing the challenge of having as many as seven first-year forwards at Hershey this season.

“Years ago, with the way we operated, I’d be worried,” admits Steve Richmond, Caps director of player development. “I’d be worried because it was more about Hershey than it was about developing, but it’s changed. So they’re going to have their opportunity to play. We’re not going to have six veteran forwards there, so they’re going to have an opportunity to play. And if they’re not ready, then we’ll make an adjustment. But they’ll have the first shot over a journeyman American League guy.”

Three years ago at this time, the Caps also had a large class of first-year freshmen at Hershey, a group that included Riley Barber, Madison Bowey, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos, Chandler Stephenson, Vitek Vanecek and Jakub Vrana. Those seven players helped lead the Bears all the way to the Calder Cup final in their first pro seasons, and five of them hoisted the Stanley Cup earlier this month at the conclusion of their first seasons in the NHL. 

That huge influx of first-year players resulted in some early speed bumps, but once the 2015-16 Hershey Bears hit their stride, they proved to be a very strong club, despite their youth. 

“The American League has gotten like the NHL; it’s gotten younger and faster,” says Richmond. “And the teams that have had success – and it’s not all about winning – but winning is important. And you have to keep those guys coming. That’s the way the game is, and we need those guys in our lineup. If we don’t have those guys, we don’t have success. We can’t compete. You can’t have your fourth line making three million dollars. You can’t do it. It doesn’t work.” 

Cost certainty is critical for teams like the Capitals that generally spend up to the salary cap ceiling, and Washington has positioned itself to extend its recent run of success with some excellent offseason roster management. 

The Caps have been diligent at making sure they have a strong top nine up front and top four in the back, and they’ve got a plethora of youthful options coming through the pipeline to fill in on the fourth line and the third pair. That’s an ideal scenario, because they’re merely asking players to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL as fourth-line forwards, third-pair defensemen, or backup goaltenders. They don’t need forwards to make the leap from AHL to the top six or defensemen to go from Hershey to the top four. 

In making the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons, the Caps haven’t always been in a position to use the draft to restock top level talent, but they’ve managed to hit on most of their first-round choices over that span, and they’ve brought in and subsequently extended – on a long-term basis – three key pieces via the trade route: Kempny, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie. In doing so, they’ve put themselves in position to compete for another Cup championship in the next few years ahead.

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