We’re in the midst of the most eventful portion of the NHL offseason, the last week of June and the first week or so of July. The schedule for the upcoming 2014-15 season has been released and the Caps have settled their coaching staff for ’14-15; Mitch Korn has been added as the team’s goaltending coach and Todd Reirden joins Washington as an assistant coach after several seasons in the same post with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lane Lambert also joins the Caps as an assistant coach; he worked in that capacity under Caps head coach Barry Trotz when Trotz was in Nashville.
The new coaches join holdover assistant coach Blaine Forsythe on the Caps’ staff. Heading into his ninth season with the Caps, Forsythe has now worked under five different head coaches with Washington.
Hershey has been re-upped as Washington’s AHL affiliate and the Caps have renewed acquaintance with the South Carolina Stingrays as their ECHL affiliate going forward, after ending their ECHL affiliate relationship with the Reading Royals.
All that remains now is to see how Washington’s roster shapes up for the ’14-15 campaign.
The 2014 NHL Draft takes place in Philadelphia this weekend, and new Caps GM Brian MacLellan and his staff have been in town all week, interviewing prospects, fine-tuning their draft list and working the phones to talk to other GMs around the league as well as pending unrestricted free agent players.
Since the salary cap was implemented for the start of the 2005-06 season, the NHL’s off-season has been the time of the heaviest roster construction work, with the last week in June and first week in July being the most frenzied period of activity around the league.
The salary cap for the upcoming season has not been set in stone yet, but it will be rising by at least a few million dollars. The cap increase and a second summer of compliance buyouts has combined to break some of the shackles that bound the 30 NHL teams over the last couple of seasons, limiting trade activity and player movement during that span.
With those impediments removed and an extremely pedestrian free agent market set to open for business on Tuesday, the trade market may offer the best, most efficient and most economic route to roster improvement this summer. Even so, some roadblocks remain it trade talks relating to certain players.
“I think there are some names that are being mentioned that normally might not be mentioned,” says MacLellan. “There are also some no-trade clauses that are effecting the market a little bit, along with those big names. The bigger names have the ability to choose where they want to go, so it restricts a lot of the trade talk between certain teams.”
Washington’s first two choices in the draft are pick Nos. 13 and 44. They should be able to come away with a couple players who have a reasonable chance to play in the NHL, but immediate help via the draft is unlikely. The Caps’ areas of need are at center and on defense, and the true blue chip prospects at those positions figure to be off the board by the time the 13th overall pick comes around.
“It looks like the top two [defensemen] and the top three centermen are going to go within the top 10,” says MacLellan. “If that’s not the case, we’d be looking for an opportunity to move up.”
Defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Haydn Fleury and centers Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl and Sam Reinhart will almost certainly be chosen in the top 10. It would take multiple teams reaching for other players in order for any one of those five aforementioned players to fall to 13. While Washington is unlikely to snare a center or a defenseman with its first pick unless it moves up or back from No. 13, there will be a plethora of skilled wingers available if the Caps remain at 13.
The Caps’ hockey operations and amateur scouting staffs spent some time together on Thursday afternoon, brainstorming a variety of “what if?” scenarios and ballparking which players might be available with their choices.
“I think every draft there is always something unique that happens; there is always something different,” says Caps longtime director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney, who was named assistant GM to MacLellan earlier this month. “You are excited every year, and there are always things that come up that you probably didn’t think of even though you tried to think of everything. And each draft has its own little theme to it when you look back at it, as far as position players that were available or the depth of it or the earlier picks. It’s interesting [to see] some of the trades that go on and who gets moved, whether it’s picks or players or NHL players. Each draft seems to eventually have its own identity to it.”
Unless they move a pick at some point without getting one back in return, the Caps have nine picks in the seven-round draft, owning extra selections in the fourth and seventh rounds. Washington is one of five teams with nine choices in the 2014 draft, most in the league.
“As an amateur scouting staff,” says Mahoney, “we’ve worked hard all year to have the opportunity to get to call out names and we feel we’re more fortunate to be able to call out even more names this year.”
MacLellan and Mahoney have been through many drafts and many hours of draft prep together at previous drafts, but the 2014 Draft is their first one together as the two top guys on Washington’s hockey operations depth chart.
“It’s been fun,” says MacLellan. “It’s also been a little chaotic with the coaching interviews and trying to sign contracts with coaches. This year it changes a little bit because free agency is a little earlier. So you’re also making free agent calls, trying to test out the market and see where the value is on guys and who is potentially going to be available on July 1. So you’re trying to get a sense of what’s going on in that market and who we might have a shot at getting or signing.”
MacLellan has reached out to a few of the league’s pending free agents, and he’s still working on his stated goal of improving Washington’s roster and specifically its defense.
“I’m optimistic right now,” says MacLellan. “We’ll see how it goes here over the next week or so. But the priority is defense for me. And then we’ll find a good back-up [goaltender] and go from there, depending on how much the defense is going to cost us.”
The next 10 or 11 days should be very eventful around the NHL in terms of the firming up of the 2014-15 salary cap figures, player movement via trades and free agent signings. Expect the Caps to be involved in some of those transactions.