Now that the hockey season is completely over, I can finally move on from the Caps' loss to the Rangers in the second round of this year's playoffs. It was a pretty epic series, lots of close games, and the Caps were so close to winning it so many times that the let-down was pretty severe. In Game 5, they were two minutes away from closing out the series before the Rangers sent the game into overtime, and after that, it all felt like fate.
That said, the team looked good at a lot of times throughout the playoffs (aside from all of the first periods). And hey, they were within a few minutes of getting into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998, which is about 75 minutes closer than they've ever been, so we're making progress.
If you know anything about the Washington area, you know that we end up resorting to "winning the offseason" all the time. Still, I think the Capitals have an opportunity to tweak their roster, be even better next year, and take another run at the Cup. Here's a look at the personnel decisions that stand before the Capitals this summer.
Outgoing Unrestricted Free Agents
Jay Beagle (2015 salary - $1 million)
Eric Fehr ($1.6 million)
Curtis Glencross ($2.5 million)
Joel Ward ($3 million)
John Erskine ($2 million)
Tim Gleason ($1.2 million)
Mike Green ($6.25 million)
Restricted Free Agents
Marcus Johansson ($2.175 million)
Evgeny Kuznetsov ($900,000)
Braden Holtby ($2 million)
So what will the Caps do with all these free agents? Tough to say. Let's go one-by-one (because I've got nothing but time):
Beagle was a great faceoff guy all year and in the playoffs, and it was a lost faceoff where the Caps ended up losing Game 7 against the Rangers. Beagle's not a prolific scorer, and he'll never fit at a top six forward slot. He reminds me of Matt Hendricks, who showed some two-way ability and then made a solid payday heading elsewhere. I hope the Caps can find a way to hold on to him as a bottom six forward for another couple years without breaking the bank.
I've always liked the scallywag tone that Erskine brought to the ice when he played. He loved to mix it up, but always with a smile. I guess he's the hockey equivalent of Hines Ward...except, you know, not even remotely as good. He dealt with injury all year, and I don't know if he's actually able to play, but if he is, I'd be happy to bring him back as a 7th defenseman. Any higher than that (in role or cost), and I think you have to let him go.
Fehr was an nice surprise coming back from Winnipeg after a somewhat disastrous trip out West. He dealt with injury and a lack of production in his time away from Washington, but since he came back to town, he's been better than ever. He even worked on his faceoff game and became a viable center option. His injury created a scoring vacuum that the Caps weren't really able to fill during the Rangers series, and they looked lost at times. I think Fehr's trip north of the border may have cooled him on chasing big dreams, and I think he's likely to stay in town for a reasonable fee.
Gleason is basically the opposite of Mike Green. He came to town via late-season trade; it cost us a pick and Jack Hillen, who I always thought was decent, but I'm not unhappy with how it turned out. Gleason was a nice depth addition for the bottom pairing, and he was a suitable partner for Green because of his dedication to stay-at-home, responsible defense. Gleason's contract expired, but he had lots of nice things to say about the Caps throughout his brief tenure, and I could see him coming back on a short-term, cap-friendly deal to try to get over the hump next year. Time will tell.
While acquiring him may have been a nice idea, Glencross was basically a non-factor in the playoffs, except in the worst ways. He stuck at the bottom of the depth chart, and never really looked like the kind of player who could've made a difference. And then his painful turnover in overtime of game 5 created the sequence that cost them the game. He may have played alright, but he'll forever be Scott Hannan 2.0 in Capitals' fans minds.
There's no question that Mike Green has more than his share of detractors, but there's also no question that Mike Green was a very productive player in 2014-2015. His playing time was scaled back to where he was a 3rd-pairing defenseman who came in on most power players, and it seemed to put Green into his wheelhouse. His scoring was back up, his health was generally good, and he made fewer obvious, terrible, game-losing mistakes...right up until game 7 against the Rangers. I think Green will get paid very, very well by someone this offseason, and it won't be the Caps. I wish him well.
I'm a little bit torn on Holtby. I like him a lot; I think he's as talented as Varlamov was (who I loved), and he's shown himself to be far more durable. And I'd be perfectly happy to see the Caps sign him to a 7-year, $35 million contract. But where I get concerned is if Holtby starts wanting $6 million a year. Or $7 million. Goalie is the most volatile position in hockey, and plenty of unexceptional goalies have had flashes of brilliance that led them into the promised land. So is pushing 10% of your salary cap into a single player with that level of volatility is something I'm not totally sold on. I want Holtby back, and I'd like him to sign long-term. I just don't want to see the Caps forgo the opportunity to sign some other complementary pieces to get all the way home.
From basically day one, I've been the guy who's been least impressed with Marcus Johansson. I don't specifically dislike him, and I see him make some good plays now and then, but I just think his upside is nowhere near what Caps fans (and Caps GMs) have been proclaiming for the past four or five years. I think he's fine, and I wouldn't want to let him go for nothing, but if another team threw some money at him in an RFA offer, I wouldn't be against taking some compensation picks and moving on. In the end, I expect MoJo to sign a one-year deal with Washington, and get one more shot at taking his game "to the next level." Which I don't expect him to do.
Kuznetsov was a streaky and minimally impactful player during the regular season, but he definitely ratcheted up his game during the playoffs. His game-winner against the Islanders in Game 7 was a thing of beauty. But he slipped back into the background during the Rangers series, an unfortunate turn of events at a time when the Caps really could've used a scoring spark. Kuznetsov is a restricted free agent, which means a team would have to provide compensation in order to sign him away from the Caps. That's not likely, but it's not impossible. I think the Caps will keep him, probably with a solid but unspectacular 2-year contract. And when that contract is up, who knows what happens.
The Caps' biggest problem is still a lack of potent scoring forwards outside of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Joel Ward contributed moderately well to that end last season, but he wasn't the kind of player that "you have to account for" as an opposing team. I'd be fine with the team reacquiring him at a modest price, but he seems like the kind of guy who would get a big raise in a terrible free agent class. His big playoff goals and his overall useful play might push some team to pay him $4-$5 million a year, possibly for as many as six years. If that's the price, I think the Caps have to let him go.
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