We're on the cusp of the opening of free agency on July 1st, and the Washington Capitals still seem like they'll be approaching it mostly from the sidelines...and I'm not sure that's necessary. But first...
The NHL draft was fairly uneventful for the Caps. While the Bruins were shipping out top-end players and the Rangers were saying goodbye to Carl Hagelin and Cam Talbot, the Caps were drafting Ilya Samsanov, a Russian goalie who likely won't even be available to play in North America for another three years. Organizational goalie depth has been a strength for Washington for a while, from Varlamov to Neuvirth to Holtby to Grubauer and beyond, and with how expensive a high-caliber veteran goalie can be, making sure you have additional options is never a bad call.
After Samsanov, the Caps grabbed a trio of young defensemen, presumably planning for the eventual downfall of Brooks Orpik. It's not likely all three of them make the NHL (and it's possible none of them make the NHL), but again, depth is never bad.
There, that's it. Now that we're past the minimalist draft (the fewest pick the franchise has ever had in a draft), let's look at the other way you get new players.
The biggest salary that the Caps have to look at is Braden Holtby's. I'm on record (in a few conversations with friends) as saying that I think Holtby is probably a guy you just pay. He's been between very good and exceptional since he came into the league, and it seems like overall his game has improved during the playoffs, which is always a nice sign. I don't love the idea of the Caps paying two different backup goalies in Grubauer and Justin Peters, but they're both making less than a million per year, so you've still got plenty of room to pay Holtby and keep your overall goaltender bill at a reasonable rate. Expectations: The Caps definitely won't be acquiring any new goalies.
Nate Schmidt has already signed an extension and will likely slide into the bottom defensive pairing right away. If Dmitry Orlov can stay healthy, the Caps' six defensemen are all already on the roster, and it's a pretty strong six. But Orlov hasn't been able to stay on the ice, so at least one other defenseman is in order. I've mentioned that I wouldn't mind just bringing back Tim Gleason, who was a responsible if unexciting addition last season. Pairing him with Orlov or Schmidt gives either guy a security blanket to explore their offensive options. Expectations: They'll sign one modest veteran defenseman as a depth guy, probably spending no more than $2 million on the guy.
The Caps only have nine forwards still under contract from last season, although Riley Barber and Stanislav Galiev could slide into the NHL squad come the regular season. Joel Ward and Eric Fehr are unrestricted free agents, but the two really important guys to look at are restricted free agents Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Both have shown enough offensive potency to warrant salary increases, and Johansson especially is likely looking for a considerable contract, even if it's a short-term deal. Kuznetsov didn't have a great regular season, but his playoff performance has a lot of us excited about the future.
Obviously nobody's making lines just yet, but in general, I think this is how the lines shake out talent-wise at this point (only counting players under contract):
Line 1 - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, ___________
Line 2 - Andre Burakovsky, ___________, Troy Brouwer
Line 3 - Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, Tom Wilson
Line 4 - Michael Latta, Jay Beagle, ____________
If the Caps go ahead and re-sign Kuznetsov and Johansson, they'd slide in at 2C and 1RW, respectively. If they do that, I'd still like to see Washington pursue a skilled winger who can play on one of those top two lines.
I'm not 100% convinced that Burakovsky is ready for second-line minutes, and I'm not crazy about putting Brouwer on a line from which you're expecting goals. His hands are still pretty good, but he seems to have lost a step. We keep hearing that Tom Wilson has the potential to move into the top two lines, but he still seems to too sincerely relish the role of scrapper to be able to count on him as a scorer. MoJo doesn't figure to be much/any better than he was last year, when he set career highs in goals and points. Kuzy has tremendous upside, but it's still just potential.
What I'd like to see and what we will see are probably two different things. The Caps have $18 million to work with under the cap. After about $5 million for Holtby and $2 million for a depth defenseman, that still leaves $11 million to play with for forwards. That's not a small number. The numbers I've seen for the RFAs are $4.5 million for Johansson and $3 million for Kuznetsov. If those are roughly accurate, the Caps could take on about $3.5 million in additional salary. In this year's very weak free agent class, there's no top-two-line winger who'd cost less than that, so you'd either be looking at rolling the dice on a young unproven RFA (extremely unlikely), or an older player who might only have 1-2 more years in the tank and is willing to take a modest salary. The latter idea has some possibilities this season.
Guys who could fit into that category (assuming they don't retire and aren't looking for irrationally large contracts) would be Justin Williams, Erik Cole, Daniel Briere, Tomas Kopecky, Brenden Morrow, and...Joel Ward. Truthfully, working out a way to bring back Ward might be the best option the Caps have. Ward has been a workhorse, an effective playoff performer, and a popular player in the blackest city in America (not a huge factor, but not a non-factor either). We'll see how things shake out, and GM Brian McClellan keeps talking about the appeal of improving via trade this offseason, so there may be additional machinations at work that we don't know about.
I have to say, even though the Caps aren't likely to be very active in free agency, I'm still excited to see how the roster shapes up over the next few weeks.
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