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The 6 biggest offseason questions facing the Capitals

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USA Today Sports

The 6 biggest offseason questions facing the Capitals

The second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway, but for the first time since 2014, the Capitals are not in it. Though Wednesday’s Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes is still fresh in the team’s mind, there is no rest for the weary. The offseason is now officially here and there is work to be done to prepare for next season.

With that in mind, here are the biggest questions facing the Caps this offseason.

Will the Caps re-sign Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby?

Backstrom and Holtby’s current contracts expire at the end of the 2019-20 season meaning that they are only locked in with the Capitals for one more year. Allowing big-name players to enter the last year of their contract without a new deal in place can get messy and you often see teams look to finish these deals a year beforehand.

But finding the right numbers for both players may prove difficult. Backstrom is 31 and is on an absurdly team-friendly deal with a cap hit of $6.7 million. For that reason, you could understand if he had no interest in giving a hometown discount for Washington.

Holtby, meanwhile is only 29 and still at the top of his game, but the team’s future in net, Ilya Samsonov, is now in North America. The Caps may not be interested in committing to Holtby as their starter for a long-term deal, especially as the Seattle expansion draft is only two years away and Washington will only be able to protect one goalie between Holtby and Samsonov.

How much money will Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos take?

Of the team’s restricted free agents, there are two who will almost certainly be back in Washington next season. Vrana is coming off a career-high 24-goal and 47-point season. Djoos struggled in the first round of the playoffs, but let’s not forget he played a pivotal role in the 2018 Stanley Cup run playing in 22 playoff games. All it is going to take to retain his rights is to qualify him at his current salary of $650,000. I really see no reason why general manager Brian MacLellan would not do this.

The question then is how much of a raise will each player get?

Washington is a cap team and as a result, they do not have a lot of money to work with. The more money both players end up with, the less the team will have to sign or re-sign free agents.

Vrana’s raise will be significant as his cap hit for the 2018-19 season was only $863,333. With the team’s cap crunch, I see a bridge deal being likely somewhere in the ballpark of $3 to 4 million per year.

Djoos’ will not see as significant a bump to his $650,000 cap hit and will likely come in somewhere in the $900K to $1 million range.

Will the Caps keep Andre Burakovsky and/or Chandler Stephenson?

The other restricted free agents from the current roster besides Vrana and Djoos are Burakovsky, Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. Jaskin played in only 37 games in the regular season and none in the playoffs. He just did not seem to fit into Todd Reirden’s plans and it would be bizarre if MacLellan elected to qualify him.

After underperforming for much of the regular season, trade rumors began spreading regarding Burakovsky’s future in Washington. MacLellan elected to hold onto him, however, and he began to play well after the trade deadline and into the playoffs. Still, it would take a cap hit of $3.25 million to qualify him and that’s a lot of money for a player who has shown he is prone to inconsistent play throughout his career and who scored only 12 goals in the regular season.

I wonder if we could see a similar tactic to what the team did with Devante Smith-Pelly last season. MacLellan elected not to qualify Smith-Pelly even after his brilliant playoff performance. That then took away the restriction of a qualifying offer allowing the team to re-sign Smith-Pelly at a lower cap hit. That’s a risky move that could result in a player simply walking as a free agent, but I would not be surprised if MacLellan went down a similar path with Burakovsky.

As for Stephenson, Reirden plays him frequently and clearly likes what he brings. I would expect both players to return next season.

Can the Caps afford to re-sign Brett Connolly and/or Carl Hagelin?

You can never have enough 20-goal scorers and Connolly is one of those caliber players. He scored a career-high 22 goals for Washington this season and is likely to generate a lot of interest as an unrestricted free agent. After struggling with two different franchises before he landed in Washington, Connolly may want to stick around with the only team he has managed to find success. Given the team’s cap constraints, however, it is almost guaranteed that there will be other teams willing to offer Connolly more money and a bigger role than what the Caps can. Even if he wants to stay in Washington there is always a limit to how much money a player is willing to leave on the table. It is going to be tough for the Caps to keep him.

Hagelin was acquired at the trade deadline and was seamlessly integrated into his new team. He instantly became the best penalty killer on the ice and his versatility allowed Reirden to play him on any line depending on what the team needed. A player on the wrong side of 30 whose biggest asset is his speed is always a player to be wary of as that speed is going to drop off at some point with each passing year.

Is this the end of Brooks Orpik’s time in Washington?

Orpik will be 39 before the 2019-20 season begins. Considering his age, it is fair to wonder if he has played his last NHL game. Even if he does decide to return next season, he was playing on a one-year deal and the Caps could elect not to re-sign him.

After a mediocre season, Orpik was good in the playoffs and that could lead to MacLellan wondering if bringing him back on a cheap deal to mentor the younger defensemen is not such a bad idea. Ultimately, however, this seems unlikely.

If MacLellan wants to pursue either Connolly or Hagelin, even a cheap Orpik deal could make it nearly impossible to make it all work under the cap. Plus, the Caps may not even need him. Assuming the same players return, the Caps’ blue line could look like this next season:

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt NIskanen
Jonas Siegenthaler – Nick Jensen
Christian Djoos

If the team brings him in for one last ride, any contract conversations with Orpik should make clear that he is not going to be an everyday player and he will be expected to mentor the younger guys.

Do the Caps have any cap flexibility at all?

The salary cap is expected to be around $83 million next year. The ceiling for Washington, however, will be $1.15 million below that due to overages from performance bonuses paid out in 2018-19. New deals for Nic Dowd, Nick Jensen and Pheonix Copley kick in next season which all include raises for those players. The returning RFAs will chew up still more cap space with raises to their cap hits, especially Vrana.

There is going to be little to no cap room for Washington to work with this offseason. That’s a problem considering depth scoring is always so crucial to a team’s success and the Caps may be forced to let players like Connolly and Hagelin walk. If they do, MacLellan will have to find a cheap way to replace them and still have scoring depth in the bottom six.

Could all of this lead to the team trying to shed salary in the offseason and if so, who would MacLellan try to ship out? He may have no choice if he hopes to keep any of the team’s UFAs or replace them for players of similar value.

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Brooks Orpik's knee injury helped decision on retirement

Brooks Orpik's knee injury helped decision on retirement

One big reason Brooks Orpik decided to hang up his skates, as he announced on Tuesday, was the severity of a knee injury, which impaired him for most of the 2018-19 season.

"I knew a long time ago, to be honest with you," Orpik told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "From the time I had surgery on it was pretty evident that I wasn't gonna play another year after this."

After playing 10 games in October to start the season, Orpik was was placed on long-term injured reserve, then underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in November. 

He returned to the lineup Dec. 31 and played a total of 53 games during the regular season last year.

But despite the medical staff's best efforts, Orpik remained in pain for the duration of the season.

"I'd use the elevator at [Capital One Arena] to go up and down cause I couldn't go up and down stairs," Orpik said. "When I couldn't do that it was time to stop playing hockey I figured.

"I could just get it to a point where I could play for two and a half hours and then pay for it afterward and then try to do it all over again."

Orpik's dealt with a multitude of injuries during his career in Washington. During the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, Orpik lost part of his pinkie finger after a brutal slash courtesy of Erik Haula. He also dealt with an infection in his leg during the Caps 2017 playoff run, which he acquired after blocking a shot.

During his tenure with the Penguins, Orpik suffered a broken finger in 2011 and was carted off the ice in 2013 after being pulled down and punched by then Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton.

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Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly

Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s quarterfinal matchup:

Region: Capitals free agents

Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly
 
2018-19 stats

Brett Connolly (27 years old): 81 games played with the Capitals, 22 goals, 24 assists, 46 points, 13:20 TOI
 
Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 0 assists, 4 points, 13:50 TOI

Devante Smith-Pelly (27 years old): 54 games played with the Capitals, 4 goals, 4 assists, 8 points, 10:51 TOI

Playoffs: 3 games played with the Caps, no goals, no assists, no points, 9:47 TOI

 
Hockey-Graph contract projections

Brett Connolly: 3 years, $3,536,091 cap hit
 
Devante Smith-Pelly: 2 years, $1,149,369

The case for Brett Connolly

The Capitals have already re-signed one of their third-line free agents with Carl Hagelin’s new deal. Is there room left for Connolly? Connolly has made himself comfortable in Washington. He tied his career highs in goals twice (15) and then broke through with a career-best 22. And he is one of the league’s most productive players given his limited ice time. 
 
There are just too many big names in front of Connolly to get him much power-play time. Those 22 goals wouldn’t be easy to replace and GM Brian MacLellan said scoring depth is a concern this offseason. If he is again willing to sacrifice role for a bump in pay and some security then maybe Connolly returns to a place he re-ignited his career. The talent is certainly there as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2010 draft and Connolly is headed into his age-27 season so a three or four-year deal takes care of his prime years. 
 
But the argument ultimately rests on the salary cap, which at $81.5 million is problematic. It might be out of Washington’s hands anyway. Even if the Capitals want to keep him, other teams could use money AND ice time to entice Connolly. But can they strike gold again with another cheap third-line winger as they did with Connolly? That’s not easy to replicate. They could simply sign Connolly and take care of it, but the salary cap is tight.

The case for Smith-Pelly

There is no question that Smith-Pelly can be inconsistent, but he always seems to bring it in the playoffs. Before his seven-goal performance in the 2018 Cup run, Smith-Pelly was brilliant with the Anaheim Ducks scoring five goals in 12 games back in 2014.

With Carl Hagelin re-signed and players like Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos and other depth pieces still on the horizon, affordability is pretty much the biggest asset for any free agent available to Washington and it won’t get much more affordable than Smith-Pelly.

Hockey-Graphs can be spot on with some of its projections and outright wrong for others and this case is definitely the latter. Smith-Pelly’s contract for the 2018-19 season was a one-year deal with a cap hit of $1 million. After scoring just eight points and getting demoted to the AHL, there is no way he walks into next season with a two-year deal and a raise. The cap hit is going to be low for Smith-Pelly and that makes him a very attractive choice for the Caps – if both sides can put last year’s awkwardness behind them. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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