The number came in and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan could be forgiven if it gave him heartburn.
An independent arbitrator on Wednesday awarded defenseman Christian Djoos a one-year, $1.25 million contract. According to the web site CapFriendly.com, that puts Washington over the $81.5 million salary cap by $314,294.
That’s not a devastating amount and the Capitals really only need to clear enough space for a No. 6/7 defenseman – Djoos or a cheaper version. They can always play with just one extra forward instead of two. The rest of the roster is set barring a surprising trade of an established player. That isn’t going to happen just to fit Christian Djoos onto the roster.
Djoos, 24, had a nice start to the 2018-19 season, winning the job on the right side of the third pair skating with veteran Brooks Orpik. But he was limited to 45 games after sustaining a serious contusion in a Dec. 11 game against Detroit that led to compartment syndrome, where the muscle fills with blood and pressure builds. It requires immediate surgery.
Djoos eventually returned to the lineup and was lucky to just miss 24 games, but it was clear he wasn’t totally right in his first eight games back. Djoos then sat for 11 of the next 12 before jumping back into the lineup for eight of the final nine games and the first three of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But Djoos was finally benched for rookie Jonas Siegenthaler after Game 3 of the first-round series against Carolina and didn’t play again.
It was disappointing after a rookie year where Djoos played in 63 games and 22 of 24 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He looks to be the No. 7 defenseman behind Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas. Djoos’ skating ability, if healthy, and ability to play on the left or right side should give him the chance to play ahead of Siegenthaler some nights. Maybe he even wins the job outright in camp. But it’s hard to tell how much he improved last season given the compartment syndrome, which leaves a muscle weak and takes months to truly recover from.
With three prominent prospects at AHL Hershey this year – 2018 first-round draft pick Alex Alexeyev and 2016 first-rounder Lucas Johansen plus 2018 second-round pick Martin Fehervary - time is short for Djoos. Those players are coming for his roster spot sooner than later.
Hard to see how the Capitals can get themselves under the salary cap just by tweaking the money assigned to their depth players. They just signed fourth-line forward Garnet Hathaway to a four-year contract worth $1.5 million per year. He isn’t going anywhere.
They also signed fourth-liner Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal worth $700,000. Travis Boyd makes $800,000. Any replacement player for either of them would save the same money as Leipsic or less. It wouldn’t make a difference.
Meanwhile, the top five spots on the blueline are accounted for. Jonas Siegenthaler would appear to have a leg up on Djoos for the No. 6 spot given how their seasons ended. He makes $714,166.
One obvious solution: Trade Djoos and hand that No. 7 spot to Tyler Lewington, 24, who earned two NHL games last season and memorably had a Gordie Howe hat trick his second game against Ottawa on Dec. 29.
But the Capitals have time to make that call – or another one. Teams can exceed the cap by 10 percent until the end of training camp and, of course, any injury in September can change things quickly. This could apply to Stephenson, too. He could win his own arbitration case and still compete in camp for a job and, if that fails, get waived or traded before the deadline.
These moves aren’t imminent. They are tricky as the Capitals hope to keep as much depth on the roster as possible and leave themselves enough cap room to make moves during the season.
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