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The biggest offseason questions facing the Capitals

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USA TODAY Sports

The biggest offseason questions facing the Capitals

The Stanley Cup has been won, the parade has been had and the party is finally coming to a close on Wednesday as the players have their exit interviews and final media availability.

The offseason is officially upon us meaning the team now must focus its attention away from celebrating the Cup and start the business of defending it.

As the team enters the offseason, there are some glaring questions the Caps will need to answer. Here are the biggest questions the team faces this summer:

Will Barry Trotz be back?

It's rare that you see head coach be a question mark for a team that just won the Cup, but that is the position the Capitals find themselves in as this was the final year of Trotz's contract.

Trotz has certainly said all the right things since winning the Cup and it certainly sounds like he intends to return, but until pen is put to paper on a new deal, this will remain a question.

For now, there is only one head coach opening in the league, that of the New York Islanders. It seems doubtful Trotz would leave a team in which he just won the Cup for an Islanders team that does not yet know if franchise player John Tavares will be returning. Alternatively, if Trotz left the Caps he could potentially wait until the season begins for the next available job. With a Cup-winning coach available, some teams may be quick to pull the trigger on a coaching change early in the season.

The point is, if Trotz wants to leave, he will have some options.

Can the Caps afford to re-sign John Carlson? Can they afford not to?

The Caps will have to make some tough decisions on several restricted and unrestricted free agents, but the biggest name among them is Carlson.

Carlson just completed a career year with career highs in both the regular season and the playoffs. He also proved himself to be capable of being a top defensive player, something that was widely considered to be the weakness in his game.

With his performance, Carlson's stock has certainly risen across the NHL. Tavares may be the biggest name on the market this summer, but it's not a stretch to believe Carlson will be second on that list and the top defenseman on the market. If he gets to free agency, teams are going to be throwing a lot of years and a lot of money around to acquire his services.

The good news for the Caps is that the salary cap is expected to rise from $75 million to somewhere between $78-82 million and that's before the NHLPA decides whether or not to use its escalator clause to increase the cap a further 5-percent. That could provide the team with enough cap room to make Carlson a significant offer.

But are the Caps willing to give Carlson a contract that will carry a cap hit of $7, 8 or even 9 million per year? How much is too much?

Someone is going to be willing to offer Carlson some crazy money this summer. At what point does he become too expensive to keep or has his season made him so valuable to the franchise that the Caps will have no choice but to sign him at whatever price?

Whatever deal he makes will have a trickle down on the rest of the team's free agent decisions.

What will the team do with Philipp Grubauer?

Grubauer is set to become a free agent, but as a restricted free agent, the Capitals still own his rights. The NHL has shown time and time again that having a dependable backup goaltending can be vital to a team's success. Just where would the Caps be this season without Grubauer there to pick up the slack during Braden Holtby's late-season reset?

But Grubauer has not been shy about his desire to be a No. 1 goalie and, after Holtby's playoff rebound and with prospect Ilya Samsonov set to come to North America next season, it does not look like that chance will come in Washington.

While he was not able to win either of his two starts in the playoffs, Grubauer did show he can carry the load as a No. 1 with a strong regular season in which he posted a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage.

At 26 years old, the clock is ticking on his chances to be a No. 1 in the NHL and Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic has already reported both the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders have interest in the German netminder.

Are the Caps ready to part with one of the most dependable backups in the NHL and sell him to the highest bidder or will they look to keep that safety blanket on the roster for another season?

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Capitals officially lose defensive prospect and draft steal Chase Priskie to the Carolina Hurricanes

Capitals officially lose defensive prospect and draft steal Chase Priskie to the Carolina Hurricanes

Former Capitals defensive prospect Chase Priskie has agreed to terms with Metropolitan Division rival Carolina Hurricanes, the team announced.

Priskie was a sixth-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2016. Despite being a late-round pick, Priskie developed into one of the top college defensemen in the country at Quinnipiac and was named one of the top 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player in 2018-19.

"Chase was one of the best defensemen in college hockey last season," Carolina general manager Don Waddell said via a statement. "We believe he has a bright future in the NHL, and we're thrilled that he has chosen to come to Carolina."

The move is a blow for Washington. While the team has an abundance of left-shot defensemen, Priskie is a right-shot. Finding such a valuable player with a sixth-round draft pick was a coup for the Caps and its scouting staff...or at least would have been had the team been able to keep him.

“My dream is to play in the NHL and I feel like I've given myself every advantage to achieve that goal,” Priskie told NBC Sports Washington in March. “I think with the right motivation this summer, having a good summer, good training, I'm going to go into training camp and try to earn a roster spot.”

Priskie informed the Caps that he intended to become a free agent on Aug. 15.

Priskie joins a crowded blue line in Carolina as defense was certainly one of the team’s strengths last season. There is room in just about any NHL roster, however, for a right-shot puck-moving defenseman. If Priskie pans out the way he is expected to, he will be playing in the NHL, and against the Caps, sooner rather than later.

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Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. No player has a bigger effect on a single game than a goalie, so teams better make sure they have a good plan for who can lead them in the crease heading into each season.

The Capitals have been set at goalie for several years now, but heading into the 2019-20 season there is some question about what the team’s goalie tandem will and should look like. Luckily for general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Todd Reirden, they have plenty of options.

Here are the four goalies who could see playing time this year, along with the case for each of them.

Braden Holtby

Why there is an argument: In terms of being a starting NHL goalie, Holtby has proven himself time and again. If he remains with the team, he is the No. 1 next season without question. That is not the issue. But Holtby is heading into the final year of his contract, and the team’s top prospect, Ilya Samsonov, is a goalie. Wouldn’t it be smart to trade Holtby now to avoid losing him for nothing next summer?

The case for Holtby: Trading away a player on the final year of his contract can be smart business, but not always. Circumstances ultimately dictate whether a move like this makes sense, and the fact is it would not make sense for the Caps.

The team’s mentality heading into the season is the championship window is still open. That’s why a team with serious cap constraints still went out and added pieces like Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway in order to make the roster better. If the goal this season is a Stanley Cup, then you have to keep the goalie who brought you there two years ago, instead of entering the season relying on a starter with zero NHL experience.

There are plenty of examples of teams that have held onto prominent free agents and were burned by them the following year. John Tavares left the New York Islanders for Toronto and the Columbus Blue Jackets just saw both of its top players, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, leave this offseason. But this does not mean teams should trade away players every time they reach the final year of their contracts. The mistake the Islanders and Blue Jackets made was keeping those players despite having no reasonable chance of winning a Cup.

The Islanders did not even make the playoffs in Tavares’ last season, and a Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series decided it was a good idea to go all-in for “one more run.”

The Caps, on the other hand, are just one year removed from winning the Cup with the same core. They will not be the favorites heading into this season, but it is not unreasonable to think they still have a chance. That chance would fall between “slim” and “none” if they traded away Holtby before the season started.

Plus, while Samsonov may be considered the future of the franchise, that can change. What if he stinks this season? What if Holtby is great? It seems pretty clear right now this will most likely be Holtby’s last season in Washington, but will it still look that way midway into the season? Keeping Holtby for now at least gives the Caps a chance to talk with him about next season and keep that door open just in case.

Pheonix Copley

Why there is an argument: The Caps are still over the salary cap and need to find ways to save money. A backup goalie with a cap hit of $1.1 million may be just too expensive considering there are two cheaper alternatives.

The case for Copley: Backup goaltending is an underrated factor in a team’s success, but it is extremely important. There was a question of whether Copley was even good enough to be an NHL backup heading into last season, but a 16-7-3 record on a team that struggled defensively last season shows that Copley is absolutely a serviceable backup.

While there is certainly a case to be made for each of the team’s younger goalies (more on that later), both goalies remain unknowns at the NHL level and there may be some growing pains when they reach the big leagues. Washington’s backups are going to play in 25 games this season at a minimum and probably closer to 30-35. The team is going to need points in those games against an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

Copley’s skill set is far from elite. His ceiling is as a backup, and there are plenty of times when he seems to struggle even making reasonably easy saves. Many of his best saves last season came from him having to make up for his own mistakes. Having said that, you know Copley can get you points, and those will be at a premium.

Also, unlike Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Copley is not waiver exempt, meaning if the Caps want to send him to Hershey, they risk losing him. The Maple Leafs lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers last season and...yeah, they regretted it.

Ilya Samsonov

Why there is an argument: Samsonov is widely considered the future starter for the franchise, but he has yet to play a single NHL game and struggled immensely in Hershey at the start of last season, his first in North America. You do not want to bring him up too soon, only to sit him on the bench behind Holtby and mess with his development.

The case for Samsonov: Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard by now that Holtby is on the last year of his deal, and it seems unlikely he will be back next season. If that's how it plays out, presumably the plan going forward will be for Samsonov to take over. If he does, you have to have at least some idea of what you have in him.

Is Samsonov ready to be a No. 1 next season? Is he even ready to be a full-time NHL goalie? Is he as good as we all think he is? We ultimately won’t know unless we see him in the NHL.

It is unlikely Samsonov plays enough next season to give us answers to any of those questions -- it does not make sense for him to play 20 games as an NHL backup and sit on the bench behind Holtby instead of getting 40-50 games in the AHL -- but MacLellan is going to have a much better idea of what the team’s situation in net will be next season if he at least gets a few looks at Samsonov in the NHL. He has to get some NHL time, even if it is limited.

Vitek Vanecek

Why there is an argument: The ceiling is not nearly as high for the 23-year-old prospect as it is for Samsonov. While Samsonov is seen as a future starter, Vanecek is either a high-end AHL goalie or possibly an NHL backup. After a strong season in the AHL, however, has he earned a shot?

The case for Vanecek: Of the four options, Vanecek is certainly fourth on the team’s depth chart. He is not an NHL starter like Holtby, there is no real buzz around him as a budding starter like there is with Samsonov and he has not established himself as an NHL backup the way Copley has. Having said that, Vanecek is also a more polished, finished product than the still-developing Samsonov and had a better season in Hershey last year.

But the real case for Vanecek comes down to money.

Currently the Caps remain over the salary cap and will have to find a way to get under before the start of next season. They have options for how they can do that, but Vanecek provides an intriguing possibility. With a cap hit of only $716,667, if the Caps used Vanecek as Holtby’s backup and waived Copley, then the only other move the team would have to make to get under the cap would be to waive Chandler Stephenson.

Washington has two extra forwards on the roster, Stephenson was underwhelming last year and his new contract is just low enough that the entire salary can be buried in the AHL.

This is the simplest solution to solving the team’s cap issues. Keeping any other goalie combination will force the team to get creative in order to make the money work. If the team has faith in Vanecek as a backup, then this would make MacLellan's job before next season a heck of a lot easier.

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