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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

I have written about this before, but Jakub Vrana’s contract has to be priority No. 1. Vrana is absolutely going to be back, but he is going to take a sizable chunk of what little cap room Washington has remaining. General manager Brian MacLellan needs to know how much cap space he is working with this offseason before he can make any decisions about the other free agents like Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin.

The second most important move would be a trade to free up cap space. Everyone assumes that Matt Niskanen would be the player on the trade block, as you noted. With the free agents the Caps could potentially lose and a prospect pipeline devoid of any high-end offensive skill, I just do not see how the Caps can add enough quality forward depth this offseason without clearing cap space.

Fans should circle June 20-22 as target dates for a possible trade. June 20 is the NHL general managers meeting and June 21-22 is the draft. When you get all the general managers together in the same place, that can spark trade deals. Don’t forget, the draft was when Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer were traded to the Colorado Avalanche last year.

As for Backstrom and Holtby, while I am sure MacLellan would like to get those deals done if possible, these do not rank as high on the priority list as both players are still under contract for another season.

Maclellan was asked on breakdown day if he wanted those deals done this summer and he said, “I don’t think it matters. We’ll have conversations and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it.”

The Caps have plenty of issues to deal with for this season to worry too much about Backstrom and Holtby right now.

Jacob C. writes: How does Washington adjust their offseason knowing that they have a $1.15 million dollar cap penalty? 

Washington was hit with a cap penalty because of some late performance bonuses that pulled the team over the cap ceiling.

The money situation was going to be tight for the team regardless of the cap penalty so it is hard to know if anything the team does will be directly related to that, but if I had to guess I believe the player the most affected by this will be Andre Burakovsky.

As a restricted free agent, the Caps will have to give him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million in order to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. That is high for a player who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons.

Maybe you could justify the risk of overpaying him because the team could potentially see both Connolly and Hagelin walk, but with $1.15 million less to spend that may force MacLellan to not qualify Burakovsky and attempt to convince him to sign for less.

Jack Hughes.

OK, so obviously that is not going to happen. I assume your question is more aimed at who I think the Caps would want of the players who may actually fall to them at 25. The team’s philosophy when it comes to the draft is to take the best available player, which it should be, but the Caps have not taken a forward in the first round since 2014 and that lack of offensive talent is really starting to catch up with them. If forwards start dropping off the board, they cannot afford to wait and see who falls to them. My prediction is that that team is going to come into this draft with the goal of drafting a forward. They will have grades on every first round prospect and, if it looks like a number of forwards could fall their way, great. If a bunch of forwards get taken early, however, I would not at all be surprised if MacLellan tries to trade up to make sure he gets a high-end forward prospect.

Next, let’s look at where the Caps like to get their players from. In the last five drafts, Washington has taken nine players from the WHL and 11 players from European leagues. Knowing that, here are the players I would predict to be high on the Caps’ list:

Kirby Dach C, Saskatoon, WHL
Dylan Cozens C, Lethbridge, WHL
Peyton Krebs C, Kootenay, WHL
Ilya Nikolaev C, Russia
Nils Hoglander W, Sweden

The three WHL players I have seen go pretty high in most mock drafts so if you get down to say, pick 15 and one of those guys is still on the board, that’s when it is time to really pay attention and see if MacLellan tries to jump up to snag him.

It depends on what you consider to be “major.” As I mentioned above, if the Caps want to compete for the Cup next season, I do not see how they can avoid making a trade. If trading Niskanen for what would likely be draft picks would be considered “major,” then yes.

Do I see them making a big multi-player trade for significant pieces? No. Do I see them pursuing a big-name free agent like Erik Karlsson or Artemi Panarin? No. Even if MacLellan does trade Niskanen that only frees up another $5.75 million in cap room and the Caps will need just about every penny to fill in their bottom six.

We could see a Niskanen trade, we could see a them trade up in the draft and the team will almost certainly be active on July 1 to find forward depth, but they are not in the running for any of the big name free agents.

Todd Reirden said on breakdown day, “We're going to go through a full review of all that stuff, but I do not anticipate any changes to my coaching staff."

Obviously, he left himself a little bit of wiggle room there, but it does not appear the team is going to make any changes to the staff.

In terms of how they operate, I anticipate Reirden taking a more hands-on approach to the defense. He really made a name for himself in the league for his defensive acumen and the improvement he brought with him as an assistant coach was not as evident last season with him as head coach.

I do not anticipate any major changes to the system the team plays, but I am curious what they do on special teams. I have not seen a team that consistently utilizes the slingshot well on the power play so I am hopeful the breakouts get an update to get rid of the slingshot. I do not know how you could evaluate the team’s play from last season and say, yeah, let’s keep doing that. But, the sling shot was all the rage across the NHL so clearly someone thinks it actually works.

Second, the penalty kill has to adjust for the personnel it has. The Caps tried a more aggressive penalty kill and it did not work for much of the season. Really, it did not seem to click until Hagelin came on board at the trade deadline. If he stays or Washington gets someone on the roster who can run it as effectively as he could, great. Otherwise, you hope the team can accept the fact that a guy like Chandler Stephenson just is not the same player as Hagelin and adjust accordingly. 

First, the defense as that seems like the easier prediction. I see a second pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. I expected that to be the plan the moment the team re-signed Jensen. The bottom pair will be Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. The Caps need to add too much on offense to commit the money to another defenseman. Siegenthaler looked good in the playoffs and Djoos will be entering his third year in the NHL so it is time for both players to step up. I think we could see someone like Tyler Lewington come in as a cheap No. 7 and as someone the team feels no pressure to get into the lineup.

The offense is trickier as this is where the team may add some free agents. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd will be the centers. That much we know. Travis Boyd remains under contract. I predict MacLellan will be able to work something out with Burakovsky and he stays. A return for Stephenson also seems likely. At that point, the Caps should have about $7.5 million of cap space for two more forwards. I think they could make a run at either Connolly or Hagelin, but not both. It just depends on where their priorities lie heading into free agency. If they cannot get any, they have to turn to free agency and hope they can find a top-nine player they can plug into the third line.

Now here’s where things get interesting. You have the money for one high-end bottom six guy (Connolly, Hagelin or their replacement), but a Stephenson, Dowd, Boyd line does not inspire much confidence. Looking at the prospects, the only prospect who seems close to the NHL is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, but it is hard to tell given he only played 16 games in Hershey last season.

If the Caps think he is ready, they could look to Jonsson-Fjallby as a Hagelin replacement. If not, could they actually consider bringing back Dmitrij Jaskin? After all, Jaskin will be an RFA and the team could probably get him for pretty cheap. If they do that, Reirden would have to actually use him, but the cap situation makes this not outside the realm of possibility.

So here is what I would say for the third and fourth lines:

Free agent – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Dmitrij Jaskin
Travis Boyd

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Should the Caps re-sign Devante Smith-Pelly?

Should the Caps re-sign 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 debate:

Region: Capitals free agents

Should the Caps re-sign Devante Smith-Pelly?

2018-19 stats

54 games played with the Caps, 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

2 years, $1,170,523 cap hit

The case for re-signing

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.

Sure, regular season production is an issue, but if you can get a bonafide playoff performer for $1 million or less, that’s a good deal.

The case against re-signing

When the Caps needed to send a player to the minors to free up cap space for Nick Jensen at the trade deadline, the team elected to send Smith-Pelly to Hershey over Dmitrij Jaskin. Jaskin played 37 games last season. That is pretty much all you need to know.

Sure, Smith-Pelly walked into the playoffs and performed well, but he still did not produce. Depth offense is a weakness for the Caps and one they will struggle to address with the little amount of cap space left. You cannot waste that remaining cap space on a player who is going to give you eight points.

Smith-Pelly came into the season in questionable shape, was so ineffective he was sent to the minors and this from a guy who has already bounced around the NHL and who came to Washington after getting bought out by the New Jersey Devils.

On breakdown day, general manager Brian MacLellan said of Smith-Pelly, “Internally we had a couple of issues we had to work through.”

There are just too many red flags here for a Smith-Pelly return.

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

The NHL draft is fast approaching. The first round will take place on Friday and it could be a busy night for the Capitals.

Washington currently holds the 25th pick in the draft. It will be the highest pick this team has had since taking Ilya Samsonov 22nd overall in the 2015 draft. The question, however, is will they stay there?

The more you look at the team’s situation, the more a move in either direction looks like a realistic possibility for the Caps. Here’s why.

Why the Caps could move up

In most situations, an NHL team should pick the best player available. Since most NHL prospects, including most players taken in the first round, will take years to develop before they see NHL action, it does not generally make sense to draft for an immediate need. When teams become fixated on drafting a certain position, it can lead to those teams passing on elite talent at other positions.

For Washington, however, they no longer can afford to ignore the team’s need for a difference-maker at forward.

You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find the last time the Caps drafted a forward in the first round when they drafted Jakub Vrana. Since then, however, they have drafted a goalie, two defensemen and have traded out of the first round completely.

The dearth of forward talent among the team’s prospects is starting to catch up to it. In a year in which the Caps need forward depth but have very little money to fill it, an ideal solution would be to plug any holes on the bottom six with cheap prospects.

Without any top-end forwards in the system, however, that is not really an option.

Riley Barber (sixth-round pick) is an unrestricted free agent and said he does not see himself re-signing with Washington. Nathan Walker (third-round pick) is also a UFA and, though he sounded more open to re-signing with the Caps than Barber, there is no guarantee he does not leave in free agency. Shane Gersich (fifth-round pick) and Garrett Pilon (third-round pick) still look like they need another year in Hershey. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (fifth-round pick) has a whopping 16 games of North American experience and it is hard to know what exactly to expect from him. Kody Clark (second-round pick) and Riley Sutter (third-round pick) still need time to develop.

This team needs a high-end forward prospect, if not for this year then for the near future. It needs that guy who can infuse a bit of youth and excitement, as well as skill, back into the lineup when he gets a call-up. We are not talking about the next Connor McDavid here, just a top-six forward to add to the system because right now it does not appear Washington really has any top-six forwards besides the guys already in the NHL.

That needs to change.

There is value to be found late in the first round of the draft—Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall in 2009, Evgeny Kuznetsov was 26th overall in 2010 and Andre Burakovsky was 23rd overall in 2013 just to name a few—but waiting for a good forward to drop into their laps this year may not be the ideal strategy knowing they need to pick a forward in the first round.

Moving up the draft will ensure they can grab one of the top forwards available. If they move up high enough, perhaps they could even snap someone who could potentially be ready to help the team in the latter half of the season, though that is a lot to ask of a young forward.

The point is Washington cannot afford to go with the usual “best available” mentality and see who falls to 25. General manager Brian MacLellan will have to get proactive and move up to ensure he gets the best available player at the position of need. We may not be talking Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but even moving up to the mid-round can dramatically affect the quality of prospects available.

Why the Caps could move down

Elliotte Friedman had an interesting note on the Caps in his latest 31 Thoughts column. He listed Washington among one of the most aggressive teams in trade talks saying generally of the NHL “we could see some frenetic attempts to move up and down.”

Friedman also wrote, “Other teams believe the Capitals are in total ‘go for it’ mode.”

When a team is in “go for It mode” and trying to win a Cup, the first-round draft pick can be useful trade bait to help bring in a significant piece and bolster the roster. Granted, Washington has very little cap room available so any trade would likely include sending salary with the pick which would, in turn, lower the value of return, but this team is just one year removed from winning the Cup. It is not as if they need to make a major addition to be a contender.

Trading away a first-round pick would be the exact opposite of addressing the team’s need for high-end prospect forward talent as written above, but it is hard to build a team for now and for the future. With Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Co. all in their 30s, it would be understandable why MacLellan would choose to go all-in on winning another Cup in the next few years.

Whether the Caps move up, down or stand pat, we will have all the latest analysis on NBC Sports Washington’s coverage of the draft starting at 8 p.m. on Friday.

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