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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Is it time for the Caps to move on from Braden Holtby?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Is it time for the Caps to move on from Braden Holtby?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in 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.

It may technically be the offseason for the players, but it certainly is not for Brian MacLellan who is busy preparing for the draft and figuring out what his roster is going to look like next season. The NHL draft takes place on June 21 and 22 and free agency begins July 1.

First, here’s what MacLellan can’t do: He cannot re-sign Braden Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom. Players are not able to negotiate a contract extension until they reach the final year of their contract and the league year begins on July 1. All of the team’s other free agents, however, should be fair game.

In an offseason where the Caps have a lot of work to do, why haven’t we heard anything yet? Because the team’s entire offseason will depend on how much money it takes to re-sign Jakub Vrana.

Vrana is a restricted free agent and just scored 24 goals at the age of 23. He is going to be re-signed, but how much it costs will determine who and what else the Caps can afford. As he is playing in the World Championship right now, however, it does not make sense to re-sign him until the tournament is over since you never know what can happen injury wise.

At this point, MacLellan is likely meeting with scouts in preparation for the draft and reaching out to agents to figure out if certain free agents are open to a return and what the possible numbers could be. Deadlines tend to spark action so do not be surprised if we do not see a lot of movement on the team’s free agents until June.

Victor L writes: With the Capitals' tight salary situation, and the eventual installation of Ilya Samsonov as the goaltender of the future, shouldn't the Caps consider trading Braden Holtby and just make the move now to Samsonov?

James P. writes: With Seattle commencing play in 2021, the expansion draft is only 1 season away. Given that teams are only able to protect 1 goalie, would Washington consider trading Holtby to a goaltender-desperate team such as Calgary or Edmonton now and bring up Ilya Samsonov one year early?

There is some merit to this argument in that, if the Caps intend to move on from Holtby to Samsonov, doing it now would allow the Caps to trade a valuable asset in Holtby and free up cap space. Having said that, no, this is not going to happen and it shouldn’t.

An example of what you are talking about is when Tampa Bay had both Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy and elected to trade Bishop during the final year of his contract. The difference with that situation is that Vasilevskiy was in his third NHL season when Bishop was traded and was clearly ready to be an NHL starter.

Samsonov has never played in an NHL game. He just completed his first season in North America. I watched him play in the playoffs for Hershey and I saw a goalie with very raw skill who was still in need of serious development. To bring him to the NHL next season to be the starter would be unfair to him and unfair to the team. He’s just not there yet.

This does set up a potential dilemma after the 2019-2020 season as the Caps will likely be forced to choose between Holtby and Samsonov. Holtby will be 30 at that point and will be looking for another long-term deal. If I am him, whatever Sergei Bobrovsky signs for this offseason would be my starting point in any negotiation. You do not sign Holtby long-term if you think you have a new budding starter in Samsonov.

So do you re-sign Holtby and trade a young future No. 1 or do you let Holtby walk as a free agent and turn the crease over to a player who, let’s face it, probably won’t have a ton of NHL experience again by next year?

It’s a fascinating question. The bottom line is that the timing of all of this stinks for Washington, but you do not solve that problem by giving Samsonov too much too soon. He is not ready and that would be a massive mistake.

Ryuko M. writes: Do you guys think we will keep Braden Holtby after next year?

Looking at the team’s salary cap, my prediction is that Washington will only be able to keep one of Backstrom or Holtby and I find it far more likely that Backstrom will be the guy who stays with Washington. The reason why is Bobrovsky.

Bobrovsky, 30, is an unrestricted free agent this season and is going to break the bank. He is a two-time Vezina winner with a 2.46 GAA and .919 save percentage in his career. Holtby’s numbers are very similar with a 2.47 GAA and .918 save percentage. He has won the Vezina only once, but he blows Bobrovsky out of the water in terms of playoff performance. Holtby has won a Stanley Cup and has managed a 2.09 GAA and .928 save percentage, the fifth best playoff save percentage of all-time. Bobrovsky has won only one playoff series in his entire career and has a pedestrian 3.14 GAA and .902 save percentage.

Holtby is one year younger than Bobrovsky so he will reach free agency at the same point in his career. Based on the numbers above, Holtby is worth at least whatever Bobrovsky is if not more. I just do not see how the Caps can afford to commit $10+ million in cap space to a goalie on the wrong side of 30 when they already have cap issues and they have what they believe will be the next starter already in the pipeline.

Nathan S. writes: Given that he and Matt Niskanen struggled this year and many expect him to be traded, do you see much hope for Dmitry Orlov to improve or be traded as well?

Orlov is not going to get traded. This was not a great season for him, but in many ways, I thought he was weighed down by Niskanen who was the worse of the two. Plus, Niskanen is 32 so it is not a stretch to believe his best years may be behind him.

Niskanen is a possible trade target because of his age, because the Caps need the cap room and because despite his season he would still have value in a trade. It is a gamble, however, because you still have to replace him in the top four. Nick Jensen looks like he will take over that spot, but there is no obvious answer for who steps up without Orlov.

The bottom line is that if the Caps traded away two of their top-four defensemen in a single offseason, they would be completely cutting their own legs out from underneath them.

Orlov had a lot of turnover issues early in his career, but he has improved greatly in that area. Last season in particular I thought was very strong for him. This year, as I said, was a down year, but I think his reputation among the fanbase is hurting him worse than his play right now. He is a solid top-four defenseman in his prime and not someone the Caps should be looking into getting rid of.

Benjamin C. writes: Out of Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, we’re definitely going to lose somebody (probably Connolly). Any chance we keep 2 out of the three? At least one of them?

If you want a deeper dive into the Caps’ salary cap constraints this season, you can read this story I wrote in April. To summarize, if you take out all the UFAs and RFAs, Washington will have about $10 million in cap room to sign five forwards and a defenseman. Some of that money, probably somewhere in the $4 million range, is going to go to Vrana and another approximately $1 million is going to go to Christian Djoos. That leaves the Caps with about $5 million to sign four forwards.

See why there is all that speculation about trading Niskanen for cap room?

Of Hagelin, Connolly and Burakovsky, the player I see as most likely to leave is Hagelin. He was a trade deadline acquisition and will likely command more money on the free agent market than the Caps can afford. What will really stinks is if he goes back to Pittsburgh which is something I see as a definite possibility.

As for Connolly and Burakovsky, I definitely see scenarios in which either or both players stay. Connolly has crashed and burned on two other NHL teams before he finally found success with the Caps. Would comfort and fit prompt him to take a significant discount? As for Burakovsky who is an RFA, a qualifying offer of $3.25 million would likely be too steep, but perhaps Washington could explore the option of not qualifying him and then try to convince him to sign for less.

There is no way the team can afford two out of the three without freeing up cap space and even then, there is going to be a team out there willing to offer Connolly more money and a bigger role than what the Caps can. Without much forward depth in the pipeline, however, the Caps really need to find a way to keep at least one of these players. If I had to choose the most likely to stay at this point, I would say Burakovsky.

Holtby, Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, John Carlson, Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov are all back next season. That is a championship-caliber core so yes, the window is still open. But you cannot win without depth and that is the challenge this offseason. Can MacLellan add enough pieces around the core to keep this team among the Cup contenders?

As for how long the window will be open, given the age of some of the team’s significant players, this becomes a year-by-year question. You cannot anticipate when players will begin to drop off or how much. When that happens, that changes the equation.

Is the window still open in 2019-20? Yes. Will it be beyond that? There’s no way to know if Ovechkin will remain the caliber of scorer he is, if Holtby will still be the goalie or if Samsonov will be ready to take over, if Backstrom will still be with the team, if Oshie begins to decline physically, if the team is able to find key depth pieces, etc.

Yes, but his attitude sure isn’t.

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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Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

Free Agency Bracket: Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

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 semifinal matchup:

Joonas Donskoi vs. Carl Gunnarsson

2018-19 stats

Joonas Donskoi (27 years old): 80 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 14 goals, 23 assists, 37 points, 13:25 TOI

Playoffs: 12 games played for the San Jose Sharks, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 12:26 TOI

Carl Gunnarsson (32 years old): 25 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points, 15:15 TOI

Playoffs: 19 games played with the St. Louis Blues, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, 14:57 TOI, won Stanley Cup

Hockey-Graph contract projections 

Joonas Donskoi: 3 years, $2,847,521 cap hit

Carl Gunnarsson: 1 year, $731,159 cap hit

The case for Joonas Donskoi

Maybe Andre Burakovsky’s qualifying offer of $3.25 million means he’s back with the Capitals for another year. But it doesn’t preclude a trade and in Donskoi you’d have a similar option at a cheaper price, which matters if you only have $9.2 million in cap space left for now.

Donskoi made the offense better in San Jose in whatever role he was asked to play. He can go up and down the lineup and had a consistency to his game that Burakovsky at times lacks. Donskoi’s stats may not always reflect that, but making his teammates around him better is a valuable asset. Either way, depth scoring is important and a priority for the Capitals. 

Donskoi has every bit the Stanley Cup playoff experience as Burakovsky does if that matters to you. Donskoi has nine goals and 12 assists in 50 playoff games and Burakovsky has nine goals and nine assists in 56 playoff games. Not much to chose between the team except Donskoi would be cheaper if Washington decided to trade Burakovsky. 

The case for Carl Gunnarsson

The Caps will need a No. 6/7 defenseman after Brooks Orpik retired on Tuesday. Yes, they gave a qualifying offer to RFA defenseman Christian Djoos and they have Jonas Siegenthaler under contract, too. Both are natural left side defensemen. Going with the kids is an option. But both of them? That becomes problematic when someone gets hurt in your top two pairings and players have to bump up. 

Gunnarsson was the hero of the “Boston Pee Party” when he scored the overtime winner in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after declaring to head coach Craig Berube at the urinal he just needed one more opportunity. Gunnarsson had just seven points in the regular season so no one should expect a ton of offense, but the point is he delivered when it mattered most.

When he is not playing the overtime hero, he is a third-pairing, stay at home defenseman who can play on the penalty kill which is pretty much exactly what the Caps need in a depth defenseman.

Take a look at Gunnarsson’s contract projection. You can’t beat that price. Sure, those projections came out before he won the Stanley Cup, but even if his price goes up, it will not be significant. You’re tinkering at the margins of the roster here and championship experience matters. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here:

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

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Burakovsky receives qualifying offer from Capitals

The Capitals tendered qualifying offers to six of their seven restricted free agents at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, including forward Andre Burakovsky. 

Burakovsky, 24, had been the subject of trade rumors up until the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 and also in the days leading up to last week’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. Nothing came of them. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear that while teams were calling, he wasn’t about to just give away a 2013 first-round draft pick. 

“We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player,” MacLellan said last Thursday. “We'd like to keep him around but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him. But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

But the Capitals are still in a salary cap crunch and that could still land Burakovsky elsewhere in the coming days. His qualifying offer is $3.25 million. Washington is only $9.235 million below the salary cap of $81.5 million. If Burakovsky signs, he would provide scoring depth. He has a career-high 17 goals and has scored 12 each of the past two seasons.

The Capitals do need to see more from Burakovsky. He has struggled with confidence and consistent production over the years. But if he returns, he would be a good option to replace the expected-to-depart Brett Connolly at right wing on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Connolly is an unrestricted free agent and likely out of Washington’s price range. 

By tendering a qualifying offer, the Capitals ensure that they will keep Burakovsky’s rights. If they had not then he’d be an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. That’s not a smart use of an asset that could still help in 2019-20. They could, of course, still trade him at any time. 

Meanwhile, forward Dmitry Jaskin was not tendered a qualifying offer. He is a free agent now. Jaskin never gained the trust of the coaching staff last season. He appeared in just 37 games despite analytics that showed he had a positive impact on the fourth line. Jaskin picked up on waivers from the St. Louis Blues in October, had two goals and four assists. He did not play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Winger Jakub Vrana also received a qualifying offer, but that’s not expected to matter much as the two sides try to put together a long-term contract extension after his breakthrough 24-goal season in his second NHL year. 

The Capitals did tender a qualifying offer to defenseman Christian Djoos. An ugly thigh injury that turned into compartment syndrome and limited him to 45 games. But with Brooks Orpik retiring on Tuesday, Washington could go with Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as their No. 6/7 defensemen on their natural left sides. 

Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson also received his qualifying offer. AHL Hershey forward Colby Williams and goalie Vitek Vanacek also received qualifying offers from Washington.  

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