ARLINGTON, Va. -- The salary cap was one of the major storylines for the Capitals heading into the 2019-20 season. Facing a cap crunch in the summer, it was expected the team would have to make several moves to shed salary. General manager Brian MacLellan did, but he was also aggressive in acquiring players he felt the team needed to bolster the roster. As a result, the team entered the season with almost no space under the cap ceiling.
Now 27 games into the season, the strain the lack of cap space is putting on the team is coming into clear focus and there is no easy answer for how to ease that strain.
For a team with so little room under the cap ceiling, staying healthy was going to be paramount for being able to more easily navigate the cap. Thus far, the Caps have not been so lucky.
"Half the teams in the league, more than half the teams in the league, are in the same spot we're in where you're right at the cap, you're $1 million away from the cap,” MacLellan said Tuesday. “When you get injuries, it forces you to make certain decisions that you might not normally make."
Those "certain decisions" include stripping the roster down to only 12 healthy forwards and six defensemen. It includes recalling Tyler Lewington, a defenseman, to replace forwards Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd when both were out with upper-body injuries and playing a game with seven defensemen. It includes recalling Mike Sgarbossa and Beck Malenstyn on the day of a game against the New York Rangers and dressing a bottom-six that more resembled a Hershey Bears’ lineup than an NHL one.
Those are the issues facing the Caps now, but staying so close to the ceiling also will have ramifications later in the season.
At the trade deadline, teams make a flurry of moves to bolster their rosters. They are able to do this in part because of banked cap space. That extra space allows them to afford players they would not have been able to earlier in the season.
But Washington is not banking any space.
Judging from the first quarter of the season, adding a right-shot, top-four defenseman should be a priority for the team, but those players do not usually come with a cheap price tag. Trying to add a player like that will require an equal dollar deal be made because there is no other way for the Caps to fit another salary under the cap.
"I think it's gonna be tough,” MacLellan said when asked about making any late-season additions. “Depending on the long-term injury and the amount of cap space you have, it's gonna be hard to add an impact player. I think it's - it's going to be hard to add a high-salary player."
MacLellan will face another challenge soon as the Caps embark on a four-game road trip starting on Saturday in Detroit.
Carrying the bare minimum of healthy players is always a risk, as the last few weeks have shown. With a home-heavy schedule with the only travel being on the East Coast, the team rolled the dice believing it could make any recalls necessary and those players would be able to arrive in time for a game situation.
This road trip, however, will take the Caps to Detroit and then California. With Carl Hagelin eligible to return on Dec. 2 and looking healthy enough to be activated at that point, Washington will once again have to shed salary and will likely find itself without enough money for both a spare forward and defenseman for the road trip. What then? Do they recall Tyler Lewington who has the lowest cap hit in the organization as the 19th player and cross their fingers that there are no forward injuries until they get back to Washington? They may have no choice.
"I think we're day-to-day making decisions,” MacLellan said. “It's tough. We can play that game of projecting, but like I don't know what Nick's injury [is]. We don't have Hagelin back for sure yet. So are we gonna have a guy on LTI or not on LTI? I mean there are so many factors that go into the day-to-day decisions. We spent more time this year talking about injuries, roster, the cap on a day-to-day basis than we ever had."
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