ARLINGTON, Va. – Consistency was expected to be one of the strengths of the Capitals heading into the 2018-19 season. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, general manager Brian MacLellan went to great lengths to keep the championship-winning roster almost entirely intact.
On Friday at the Capitals’ final media availability of the season, MacLellan made some ominous comments about the roster and how much turnover there could be in the offseason.
“We’ll have some decisions to make,” he said. “… Some of it’s money decisions. Some of it’s we need to make a couple changes.”
Washington is a cap team and was right up against the salary cap ceiling for much of the season. The danger of being a cap team is that it leaves very little room for roster flexibility and at some point, tough decisions need to be made.
But the Caps’ salary cap situation may be even more dire than just needing more flexibility and, with the roster as currently constructed, it looks as if Washington will have to get creative just in order to fill out a full lineup for next season.
“Depending on what we decide to do, you might have to create some space and just go from there,” MacLellan said.
The salary cap for next season is not yet known, but it is expected to be around $83 million. The NHLPA has a 5-percent escalator clause that allows it to raise the cap even further, it has been wary of using the full escalator in recent years due to concerns over the growth of escrow. Let’s not get bogged down by the complicated details of all of this right now and, for our purposes, assume the cap will go up to $83 million.
Some late season performance bonuses actually pulled the Caps over the salary cap in 2018-19 so Washington will have an overage taken off their cap for next season. Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that amount will be $1.15 million. Also, Nic Dowd, Nick Jensen and Pheonix Copley were re-signed during the season and will all get raises pulling their respective cap hits up next season.
At a minimum, you want to have 22 players on the roster (13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies). This gives you one extra player at both forward and defense. According to CapFriendly as of right now Washington has eight forwards, six defensemen (including Jonas Siegenthaler as it seems reasonable to assume he will start next year in the NHL) and two goalies under contract for a total cap hit of approximately $72.9 million. That does not include the team’s restricted free agents. That gives the team just over $10 million of cap space to work with to sign five forwards and one defenseman.
That is not a lot of wiggle room.
Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both RFAs and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list, but both will come at a cost meaning there will be even less money for Washington to spend to bring in in the other four forwards the team will need to bolster its bottom-six.
And we haven’t even gotten to the other RFAs (Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, Dmitrij Jaskin) or any of the unrestricted free agents (Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brooks Orpik).
Burakovsky was great in the playoffs, Hagelin instantly became the team’s best penalty killer and was a great fit since he was acquired at the trade deadline, Connolly scored a career-high 22 goals, Smith-Pelly was a playoff hero from 2018 and Orpik is one of the unquestioned leaders of the blue line. There is no chance, however, that Washington could possibly fit all of those players under the cap. Plus, if you do lose those players, you still have to replace them. It’s not as if that is just free money off the salary cap.
So what are the Caps’ options?
As MacLellan said, the team may need to “create cap space.” The implication here would be to make a trade of some sort in order to send some salary out of town and off the books. A player like Matt Niskanen would seem a possible candidate.
Niskanen is 32, has a cap-hit of $5.75 million for the next two years and had a down year. He admitted as such on Friday particularly noting his poor start to the season. As a top-four defenseman, however, he would still have value as a trade.
Another option is to not qualify Burakovsky.
As his salary was $3.25 million in 2018-19, that is how much it would take to qualify him and retain his rights as an RFA. The team could instead not qualify him thus removing the salary requirement and try to sign him for less, in much the same way MacLellan did in 2018 with Smith-Pelly. That obviously is a risky move as by not qualifying him, he would become a UFA on July 1 and would be free to sign elsewhere.
Regardless of what Washington tries to do, the team’s current cap predicament virtually guarantees there is going to be at least one, or perhaps several cap casualties.
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