For the most part, the Capitals’ protection list for the upcoming expansion draft looked as expected.
Alex Ovechkin was left unprotected, as he’s an unrestricted free agent. T.J. Oshie was protected, as was Evgeny Kuznetsov. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov got the nod over Vitek Vanecek, too.
But the minor, and perhaps lone, surprise came when the Capitals protected defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk instead of one of their more-expensive defenders in Nick Jensen, Justin Schultz or Brenden Dillon. It might seem odd that the Capitals protected someone who played in just 20 games last season, but there’s a few reasons — at least 1.55 million of them to get technical — why the van Riemsdyk protection makes a lot of sense.
Most simply, van Riemsdyk played well in his first year as a Capital. He scored just one goal with two assists in his 20 games, but was always a strong possession player (52.49 percent Corsi-For) and was downright dominant at tilting the ice in the scoring areas with a 60.61 High-Danger Chances For percentage.
Paired with Brenden Dillon for the majority of his time at five-on-five, the pairing created a nice duo for the Capitals’ back-end that inspired the team enough to extend him to a team-friendly, two-year $1.9 million extension in March. Which, as it turns out, was seemingly a big (if not the only) reason why van Riemsdyk doesn’t have to worry about going to Seattle.
The Capitals have guaranteed themselves a right-handed defenseman on the roster next year (trades notwithstanding) that won’t cost more than $1 million. For a money-strapped team, each penny is going to count next season.
And along with left-handed defenseman Martin Fehervary, whom general manager Brian MacLellan said was ready for the NHL game, the Capitals have two defensemen lined up for the roster that each won’t eclipse a $1 million cap hit.
By leaving Dillon ($3.9 million cap hit), Schultz ($4 million cap hit) and Jensen ($2.5 million cap hit) unprotected, the Capitals are tempting the Kraken to take a more expensive contract to give the team breathing room in the era of a flat salary cap. Essentially, the Capitals are willing to take the chance that a $950,000 van Riemsdyk, plus the cap space his roster spot saves, can help them fill out a roster better than, say, a $2.5 million Jensen would.
With Fehervary on the roster and Michal Kempny off Long-Term Injured Reserve, the Capitals have eight defensemen, 10 forwards and a goalie on the NHL roster for next season with, according to CapFriendly, a shade over $8.22 million in cap space. That doesn’t include the Alex Ovechkin extension, nor the Ilya Samsonov extension.
If those two deals cost the Capitals, hypothetically, $13 million against the cap next season, they’ll need to shed about $5 million to put a team on the ice. That can come in a variety of ways, but they’ve made that job easier by guaranteeing themselves a defender on a cheap contract.
Unless the Kraken select center Nic Dowd or Vanecek, the Capitals will have saved money by protecting van Riemsdyk over anyone else on the NHL roster eligible to be selected. Now, the Capitals could be in for as much as $4 million in savings if the Kraken take Dillon or Schultz.
Should the Kraken take Schultz, or even Jensen, the Capitals will have a defensive right side of John Carlson, van Riemsdyk and the remaining defender. And in this scenario, the Capitals will have saved themselves at least $2.5 million, or about half, of what they’d need to to fill out the lineup. If Schultz goes, it’d be $4 million.
If Dillon is selected by the Kraken, the left side of the defense will fall into place rather easily with Dmitry Orlov, Kempny and Fehervary flanked by Carlson, Schultz, Jensen and van Riemsdyk. Still, questions will follow that group as Kempny has not played an NHL game since his Achilles injury last year. Whether or not he can be productive at a $2.5 million cap hit could influence MacLellan’s moves this summer.
In any scenario where a defenseman is selected, though, at least one cost-cutting would still be to come. The protection of van Riemsdyk didn’t solve all of Washington’s problems with the salary cap, it just opened a few more doors to make it easier on them to do so.
The possibilities for the Capitals, if a non-defenseman is taken in the expansion draft, are far too vast to go through, but MacLellan would certainly have his work cut out for him in that scenario.
There is seemingly a chance the Capitals move Kuznetsov this offseason, who has a $7.8 million cap hit, but the returning player(s) would dictate future moves. And if the Capitals do move Kuznetsov, they’d certainly be looking to acquire a center in return —who are notoriously not cheap — at some point.
The blueline in Washington is going to look different next season no matter who Seattle selects, but the Kraken’s decision will be the biggest factor in the Capitals’ offseason of just how many moves they need to makes. The Capitals electing to protect van Riemsdyk just gave themselves more options than they would’ve had otherwise.
The Capitals’ offseason, at the moment, is in the hands of a hockey front office in Washington — only this one is about 2,500 miles away. And MacLellan and the Capitals can only wait to see who, or perhaps more accurately, how much salary, is taken off the books.