NHL free agency began on Wednesday with a flurry of moves happening all across the NHL, but not in Washington. The Capitals largely stood pat on Wednesday with the team's only NHL move being a trade to reacquire goalie Vitek Vanecek from the Seattle Kraken. There were a handful of minor league signings, but otherwise, the Caps largely sat this one out.
General manager Brian MacLellan is not afraid to address his team's needs in free agency. In his very first season as general manager, he immediately signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in the offseason to address the team's need on defense. Being a championship contender and a cap team, Washington has been tight against the salary cap for several years and has, at times, had to get creative to fit under the ceiling. But still, even when it looked like there was no more room to possibly maneuver, MacLellan has always been able to squeeze a few more drops of water out of the stone.
In 2019, it was thought MacLellan would have to move Niskanen in a salary dump just to find enough room for one depth forward to replace Brett Connolly. Instead, MacLellan traded Niskanen for Radko Gudas and signed Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. In 2020 when it looked like the team had no cap room at all to address needs in net and on defense, MacLellan somehow managed to sign Henrik Lundqvist, Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk. He even added Zdeno Chara, Conor Sheary and Craig Anderson later in the offseason.
In 2021, however, it appears the salary cap may have finally caught up with Washington. A team that has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and still has Stanley Cup aspirations stood pat as free agency began, despite a number of needs.
The Caps came into Wednesday without a backup goalie, with question marks on the left side of the defense and no NHL depth at center beyond their top four players. But instead of making a splash in free agency, the Caps were silent. They were, of course, linked to a few players and there is no doubt they had discussions with a few potential fits, but ultimately there were no signings for the NHL roster.
In the end, this may not be a bad thing. Teams make just as many mistakes as they make good signings in free agency and overpaying is the name of the game. While there could be some signings later in free agency, as Sheary and Chara showed us, most likely those deals will not be for much term or much money. Chances are, there won't be any contracts offered this offseason that the Caps ultimately regret in a few years' time, no contracts they look to trade away in a salary dump or ultimately have to buy out.
On the other side of the coin, will a team that did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs last year be able to compete for the Cup with much the same roster? Unless an unexpected trade or signing is yet to come to shake up the roster, we are going to see a very similar lineup to what we saw last season. Dillon is gone and Chara and Michael Raffl are both free agents. They have been replaced by Michal Kempny coming off an Achilles injury, prospect Martin Fehervary and Daniel Sprong, who looks poised to have an everyday role on the team next season.
There are other factors to consider. Peter Laviolette will get a full training camp and preseason to prepare for the upcoming season, a more regular calendar will allow the players to get into their normal offseason training routines and will hopefully prevent injuries, and young players like Sprong, Ilya Samsonov and Vanecek could breakout as they continue to develop. There is absolutely a case to be made that the Caps could be an improved team based on the few moves they have made thus far, but with the championship window closing more and more with each passing season, that is a big gamble to take. Or, at least it would be if the team had a choice. It seems, however, that the salary cap may have made that choice for them.