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Uncertainty over NHL salary cap has Caps GM Brian MacLellan frustrated

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Uncertainty over NHL salary cap has Caps GM Brian MacLellan frustrated

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had a number in his head. It is the most important one for any NHL executive heading into the offseason: $83 million. 

That was the expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season and – with some small margin for error – the amount MacLellan and his staff used to formulate their offseason plan. But it is June 20 and the number that was originally at $83 million could drop to as low as $81.5 million, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. 

Given that Washington has some carryover for bonuses and overages from last season worth about $1.150 million, it could be working with a cap number as low as $80.35 million. That is not ideal for a team where every dollar could spell the difference between upgrading its middle-six forwards or adding a veteran fourth-line player. 

The NHL is expected to come to an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association soon and let teams know the number by Saturday, the second day of the entry draft in Vancouver. That’s a few days later than normal, however, and forces GMs to make decisions during the draft regarding trades and picking prospects they otherwise might not.   

"It's frustrating. We've been projecting using that 83 (million dollars) number for the last part of the year,” MacLellan told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “At some point, we switched back to the 82.5 because there was some rumblings there, and now it seems to be going back a little further. I know it seems like it's not a large amount of dollars, but it does impact teams that are right at the number as far as salary.”

On an $82 million cap, the Capitals have about $9.7 million in room according to the great web site CapFriendly.com. But they need to sign restricted free agent Jakub Vrana and add four other bottom-six forwards and a depth defenseman. That is an extremely tight fit and might rule out some free agent options MacLellan had interest in. 

The free-agent “interview” period begins Sunday when teams can talk to agents of pending free agents and gauge what their demands will be and if they are a fit when the market opens on July 1. 

That, in turn, effects negotiations with Vrana and any other RFAs (Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos) that Washington might want to bring back. Burakovsky is likely to be traded at the draft this weekend, according to multiple NHL sources with knowledge of Washington’s thinking. A further budget crunch would seem to seal his fate.  

MacLellan wouldn’t confirm that and even said “we like the player.” But Burakovsky is due a $3.25 million qualifying offer by Monday so the decision might have been made for them. If the cap is the worst-case scenario ($81.5 million) the Capitals are in a real bind. But they’d like to know for sure.   

“When you see it go down to maybe 81.5, I think there's a pause on our part,” MacLellan said. “We want to see the number before we move forward because it's going to affect our roster decisions even on the bottom end - on fourth line and what we have to do going forward because the margins are that slim for us."

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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

The Capitals made their first round of training camp cuts on Thursday, trimming 18 players from the team’s roster including preseason standouts Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas.

McMichael was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019. He tallied an incredible assist in Monday’s preseason opener, backhanding a no-look pass to a wide-open Damien Riat. His solid performance earned him another game on Wednesday where he moved up to the third line. The highlight of the night was McMichael attempting a between-the-legs shot on Stanley Cup champion goalie Jordan Binnington.

“It’s a pretty good goalie he was trying that move on,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “He has some swagger to him, he has some confidence. He’s not afraid to try plays. That’s some of the stuff that pushes guys into the first round.”

McMichael’s strong play in camp and in the preseason opened the door perhaps for him to compete to stay in Washington for the start of the season.

With the suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington finds itself down a center for the first three games. With Lars Eller moving up to the second line, that leaves an opening on the third between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, where McMichael played on Wednesday.

That, however, does not appear to be in the cards as McMichael is headed back to his junior team, the London Knights.

Protas, who scored a goal and two assists on Monday, was also among the players cut. A third-round draft pick in 2019, Protas was extremely impressive in the preseason for his all-around game. He showed good awareness, vision and speed. His skating form needs work, but this is a player who looks like he has an NHL future ahead of him which is not always the case for mid-round draft picks.

The fact that McMichael and Protas were among the first cuts should not be seen as an indictment of their play by the team. Junior players are usually among the first cuts so they can return to their teams during training camp. The only reason this was a question was because of Kuznetsov’s suspension, but ultimately the team has other candidates to turn to at third-line center. With a brutal October schedule, the first week of the season may not be the best time to get cute or creative with roster choices.

Here are all of the cuts the Caps made on Thursday:

Loaned to their junior teams:

Eric Flrochuk (Saskatoon, WHL)
Alex Kannok-Leipert (Vancouver, WHL)
Connor McMichael (London, OHL)
Aliaksei Protas (Prince Albert, WHL)

Released from their ATOs:

Hayden Hawkey
Beck Warm

Assigned to Hershey:

Casey Bailey
Erik Burgdoerfer
Tommy Hughes
Kale Kessy
Chris McCarthy
Matt Moulson
Logan Thompson
Matthew Weis
Steven Whitney

Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, who are both dealing with upper-body injuries, were reassigned to Hershey as well to continue rehab.

In addition, Damie Riat has been returned to his European team EHC Biel-Bienne of the NLA in Switzerland.

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