Offensive depth was one of the keys to the Capitals' 2018 Cup run. In the past two years, it has been essentially non-existent. That has to change if Washington wants to be a legitimate contender.
Let's look at what exactly the Caps need in terms of offensive depth and figure out how the team may try to address that need in the offseason.
What they need
In 2018, Lars Eller scored seven goals in the playoffs including the Cup-clinching goal and a season-saving Game 3 overtime goal. Brett Connolly had six, Devante-Smith Pelly had seven, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson both had two, Andre Burakovsky had two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Alex Chiasson scored Washington's lone regulation goal in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2020, the bottom six had zero goals in five games against the Islanders. Ilya Kovalchuk was brought in to add depth scoring and he provided a single assist in the postseason.
The depth was really put to the test when Nicklas Backstrom was injured for three games during the series. Head coach Todd Reirden tried both Travis Boyd and Brain Pinho at third-line center, but clearly did not trust either with Boyd playing only 6:38 in Game 2 before getting replaced by Pinho. Pinho played 8:11 in Game 3 and his playing time sank to 3:22 in Game 4.
You can't have the team fall as badly as the Caps did because of one injury, just ask Tampa Bay who had Steven Stamkos for one single game through the entire playoffs.
With Kovalchuk leaving in free agency, the Caps need a point-producing winger to plug into the third line. Center depth may also be a target considering how much it was exposed by the Backstrom injury.
Reirden may not have trusted Boyd, but Reirden is not the head coach anymore and Boyd was pretty productive considering his limited playing time. In 24 games last season, he recorded 10 points. He can play wing or center which provides a bit more roster flexibility. Boyd is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights which complicates things considering the flat salary cap. General managers may not want the uncertainty of arbitration, especially for a team as close to the cap as Washington.
Daniel Sprong is a wing with 97 games of NHL experience with 19 goals and 30 total points. He also has a brand new contract with a cap hit of just $725,000. Beck Malenstyn can also play center or wing in a fourth-line role and has a cap hit of $736,666.
Two other players who are worth mentioning who I would consider unrealistic are Pinho and Connor McMichael. I don't see Pinho as an NHL player and was surprised to see him get into the lineup in the playoffs. He's a center so he's not a good fit for the thrid-line role. Can he be a 13th forward? Sure, but I'm not sure how much that really helps your center depth when you just add someone you could recall from the AHL at any time anyway. McMichael needs more time to develop and, like Pinho, you haven't actually helped your center depth if you add someone to the roster who you could just recall when needed. McMichael would not play over Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and probably not Nic Dowd so what would be the point?
Free agent options
You can always find depth options in free agency and really the middle-six guys are going to get squeezed into lower deals. Don't be surprised if free agency starts and MacLellan bides his time, waiting to see who goes unsigned and who gets desperate. Some possible names to consider would be Jesper Fast . Mikael Granlund, Carl Soderburg, Vlad Namestnikov and Derick Brassard.
If the Caps want to add depth, they can do it without having to give up assets. This is the kind of thing you trade for midseason when you are trying to fine-tune the roster for a playoff run, not in the offseason when you can just go sign free agents.
The most likely scenario
The Caps have limited cap space and need a goalie, a top-pair defenseman, a top-four right defenseman and depth scoring. They do not have the money to make splashy additions at each position and this is the area I think they will choose to go cheap.
Sprong looked great in training camp in July, is young, quick, cheap and has found some limited NHL success in the past. I would expect him to slot in on the third line and that's what the team expects too.
When asked if Sprong's new contract meant the team sees him making the NHL roster, assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said Wednesday, "Yeah, we'd like to see that, Daniel come in and have a really good camp. Probably right now would be more in the bottom-six role as far as the forwards go."
Seeing how quickly the team lost faith in Boyd in the postseason, plus the fact that he has arbitration rights makes me think his time in Washington is over. That means I would expect MacLellan to also sign a cheap free agent center, someone cheap with a high up-side who would rotate in and out with Dowd.
The wild card
Alex Galchenyuk will not be qualified by Minnesota and will become an unrestricted free agent. Before you turn up your nose at this idea, consider this: among all players in the 2012 NHL draft, Galchenyuk ranks first in games played, second in goals, fourth in assists and second in points. He is often bashed as a bust, but this may have more to do with the fact that he was a third-overall draft pick than his actual play. His career is trending downward, he has played for four teams since 2018 and there are some definite red flags there, but this situation looks an awful lot like Connolly and that sure worked out for both the team and the player. He could play a third-line role at wing and also provide some center depth as that is the position he was drafted to play. Maybe he wants a top-six role, but if MacLellan can sell him on the chance to compete for a Cup and talk to him about how Connolly resurrected his career, there could be a fit.