In 2018, the Capitals traded for a little-known defenseman at the trade deadline named Michal Kempny. That trade may have saved the Caps' season as Kempny soon ascended to the top defensive pair alongside John Carlson and played a major role in the team's postseason run to the Stanley Cup. After a lackluster 2019-20 season, however, the Caps may need to look for other options for who to play alongside Carlson for next season.
Here's a look at how they may address that need in the offseason.
What they need
So top pair defense is pretty important and Kempny, the team’s top pair left defenseman, is a question mark following a tough season. He underwent surgery to repair a torn hamstring in April 2019 and he did not look quite right physically or mentally for much of the regular season when he returned. That was to be expected. Torn hamstrings are no joke and it can take a while to recover. What’s troubling is that Kekmpny essentially had an extra offseason to recover when the NHL paused the season from March until training camps opened in July, taking him a full year past his surgery. When the postseason got underway in August, Kempny continued to struggle to the point that he was actually a healthy scratch for the final three games against the New York Islanders.
You are not a real championship contender if you go into a season with your top defensive pair being a major question mark and the fact that Kempny struggled in the regular season and then again in the playoffs means the team cannot simply assume he will be back to normal in 2020-21.
With Carlson locked in on the right side of the top pair, general manager Brian MacLellan needs to find someone who can play the left side of that pair.
Perhaps the playoffs were a carryover from the tough season and Kempny will be back to normal whenever camps finally return, but when the season is essentially Stanley Cup or bust, I have a hard time believing MacLellan will go into next season assuming Kempny will be the guy.
Luckily, the Caps have plenty of other options on the left. Brenden Dillon, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler, Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev are all left shots, though Fehervary and Alexeyev are both prospects vying just for spots on the NHL roster.
Dillon played on the top pair at times after being acquired at the trade deadline and played well in that role. Dillon-Carlson had a high-danger chances-for percentage of 57.41-percent despite only starting 40.91-percent of its shifts in the offensive zone. Those are decent numbers and a clear indication that the team is better with those two on the ice together.
The problem with Dillon is he is a pending free agent and would have to be willing to not only re-sign, but at a reasonable cap hit considering the team's tight salary cap situation.
If not Dillon, Orlov is the team's best left defenseman, but his skill set does not compliment Carlson's all that well. When they did play together in 2019-20, the Orlov-Carlson pair had the team's best Corsi-For percentage in the regular season at 57.89-percent. A whopping 71.19-percent of Orlov-Carlson's shifts started in the offensive zone, however, and that's massive. It shows a clear desire by the coaches to use that pair only in offensive situations and if they can't even be trusted in their own zone, then this isn't a viable option as a top pair.
Free agent options
A top pair defenseman is expensive and that makes me think free agency is not an option here. Washington cannot afford to break the bank, even at a position as important as a top-pair defenseman. They just have too many needs and not enough cap room.
When you see that the Caps already have Kempny, Orlov, Siegenthaler, Fehervary and Alexeyev, plus could pursue re-signing Dillon, if there is a trade to be made it will be most likely be to shift out a left-shot defenseman rather than bring another one in. Having said that, you can't dismiss this option completely. With the cap situation being what it is, trading for a player who already has his cap hit set is a more affordable way to plug this hole than free agency.
...or at least it would be if there were any options out there.
Looking at Frank Seravalli's trade board of players thought to be on the trading block, the top left defensemen are Oliver Ekman-Larsson (too expensive in terms of both trade asking price and a cap hit of $8.25 million), Brady Skjei (currently with Carolina) and Shayne Gostisbehere (currently with Philadelphia). I don't see Skjei or Gostisbehere as top-pair defensemen and even if they were, it's always dicey trying to work out trades within the division. Not impossible, but difficult.
One other situation is trading for the rights of Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug who will be the best available left defenseman on the market. Krug is on the final year of his contract and the Bruins likely do not have the cap room to keep him. If Boston doesn't have the cap space, however, Washington probably doesn't either and there's no point trading an asset just to low-ball a player a few days away from free agency.
The most likely scenario
I wrote about why re-signing Dillon should be a top priority earlier in September, but I don't see how a team with Cup aspirations and a tight salary cap situation can have a player like Dillon who can play on the top pair and let him walk in free agency. I know people are not happy about how many penalties he takes -- Dillon ranked fourth in the entire NHL in PIM -- but he is probably going to be more affordable than other proven free agents and more proven than other affordable free agents. To bring him back, however, I think it will mean trading away another left defenseman. There are just too many on the roster if they bring Dillon back.
The wild card
The Caps had to replace Kempny on the top pair in 2019 when he suffered his hamstring injury prior to the playoffs. Head coach Todd Reirden cycled through options and nothing seemed to stick until Siegenthaler stepped into the role. He played very well with Carlson despite the major role and the lack of experience.
After a year in which Siegenthaler established himself as one of the team's top penalty killers, perhaps MacLellan will have enough faith in him to step into that role alongside Carlson again. After all, MacLellan was the guy who traded up in the draft to get Siegenthaler in 2015.