Capitals

What are the Caps' offensive options heading into free agency?

Capitals

The Capitals did not have any trouble scoring last season until the postseason, when the Boston Bruins held them to just two goals per game. Will the team look to make any changes on offense this offseason and, if they do, does it have the cap space to do it?

What they need

Depth center has been a glaring need since Anders Lee injured Nicklas Backstrom in the 2020 postseason. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd are a strong center core, but if one of those players goes down you end up with T.J. Oshie playing there and that's not an ideal situation. There is also a need for a 13th forward with Daniel Sprong poised to take on an everyday role.

Internal options

Beck Malenstyn was seen as a prospect with a legitimate shot to make the NHL roster last season before an injury forced him out of the entire 2021 campaign. If he is able to get back to the level he was previously, he would be a definite option as a 13th forward considering his cap hit is only $750,000. He is also listed as a center, though I see him primarily as a winger in the NHL.

Connor McMichael is widely regarded as the team's top prospect and is a center. He had a great season in Hershey in 2021, but I don't think he is ready for a full-time NHL role next year. Plus, with four established centers, you don't want McMichael stuck as a scratch in the NHL just in case they need him. Better for him to play in the AHL.

 

"He's a young guy that we're not going to force into the lineup," general manager Brian MacLellan said at the team's end-of-season availability. "We'll see how he does in camp and what he can handle, but he had a really good year. I think he finished up the year on a high, improved in all areas. So we're going to look for opportunities to play him, but we're not going to force him into a situation he can't handle."

Another prospect to keep an eye on is Garrett Pilon who MacLellan named specifically.

"I'd like to see Pilon get some games," MacLellan said.

Michael Raffl was picked up at the trade deadline as a depth center/forward, but it seemed Peter Laviolette did not have much faith in him at the position and still leaned on Oshie when needed.

On Saturday, MacLellan told reporters he would approach Raffl the same way he did Zdeno Chara this offseason and circle back after free agency started. That means it's highly doubtful Raffl is back next season.

Free agent options

As with every position for the Caps this offseason, the problem here is cap space. By trading away Brenden Dillon on Monday, the Caps might just have enough to keep their current roster together, but not for any free agency shopping. Having said that, if there is a way to manage it, it would not be surprising at all to see MacLellan target a veteran, depth center he can get on a cheap deal. With the flat salary cap, there may be decent players who find themselves without a contract several weeks into free agency who are then willing to sign for cheap. We saw this happen last year with Conor Sheary.

If a month into free agency a player like Erik Haula is sitting there without a contract, could I see MacLellan throwing a $750,000 - $900,000 contract at him? Sure, but a lot has to happen for the Caps to even get the cap space to make a move like that.

Trade options

When talking about a trade, we have to talk about who might be headed out, not who could be headed in.

At this point, you will have heard all about the trade rumors surrounding Kuznetsov and the fact that the team may be ready to move on from him. MacLellan pushed back on this Saturday, but fell short of saying the team wouldn't trade Kuznetsov.

There are a few things to consider when it comes to a Kuznetsov trade. First, as good as he is, he is inconsistent and everyone knows it. Second, with four years remaining on a contract with a $7.8 million cap hit, that will be a hard contract to move in this era of the flat salary cap. Third, there is a cost that comes with shedding cap space so MacLellan may struggle to get the value you would think a player like Kuznetsov is worth. And finally, if you trade away Kuznetsov you have to also bring in a top-six center.

 

Eller is a very good center and can play up in the lineup when needed, but the reality is that, on a championship team, he is a third-line center. Having Backstrom as the top-line center and Eller as the second is just not good enough for a team that wants to win the Stanley Cup. This greatly complicates MacLellan's options when it comes to a Kuznetsov trade. You can't make that move unless you know you are getting a top-six center from somewhere -- in a return for trading Kuznetsov, free agency, another trade, etc.

The most likely scenario

It depends on what Ovechkin and Ilya Samsonov sign for, but the Dillon trade may be just enough to keep the current roster. That would give an offensive lineup of:

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson

Anthony Mantha - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie

Conor Sheary - Lars Eller - Daniel Sprong

Carl Hagelin - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

Garrett Pilon or Beck Malenstyn

The wild card

What if the extra cap space the team gained in the Dillon trade is not enough? In that case, I think a Kuznetsov deal becomes more likely.

The Caps have one pick in each round of the 2022 draft so maybe it takes Kuznetsov and a first to bring in a center and cap space in return, but I'm not sure it makes sense to trade away players on a defense that is now thinner without Dillon.