The Capitals’ offseason, as it is for most teams this offseason, likely isn’t going to get started until the Seattle Kraken have a full roster.
Alex Ovechkin’s contract extension appears to be a formality, with the caveat that it is expected it will come after the expansion draft next week so the Capitals can protect one more forward. The team needs to shed salary, but how much salary they need to rid themselves of will depend upon whoever gets selected by the Kraken.
All of those things are a given. But, as the Capitals know well, the NHL has a funny way of throwing curveballs when a new team is added.
The Capitals are about to lose a player to the NHL’s 32nd franchise, but what’s the worst-case scenario for a team that wants to compete for a title next season?
It’s expected that the team will protect John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov on the back-end, but after that, the decision to protect Nick Jensen, Justin Schultz or Brenden Dillon could be related to, simply, play on the ice, or even salary. But either way, the Capitals will have the ability to supplement that talent with the depth they’ve got.
Even a loss of Schultz can be spun into a positive, as the team would clear $4 million off the books despite losing a talented right-handed defenseman.
So what are the parameters for what constitutes a worst-case scenario here? Two things come to mind: A player with a low cap hit being taken, and a player that the team doesn’t have an immediate answer for replacing.
With that, there are a few options.
Right now, the Capitals have $9.018 million in cap space according to Cap Friendly (once Michal Kempny is added to the active roster from Long-Term Injured Reserve). That does not factor in the Alex Ovechkin or Ilya Samsonov extension — and even those deals would leave the Capitals with just 12 forwards on the active roster.
So while keeping talent is key in the expansion draft, salary will come into play significantly here as well.
On defense the only player that would fit the mold would be Trevor van Riemsdyk, who played well down the stretch for the Capitals as injuries plagued the entire roster. That would leave the Capitals with Carlson, Jensen and Schultz and a defensive right side that costs $14.5 million, a tad pricey for a team with such highly-paid forwards.
Up front (if the Capitals protect Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha, Lars Eller and Daniel Sprong) that would leave Conor Sheary and Nic Dowd unprotected.
Sheary scored 14 goals and 22 points in 53 games as a versatile forward that can move up and down the lineup at just $1.5 million, and Dowd, at just $750,000, scored 11 goals in 56 games as the team’s entrenched fourth-line center.
In net, assuming the Samsonov contract gets worked out, Vitek Vanecek will likely be left unprotected by the organization. In his rookie season, Vanecek made 36 starts with a save percentage of .908 and a 2.69 Goals Against Average.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to what the Capitals can’t afford (perhaps literally) to lose in expansion and reasonable cases exist for Sheary, van Riemsdyk, Vanecek and Dowd.
But, even though the team has Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale in the minors, losing Vanecek in goal would likely be the worst-case scenario for the Capitals.
How likely that is remains unknown, but if the Capitals were to replace Vanecek with Copley, they would not only lose a goalie that has proven himself at the NHL level but one that costs nearly $400,000 more. Copley didn't play in the NHL last year and, in 2018-19, played in 27 games with a .905 save percentage.
Additionally, while the ceiling for Samsonov is tantalizing, he hasn’t been able to put together a full season of consistent NHL play yet. And with that unknown, for a team that wants to compete for the Stanley Cup, a question mark in net would be too much to handle.
With both Vanecek and Samsonov in goal, the Capitals would have a young, talented and, perhaps most importantly, cheap tandem to roll with into next seaosn.
While losing Sheary would hurt on the ice, and van Riemsdyk would hurt the salary cap space, and Dowd would hurt both, the Capitals can least afford to lose a netminder that played solid minutes for them last season, that they might need to end up being a No. 1 goalie in the 2021-22 season.