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Why Chandler Stephenson's new contract says he is on thin-ice in Washington

Why Chandler Stephenson's new contract says he is on thin-ice in Washington

On Friday morning, the Capitals were already over the salary cap thanks to an arbitrator’s award to Christian Djoos of $1.25 million for next season. The Caps, however, were not done signing. News broke Friday night that Chandler Stephenson had been re-signed to a one-year deal worth $1.05 million. This must say a lot about Stephenson that general manager Brian MacLellan was willing to push the team further beyond the cap ceiling to re-sign him, right?

Actually, it doesn’t.

When the Capitals signed both Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic in the offseason, the implication seemed clear: Stephenson was in trouble.

Stephenson saw his production go down last season from 18 points to 11 despite getting slightly more ice time. He is a fourth-line player so the fact that MacLellan went out and added two fourth-line free agents seems to indicate Stephenson may be on the outside looking in. Add in the fact that the team added multiple penalty killers, something that is considered Stephenson’s strength, and he suddenly looks very expendable.

And yet, even though the team was already over the cap, Stephenson was re-signed and given a $400,000 raise from his previous deal.

Perhaps reports of Stephenson’s demise had been greatly exaggerated.

It is easy to see Stephenson get re-signed with a raise and conclude that this new contract is a vote of confidence from the team, but if you dive into the numbers you realize that actually the exact opposite is true.

When a player on an NHL contract gets sent to the AHL, it does not automatically mean his entire salary is suddenly taken off the team’s salary cap. Instead, teams get only a limited amount of relief as dictated by the CBA. The formula to determine cap relief is the league minimum salary plus $375,000. For 2019-20 with a league minimum of $700,000, that means the maximum amount of cap relief a team can get for sending a contract to the AHL is $1.075 million.

If a player has a cap hit over $1.075 million, you subtract $1.075 and whatever remains still count against the cap. If a player has a cap hit less than $1.075 million however, then his entire cap hit does come off the books.

Stephenson’s new deal carries a cap hit of $1.05 million, just $25,000 under that threshold.

Yes, Stephenson got a new deal and a raise, but the fact that the Caps gave him just enough to make sure his full salary could be taken off the books if sent to the AHL is a clear indication of where the team thinks he will be next season. This is an NHL contract in name only.

So why would MacLellan give Stephenson a new contract at all then? To get in front of arbitration.

Both Djoos and Stephenson filed for arbitration this summer as restricted free agents. The way the team positioned itself prior to Djoos’ hearing, it seemed clear they thought they would be able to fit him under the cap. The arbitrator’s award, however, far exceeded what I expected him to get and I would not be surprised if it caught MacLellan off-guard as well.

Djoos had a down year, but he did play in 22 games in the Stanley Cup run in a third-pairing capacity. Stephenson played in all 24 games with two goals and five assists. If the Cup run was what led to the arbitrator giving Djoos such a big raise, it likely would have meant a bigger deal for Stephenson than the team wanted as well. The last thing the Caps could afford to happen is for Stephenson to be awarded a deal for more than $1.075 million which the team would not be able to fully bury in the AHL. That would have been a nightmare scenario.

They got a deal done with Stephenson now because they had to before the decision was taken out of their hands and he was given a contract the team really couldn’t afford. If you want to quibble with MacLellan’s decision making, then perhaps you could question why he gave Stephenson qualifying offer to retain his rights as an RFA? It is important to keep in mind, however, that this is done before the start of free agency so the Caps did not know they were going to be able to sign Hathaway and Leipsic at that point. It makes sense why they would keep Stephenson as a back-up just in case MacLellan was not able to get the players he wanted.

Why would Stephenson sign a deal that seemingly has him pegged for the AHL before even going to arbitration? Because it is still a raise and a one-way contract, plus the arbitrator could always give him less. Like Djoos, Stephenson played a role in the Stanley Cup run. Unlike Djoos, however, his bad season could not be explained away by a significant injury.

Really, coming to an agreement before arbitration was the best-case scenario for both sides. Stephenson got his raise, but it is even more clear the Caps intend to send him to the AHL barring any further offseason moves or a phenomenal performance in training camp.

While the Caps may now sit at over $1.3 million past the cap ceiling, they actually did not add any money to the cap at all because they can bury Stephenson’s entire cap hit by sending him to the AHL.

    •    Regression: Can Carlson replicate last season?
    •    Caps over Cap: Stephenson's deal brings more questions 
    •    Burning questions: What's the PK look like?

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The NHLPA won’t reopen the CBA, what does this mean for the 2022 Olympics?

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The NHLPA won’t reopen the CBA, what does this mean for the 2022 Olympics?

The NHL Players’ Association elected Monday not to exercise its right to reopen the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL. The deadline for the NHLPA’s decision was Sept. 15, but, as that date fell on a Sunday, an exception allowed for the deadline to be extended to Monday, the next business day.

“While players have concerns with the current CBA, we agree with the League that working together to address those concerns is the preferred course of action instead of terminating the agreement following this season,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said via a statement. “We have been having discussions with the League about an extension of the CBA and expect that those talks will continue.”

The NHL also had the option of reopening the CBA, but like the NHLPA elected to keep the current CBA in place. The league’s deadline was Sept. 1.

What this means is the current CBA will remain in place until Sept. 15, 2022 ensuring an additional three years of labor peace. That is significant news for a league that has experienced two work stoppages in the last 15 years.

That’s the good news. The potential bad news is what this could mean for Olympic participation.

The next winter Olympic Games will be held in Beijing in 2022 months before the current CBA will officially expire. Olympic participation is not guaranteed under the current CBA and the players were not allowed to participate in the PyeongChang games in 2018.

Every issue the league had with PyeongChang in terms of having to pause the regular season to participate and the time difference restricting viewership and interest will still be present in the 2022 games.

You have to wonder how that may impact the future of Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin takes Olympic participation very seriously and 2022 will likely be the last time for him to represent his native Russia in the Olympics and compete at a high level. If there is no sense that the NHL will allow its players to participate, does that affect Ovechkin’s future plans when his current contract expires in 2021?

Having said that, the league has made a concerted effort of growing interest in China. Recent years have seen preseason games played there and Ovechkin took a tour through China during the offseason as an NHL ambassador. It seems likely the NHL would be much more interested in participating in Beijing than they would have been in PyeongChang.

To reopen the CBA for the Olympics and its other concerns, however, would have been too much of a gamble. The league has shown its willingness to miss games in order to get a favorable CBA in the past and there is no reason to think that option would not be on the table in 2020.

The NHLPA’s decision on Monday ensures we will see hockey through the 2021-22 season and that’s good for everyone.

“We are pleased with the NHL Players' Association's decision not to reopen the Collective Bargaining Agreement," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing to work with the NHLPA for the benefit of all stakeholders, especially our fans."


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3 Caps who impressed in the preseason opener vs. Chicago: Take a bow, Aliaksei Protas

3 Caps who impressed in the preseason opener vs. Chicago: Take a bow, Aliaksei Protas

WASHINGTON -- Hockey made its long-awaited return to Capital One Arena on Monday as the Capitals opened their preseason slate with a 4-3 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Tom Wilson was the best player on either bare-bones roster and he scored the overtime winner.

Besides Wilson, here are the players who impressed on Monday.

Aliaksei Protas

Protas already stands out because of his size at 6-foot-6. It was his play that stood out during the game, however, as Protas was the best player of the night for Washington.

Playing in the high slot on the power play, Protas took a pass from Christian Djoos. Chicago’s penalty kill box collapsed around him and he calmly backhanded a pass to a wide-open Travis Boyd who ripped the shot past goalie Collin Delia.

Less than two minutes later, Protas took the puck from behind the Caps’ net and started the breakout. He passed off the puck then made a beeline down the ice. When he saw Beck Malenstyn grab the puck along the boards, he headed to the front of the net and was there when Delia lost control of the puck to get the goal.

In addition, Protas recorded an assist on the overtime winner and was impressive for his all-around play. He forced Chicago to the neutral zone with a poke check on the blue line out of the defensive zone and he recorded two blocked shots.

Christian Djoos

The Capitals will need to cut salary early in the season to get under the salary cap and to many, Djoos looked like a possible candidate to be headed out of Washington. He did what he could on Monday, however, to show he should stick around.

Djoos does not typically get much power-play time during the regular season -- he had a grand total of 3:15 power-play TOI in 45 games last season -- but he got plenty of it on Monday and he looked right at home. He was good holding the blue line with the extra man and distributed the puck well from the point. He was rewarded with a secondary assist when he fed Protas in the high-slot in the second period.

Djoos, however, needed to show more than his prowess on the power play -- where he likely will not get much time again this season -- and he did that with an overall solid effort on defense. He outplayed his counterpart, Jonas Siegenthaler, whose place on the team seems all but assured. The only of Chicago’s three goals Djoos was on the ice for was Adam Boqvist’s wicked shot off the post and in and there was nothing anyone could do about that one whether it was Djoos, John Carlson or Bobby Orr.

Beck Malenstyn

If Malenstyn has a future in the NHL, it will be as a fourth-liner. He gave a glimpse of what he had to offer at that NHL level in this game with his high-energy play.

Malenstyn was relentless on the forecheck and looked like he was in constant search of something to hit every time he was on the ice. He was also great on the penalty kill and recorded an assist on Protas’ goal when he flung the puck at the net from the sideboards.

Malenstyn is not going to be a top-six NHL player. He’s not going to put up 20-30 goals. What he can provide, he showed on Monday and it was exactly what you want from a fourth-liner.

Honorable mention: Connor McMichael had the play of the game with his no-look backhand pass to set-up Damien Riat for Washington’s first goal fo the game. His overall game was solid with one assist, two shots on goal and another two attempts blocked.