Why it will be hard for Caps to add at the trade deadline

Brian MacLellan

The championship window has been open for the Capitals for several years and, as a result, for several years the team has pushed itself to the edge of the salary cap ceiling. And yet, every year, general manager Brian MacLellan still finds a way to bring in players at the trade deadline.

In 2020, it was Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon. Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin were brought acquired in 2019. In 2018, the Caps brought in Jakub Jerabek and, the trade that saved the season, Michal Kempny.

So when you hear that Washington is again tight under the cap, that won't prevent them from making any moves at the 2021 deadline, right?

Actually, it might.

First, a quick explainer on the salary cap and how it works. A better way to understand the cap than just this big number teams have to stay under is to say that all teams cannot be on pace to go over the cap ceiling. There are a certain number of days in a season, each player's cap hit is divided by that many days to determine his daily hit. The team's combined daily cap hit can never be on pace to go above the ceiling. But, however much below the ceiling a team is will provide room the team can use later on. This is called "banking" cap space.

To illustrate, let's say you gave me $100 to spend from Monday through Friday. I can never spend more than $20 per day or I am over the cap. But if I only spend $5 on Monday and Tuesday, then I have $90 remaining on Wednesday. With three days left, now I can spend $30 per day without going over the cap.


The ceiling remained the same, but now I can spend more money each day. Teams like the Caps do this in order to maximize the available cap room at the trade deadline.

But that is not going to work in 2021 because of Washington's players on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).

Players who are injured have to stay on a team's roster, but if they are out long-term, putting them on LTIR provides the team with cap relief. The formula for this is complicated but boiled down to the most basic explanation, LTIR allows a team to go over the salary cap by the amount of an injured player's cap hit.

The Caps are actually well over the $81.5 million cap ceiling. According to Cap Friendly, the team's current projected cap hit is over $85.5 million. They are able to do this because Michal Kempny and Henrik Lundqvist are on LTIR.

The catch with LTIR is that even if you don't use up as much space as you are allowed, you can't bank that additional space.

So how much room under the cap do the Caps have to play with? None, but because they can't bank space. So if MacLellan is approaching the trade deadline with moves in mind, the only way he will be able to make those moves is if he sends out the same amount of cap space as he brings in.

An additional complication is that the salary cap is going to remain flat for the next several years. The Caps are already tight against the cap but will have to re-sign Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, Ilya Samsonov and possibly Jonas Siegenthaler and Conor Sheary. Each of those players will get a raise over what they make now. To summarize, a team with no cap room will have to find additional cap room in the offseason just to keep the players they already have on the roster.

What does that mean for this season's deadline? It means the Caps will likely be limited to searching only for rentals. It does not make sense to bring in any players with terms that would further exacerbate the offseason cap squeeze. That's also true for most other teams too which is important because, remember, any trade will have to be dollar in, dollar out. So not only is the list of potential trade targets for Washington limited but the list of players on the Caps' roster other teams may be interested in trading for would be limited as well.

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This brings up another important question, just what would the Caps be willing to part with?

The goal this season is to win the Stanley Cup. Now over halfway through the season, the Caps are among the top teams in the league. Though winning a championship is always a tall task, there is no reason at this point to think a championship run is unrealistic and that the team should not be completely in win-now mode. If the only way to bring in a player at the trade deadline is to make a hockey deal, player(s) for player(s), MacLellan is only going to do that if he believes he is not making the roster weaker in the process. For those type of deals, you trade from a surplus to address a position of need. We know goalie and center are both possible areas of need, but what position would MacLellan consider to be a surplus given the circumstances of the 2021 season?

MacLellan purposefully went out in the offseason to acquire added defensive and forward depth because of the pandemic. On paper, you may look at the roster and think the Caps don't need eight defensemen or for the offense to be so stacked that Daniel Sprong can't get consistent playing time, but I am not sure MacLellan agrees. Let's not forget what happened earlier in the season when the team lost four key players to the protocol list and dealt with several other injuries.

None of this definitively means that MacLellan won't make a trade or that he can't, he has always managed to make moves when it looked virtually impossible to do so, but is there a deal to be made out there that MacLellan would be able to fit under the salary cap while not weakening the roster in the present or hurting its cap situation in the future? That is going to be really, really tough.