The NHL season is slowly drawing nearer and that means the Capitals are going to have to find a solution to their salary cap problem.
Over the summer, general manager Brian MacLellan made tough calls to trade away Matt Niskanen and Andre Burakovsky and also to let Brett Connolly leave in free agency all because the team was hard up against the salary cap. Despite those moves and the retirement of Brooks Orpik, Washington still finds itself a little more than $1.3 million over.
Shedding salary is not a problem. Trying to find a way to shed salary and not weaken the team, however, is more difficult. That is the task before MacLellan as the Caps hope to compete for their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
MacLellan has done a masterful job of saving money while still upgrading the roster this offseason, but he still has $1.3 million left to cut. He made tough moves on offense and defense. Now, it may be time to cut costs between the pipes. No, I am not talking about Braden Holtby. I am talking about replacing Pheonix Copley with Vitek Vanecek.
Copley won 16 games in 27 games last season. Replacing him with an unproven rookie is a big risk. I thought we were trying to shed salary while not weakening the roster?
Well, let’s consider the alternatives to getting under the cap.
A trade is possible, but unlikely given that every general manager in the league knows the team is over the cap. Opposing general managers are not going to do the Caps any favors so already you have lost some leverage.
Washington currently has 14 forwards on the roster and seven defensemen. That gives the team two extra forwards and one extra defenseman. One other issue is trying to keep one extra at each position. This is necessary in case of injury. The problem that gives you when figuring out the cap is that if you try to trade a player like Christian Djoos, for example, you are not simply taking his full salary off the board. You are taking away his salary and adding whoever replaces him.
The first and most likely step the team can take towards getting under the cap is waiving Chandler Stephenson. The team has one forward they can take out without having to replace him and Stephenson’s cap hit comes just under the maximum amount that can be fully buried in the AHL.
That move would still leave Washington about $314,000 over the cap. Replace Copley with Vanecek, however, and that will be just enough to get Washington under.
Vanecek is a much more developed player than Ilya Samsonov at this point. He was an AHL all-star last season and has shown enough that it may be time for him to get a few looks at the NHL level. I see his ceiling as an NHL backup and he’s not that far off. Even if him playing in Washington means he is not getting as much playing time as perhaps you would like for a young player, I do not think it will hurt his development all that much. He is getting closer and closer to being a finished product. He excelled in Hershey last season, it could be time to try him out behind Holtby.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, he’s cheap.
With a cap hit of $716,667, Vanecek is the cheapest of the team’s goalie options and the only one Washington can put on the roster without having to make other moves to get under the cap.
If the goal is to get under the cap without hurting the team’s overall strength, Vanecek does that. You can still have a cycle on the third defensive pair of Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas. Otherwise tinkering with the defense would mean trading/waiving a player like Djoos and recalling Tyler Lewington as a No. 7. That would not be ideal because then you are essentially locked into your top six on defense without the flexibility having a guy like Djoos as the No. 7 can give you. Djoos can cycle in and out with Siegenthaler, but Lewington would have to have a much more limited role. Anything more than 20 games would be too large a role for him.
Yes, Vanecek is an unknown and Copley won 16 games last season. But even if the team had more cap flexibility, there would still come a point this season where the team would have to put Copley on waivers to get Samsonov to the NHL.
With Holtby on the last year of his contract, the Caps will need to call Samsonov up at some point and get him some NHL playing time. Risking Copley on waivers is a gamble, but it is one Washington would have to take at some point.
Vanecek also has the added bonus of being waiver exempt. When MacLellan determines it is time to bring up Samsonov, there won’t be any further fears of losing a goalie on waivers. Vanecek and Samsonov will be essentially interchangeable once the team banks enough money to afford Samsonov’s cap hit.
Is there a chance the Caps could lose Copley if they put him on waivers? Absolutely. Copley earned 16 wins last season in 27 games and he is signed through the 2021-22 season. That is significant because in the 2020 expansion draft every team will have to expose at least one goalie with term. Copley fills that requirement.
But so does Vanecek.
Washington would risk losing a quality backup in Copley, but they would not have to scramble to find another goalie they can expose to fulfill the expansion requirements.
Handing a player with no NHL experience the backup job is a risk, but considering the alternatives, it may be the safest risk the Caps can take to get under the salary cap. Vanecek may well prove he is up to the task of being an NHL backup and if he’s not, the Caps would only need him for a handful of games anyway.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: