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20 Offseason Caps questions: Which bottom-six forwards should the Caps protect from Vegas?

20 Offseason Caps questions: Which bottom-six forwards should the Caps protect from Vegas?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.     

Each NHL team has a couple of options to consider when deciding which players to protect in this month’s expansion draft: seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie; or eight skaters (forwards and defensemen) and one goalie. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan recently confirmed that he intends to use the 7-3-1 formula and that he’s already determined 10 of the 11 players who’ll be included on his list. Teams must submit their protected list to the league by 5 p.m. ET on June 17, and it’s expected to be made public the following day. We know the team will protect its stars like Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom, but what about the depth forwards?

Today's question: Of the Caps’ bottom-six forwards, which two should MacLellan protect?

Sorenson: I have a love-hate relationship with the expansion draft. I love the intrigue, but I hate the hypothetical questions! Since I’m being forced to choose two forwards to protect from the bottom six, I’m going with the two centers: Lars Eller and Jay Beagle. I’ve covered this team for too many years when they were searching for [name that line] center over and over again. For the first time in as long as I can remember, this team’s strength is down the middle, with four exceptionally talented centers who know and accept their roles wholeheartedly. In order to contend with Pittsburgh, the Caps need to keep that strength in the middle on all four lines, and Eller and Beagle are key in that regard.  They are both among the best faceoff men in the league and contribute to their respective lines success by making their wingers better. Losing any strength up the middle would be detrimental to the Capitals, as I’m not sure they have a young center in Hershey ready to step in and be effective right away.

RELATED: Several prospects could crack Caps' lineup next season

Regan: First, I do not consider Andre Burakovsky a bottom-six forward. I know he spent most of the season on the third line, but he is a player with top-six potential and one who almost certainly will be protected. That narrows the choice to Daniel Winnik, Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle. Let’s work backward. Winnik is a UFA and the team is unlikely to re-sign him so he’s out. Beagle is an important player to the Caps, but he will turn 32 in October and is only signed for one more season. You would hate to risk losing him, but if you can only protect seven forwards I don’t see enough value to merit protecting. That leaves Connolly, Eller and Wilson. Center depth has long been an issue for Washington and I would not risk losing a third-line center, especially one as talented as Eller. Over the course of last season, I never considered Wilson being a player who merited protection…until the playoffs. He had such a huge impact on that Toronto series and showed there is still some breakout potential there. He will never live up to being the 16th overall pick, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a useful and productive player. Connolly could be an intriguing target for Vegas given the fact that he’s 25 years old and an RFA, but I am more comfortable exposing him over Wilson or Eller.

El-Bashir: I'd protect Eller and Wilson and leave exposed Beagle and Connolly. Here’s why: Eller, 28, is durable, in his athletic prime and put up numbers similar to those he produced in his six previous NHL seasons. In short, he pretty much delivered the stability at third line center that MacLellan had hoped to get. Wilson, meantime, took his game to another level in the playoffs, scoring three goals vs. Toronto. Do the Caps advance without No. 43’s heroics in Games 1 and 4 of the opening round? I’m not so certain. He did not register a point against the Penguins, but man, that Maple Leafs’ series was an eye-opener for me. It makes you wonder how much more untapped potential is there, particularly when you consider Wilson is only 23. Listed at 6 foot 4, 217-pounds, Wilson also brings an element of size, snarl and physicality that would surely be missed and not easily replaced by anyone currently in the organization. Taking all that into account, I simply couldn’t risk losing Wilson. Leaving Beagle exposed wouldn't be an easy decision given his prowess on draws and the penalty kill. But if I’m forced to choose between a 31-year-old faceoff/penalty kill specialist and a 23-year-old former first round pick that just helped turned a playoff series around, I’m going with the latter.

MORE CAPITALS: Caps' ECHL affiliate falls in Kelly Cup Final

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan began tackling the items on his very long to-do list with the signing of prospect forward Shane Gersich. The team announced Monday that Gersich was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract that carries a cap hit of $700,000.

Gersich will remain a restricted free agent at the end of the deal but will still be one year away from becoming arbitration eligible.

Gersich, who will turn 23 in July, just finished his first full professional season with the Hershey Bears, recording eight goals and 16 assists in 66 games.

“I learned a ton,” Gersich told NBC Sports Washington about his first AHL season. “I think our staff here is unbelievable. They've taught me so much, whether it's [showing] me video or doing skills or whatever. Can't say enough good things about them. And just my overall game, playing 200 feet and being aware of little details in the game. I think my game's grown a ton.”

Gersich’s original contract was for two seasons, but the first year was burned at the end of the 2017-18 season when he signed out of college at the end of the season and joined the Caps’ roster.

That transition from Stanley Cup champion to AHL the following season was a tough one for Gersich initially.

“Obviously, you were making your NHL debut and stuff like that, then it's kind of back to work and square one,” Gersich said. “For me, I know [I'm] definitely not the kid that's going to shy away from working or anything like that. So obviously, you've got to earn everything you get, and then that's how it is at every level.”

The speedy forward played in five games for Washington, three in the regular season and two in the playoffs during the Stanley Cup run. His speed was evident and has led many fans to wonder if the future is now for the young forward. His first year in Hershey showed, however, he still has a lot to learn before he reaches the NHL.

Gersich is still very much learning the game at the professional level. There was a little too much reaction in his game as opposed to action, which mitigated his speed. That is something he knows he needs to refine.

“I think just always being aware out there,” he said when talking about aspects of his game he wants to improve on. “Keeping my head on a swivel and making little plays. Just using my strengths too, I think. I've got to realize that I can use my speed out there a lot.”

The Caps will have a few roster spots open next season and not much money under the cap to fill those spots. Using young prospects is always an intriguing option. Gersich’s new contract, however, seems to indicate the Caps anticipate him spending the season in the AHL.

Gersich’s new contract carries an NHL salary of $700,000, which is actually lower than his first contract with a $925,000 salary. His minor-league salary, however, went up from $70,000 to $115,000. It may look like Gerisch is getting a pay cut based on the NHL numbers, but he actually is getting a raise because, barring a dazzling training camp, he will be spending most if not all of next season in Hershey. And if he does surprise, well now he has a lower NHL cap hit which is very important for a Washington team that will likely be very close to the salary cap.

While the implications of the contract seem clear, Gersich is excited for the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL at training camp in the fall.

“Obviously, I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's been my goal my whole life, and that's the reason I left North Dakota. I think I'm ready for it, but you've got to wait and see until the time comes.”

The Caps also announced Monday the re-signing of forward Brian Pinho to a one-year, two-way contract. His contract carries a $700,000 NHL salary and a $100,000 AHL salary.

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

The Capitals will have a lot of roster spots open and not much money to fill them with this offseason. Adding a young, cheap defensive prospect to the NHL roster will certainly help and that appears to be the plan for Jonas Siegenthaler.

Siegenthaler’s first NHL season began with him in the AHL, but it finished with him playing on the top defensive pairing of the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The season did not get off to a great start for Siegenthaler as he became a cap casualty despite a strong training camp. Heading into the start of the NHL season, he looked poised to make the Caps roster.

“I came to camp here with the mindset to make the team and come to camp in good shape and everything,” Siegenthaler said at the team’s breakdown day.

The suspension to Tom Wilson and subsequent acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers forced Washington to shuffle money to get under the salary cap. Siegenthaler, who was waiver exempt, was sent to the Hershey Bears as a result.

Siegenthaler would have to wait until Nov. 9 to finally make his NHL debut. He would go on to play 26 games his rookie season.

“I think a guy like Siegenthaler came up and played really well,” Lars Eller said.

““I tried to play my best game,” Siegenthaler said. “Of course it wasn’t always easy but I think like I did my best and tried to help the team.”

With a deep blue line, Siegenthaler was sent back to Hershey in February, but was recalled late in the season after Michal Kempny suffered a season-ending injury. The call-up, however, was just to have an extra body. As Todd Reirden experimented with the defensive pairs heading into the playoffs, it did not appear he viewed the rookie defenseman as a real option for the playoffs. Despite all the shuffling, Siegenthaler did not get into the lineup until the season finale after Washington had already wrapped up the division crown.

The Caps struggled in the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes, however, prompting changes to the lineup. The defense still struggled with the constant in-game adjustments and a change was clearly needed. Siegenthaler got into the lineup for Game 4. By Game 5, he was playing in Kempny’s spot on the top pair alongside John Carlson.

“He really just seemed very poised,” Eller said. “There wasn't any panic in his game. It's hard to be thrown into a series like that where the stakes are high and I thought he did that really well.”

Still just 22 years old and with a contract that remains waiver exempt for another year, Siegenthaler could enter the 2019-20 season in a position to again have to compete just to make the NHL roster. The possible retirement of Brooks Orpik and speculation over whether Matt Niskanen could be traded, however, leaves the team with spots open on the blue line.

The fact that Siegenthaler was able to go from the AHL to the top pair of the Caps during the playoffs reflects his growth as a player over the course of the year. To expect him to come into next season in a top-pair role would be unfair. Even a top-four role seems unlikely with Kempny likely returning and Nick Jensen taking Niskanen’s spot if he does in fact get traded.

But if the coaches trusted Siegenthaler as a rookie when it mattered most and with him still on an entry-level deal at a time when the team will need to pinch every penny, Siegenthaler will almost certainly be in Washington and not in Hershey for the 2019-20 campaign.

“Next season’s going to be huge,” he said. “I’ll do my best in the summer to keep myself in shape, in even better shape. My goal is to be here a long time and for rest of my career and yeah, just got to work for it.”

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