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.
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.
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