Brian MacLellan knew this day was coming. He just hoped the Capitals would have a Stanley Cup championship to help ease the pain when it arrived.
“I’m bothered by it,” the Caps general manager said Monday morning. “I mean, it hurts.”
MacLellan, of course, was referring to the flurry of moves that have redefined the Caps’ roster in recent days.
Since the draft, the team has locked up cornerstone players T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov to contracts totaling nearly $140 million dollars. But they've also said goodbye to free agents Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Then on Sunday night, MacLellan was forced to deal 26-year-old forward Marcus Johansson to Metro Division foe New Jersey to help shoehorn Kuzy’s massive extension underneath the salary cap ceiling.
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“We spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year, both player-wise and salary-wise,” MacLellan said in a conference call with reporters. “And I think we were expecting to run into some issues here going forward. I think it’s no different than the teams that have won in the past. I mean, we have the same kind of hangover, but we haven’t won a championship—and we’re dealing with it now.”
MacLellan added: “We knew that this point was coming in time where we weren’t going to be able to keep everybody, and we were going to lose people that we really liked.”
As the dust settles on the Caps’ messy renovation—MacLellan says he doesn’t envision being forced to shed more salary—it’s difficult to project exactly what the back-to-back regular season champs will look like in October, or where they’ll slot into the Eastern Conference fray as the 2017-18 season unfolds.
Sure, they’ve still got big guns Alex Ovechkin, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov up front, top pair Matt Niskanen and Orlov on the backend and Braden Holtby in goal. But, for the first time in a few years, Coach Barry Trotz will need to sprinkle multiple unproven players throughout his lineup.
Despite that uncertainty, MacLellan says he remains bullish on the Caps’ immediate future.
“I think we’ve got good young guys coming up,” he said, asked if fans need to temper their expectations. “If I look at our lineup, I think [Andre] Burakovsky is going to play a bigger role. I mean, I liked Burakovsky, Backstrom, Oshie last year near the end. They had a couple of good games and looked good together. Kuzy is going to get better as we go here. We’re going to give [prospect Jakub] Vrana a shot; he has a legitimate ability to play in a top-six level. I think Vrana on his first call-up played really well with Kuznetsov. And on his second, he kinda faded a little bit.
"And our third line, [Lars] Eller, [Brett] Connolly and [Tom] Wilson is a good line. [Jay Beagle will center] the fourth line and we’ll substitute some guys from Hershey in there. [Prospect Nathan] Walker had a great year in Hersey this year. We expect him to have a legitimate shot.”
How about the blue line?
“Our top-three D—Orlov, Niskanen and [John] Carlson are good. Orlov and Niskanen took it to another level last year. And then our goaltending, we got a ‘1’ and a ‘1a’.”
MacLellan said veteran Brooks Orpik will mentor defensive prospects Lucas Johansen, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Aaron Ness, Tyler Lewington and Jonas Siegenthaler, all of whom figure to get a shot next season, with as many as two sticking around full-time.
“I think we’re a good team still,” MacLellan said.
With opening night about three months away, the Caps still have work to do. In the near term, Burakovsky and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, both restricted free agents, need new contracts. The team also could be in the market for a bargain blue liner at some point this summer.
Indeed, the credit card bill everyone knew was in the mail has finally come due.
“We’re maturing,” MacLellan said. “We’re getting a little more top-heavy as a team, like Chicago, like Pittsburgh, and we’ve got to pay the result for it.”