With offseason hip surgery threatening to sideline top-line center Nicklas Backstrom for the start of training camp, the pending arbitration hearings for goaltender Braden Holtby and forward Marcus Johansson have handcuffed the Capitals from making any additional roster moves to strengthen themselves down the middle.
The Caps are currently about $11 million under the NHL salary cap and are trying to calculate how much money may be left over once Holtby and Johansson are under contract.
“I think we’re going to be pretty close (to the cap),” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “If we have to play out the arbitration cases we have an indication of what the numbers should be, but you can’t guarantee it. We have those numbers slotted in and depending if it comes out less than or greater than, we’ll make adjustments to our strategy going forward.”
Holtby is believed to be seeking more than $6 million in annual salary, while the Caps’ offer is believed to be in the five-year range at a little more than $5 million per season. Johansson is believed to be seeking about $4 million a year, while the Caps are believed to be setting their sights on about $3 million.
In both cases, if the two sides do not come to an agreement before their hearing dates of July 23 (Holtby) and July 29 (Johansson), the Caps can choose on a one-year or two-year arbitration settlement. And if the award is greater than $3.5 million per season, the Caps have the right to walk away from it, which is a possibility with Johansson.
The Caps appear to be exploring the possibility of adding a depth center who can fill the void left by Eric Fehr, who remains unsigned after scoring 19 goals while earning $1.6 million last season. If Fehr is willing to accept a similar salary the Caps could entertain the idea of bringing him back. If not, Mike Santorelli is another UFA center that might interest the Capitals.
If Holtby and Johansson combine for $9 million in annual salary, the Caps would have just under $2 million in cap space. As of now, they appear to be willing to use at least some of it.
“I think we’re going to let it play out,” MacLellan said. “We could address it internally, the third-line center spot. And depending how the contract situation plays itself out, there are a couple options in the free agency market. We’ll see and we’ll explore the trade market up until training camp.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said that if Backstrom is unable to play right away, he could fill the center role internally, mentioning T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky and Brooks Laich as possibilities.
“We’ve got some options,” Trotz said, “but at the same time I know we’re not done looking. We don’t have a lot of (cap) room. I’m looking internally more. Can a Chandler Stephenson come up and play in one of the roles? We’ll look internally first and if something is a right fit, I know Mac will go out and fill a hole if we feel we have one.”
Trotz said he sees Burakovsky as a winger but probably will give him ice time at center during training camp, especially if Backstrom is not ready.
In other contract news, MacLellan said he has made a contract offer to RFA forward Chris Brown and “I think we’ll get him signed here shortly.”
Excluding Holtby, Johansson and Brown, the Caps have 41 players under contract, well below the 50-player limit.