It looked like everything was in place. With limited cap room and two restricted free agents left to sign, the Caps focused their efforts on the more expensive of the two, Marcus Johansson. After he was signed, however, getting a deal done with Dmitry Orlov should have quickly followed.
Yet, here we are with the calendar about to turn from July to August and Orlov remains unsigned.
While Orlov remains likely to sign—his options as an RFA are rather limited—every passing day in which he doesn’t sign makes it feel like the negotiations are not going as smoothly as perhaps we all assumed they would. So what happens to the Caps if for some reason Orlov is not on the roster next season?
Right now, the Caps have six defensemen on the roster: Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney. While Chorney has shown he can be relied upon in spot duty, he is not someone the Caps want to play every day.
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Orlov was on the Caps’ third defensive pairing last season, but Brian MacLellan has indicated he sees an increased role for him in 2016-17. Given Orpik’s struggles in the playoffs, it’s not hard to guess who the Caps may want to move back in the lineup.
What the Caps needs then is a cheap puck-moving defenseman they can rely to play in the top four.
The Caps could potentially trade for a defenseman, but they are not getting a top-four guy for cheap. The Caps are already without a second-round pick the next two years and a third in 2017 so they are getting thin in terms of picks to sell. They have a lot of prospects they could trade, but with so many contracts expiring at the end of this season, MacLellan will likely be reluctant to trade any of those players he believes to be the future of the team.
That gives the Caps two options. Promote someone from the AHL or sign a free agent.
Aaron Ness is the most experienced defensive prospect at 26 years old. He played eight games for the Caps last season, but for a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations, adding Ness would not be an upgrade to the blue line.
Madison Bowey is the defensive prospect with the highest ceiling. It’s not ideal for a young defenseman with no NHL experience to be thrust into the top-six, but Bowey is not coming to Washington to sit in the press box and hurt his development. If he’s in Washington, he’s playing.
The good news is that the Caps could pair the right-handed Bowey with the left-handed Orpik on the third pair. Playing with a veteran like Orpik would certainly help Bowey and their playing styles would compliment one another well. The downside to that is it would mean bumping Schmidt to a second pair with Carlson, something Schmidt may not be quite ready for.
What about free agents? The problem with looking for free agents in August is that there is a reason why those players are still available. Whether they are old, injured, expensive or just plain bad, it’s not as if the Caps will be finding a young Zdeno Chara willing to take $2.5 million at this point in the summer.
James Wisniewski is free agent coming off a six-year contract with a $5.5 million cap hit. He’s not going to come to Washington for $2.5 million. And if you believe the Caps should offer someone a longer contract just to get him to take less money, let’s not forget that the team still needs to re-sign Karl Alzner after this season and he will be due a significant raise from the $2.8 million he’s getting now. They cannot afford to commit long-term to someone they are only taking out of desperation.
So at this point, the Caps’ best option for a cheap, puck-moving defenseman who could perhaps be capable of playing in the top four remains Orlov. The good news for them is that Orlov’s best option as a restricted free agent who wants to stay in North America is to sign with the Caps. A deal is still likely to get done because it’s the best option for both parties, the question is when?
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