This offseason will be one of the most fascinating in recent memory because of Vegas and the expansion draft. This will be the first expansion draft of the salary cap era meaning it will be a new process for every general manager. Every team, based on its roster and goals for next season, will approach the expansion draft with a different plan.
So what is Brian MacLellan’s plan?
First, he has to decide who to protect. Each NHL team has the option of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie. MacLellan told reporters in his final media availability of the season that he will be taking the first option.
Philipp Grubauer, Nate Schmidt, Jay Beagle and either Tom Wilson or Lars Eller will likely be exposed, all players the Caps would hate to lose.
The question MacLellan will have to answer is whether any of these players are valuable enough for him to attempt any backdoor deals to try to encourage Vegas to take somebody else. The problem is guessing who Vegas General Manager George McPhee will want to take so you are not offering him something in order to avoid a player he was not really considering anyway.
In his final media availability of the season, MacLellan told reporters he would talk to McPhee sometime close to the draft just to get an idea of what he was thinking, but he also tempered expectations saying, “I’m not sure George is going to be willing to tell me what player he wants.”
Some have speculated that because MacLellan and McPhee are friends, McPhee may be more willing to make a favorable deal for the Caps. I’m not buying it. McPhee has a job to do building a roster from scratch. I do not see him going out of his way to help the team that fired him, regardless of he is now in charge.
So MacLellan will be left to guess what McPhee is thinking. The two most likely players to be taken based on the list above will be Grubauer or Schmidt. There is a case to be made that Vegas could try to sign away top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, but if there is interest in him McPhee will almost certainly take his chances in free agency. I would be surprised if he takes any UFAs in the expansion draft at all.
Grubauer’s contributions last season should not be overlooked, but ultimately the team would be able to survive losing its backup goalie especially since the team already believes it has its future starter in prospect Ilya Samsonov. If Grubauer is going to be a starter somewhere, it will not be in Washington.
Schmidt would be the tougher pill to swallow considering he is someone MacLellan has already said will move into the top-four next season on defense. If MacLellan is worried he could be taken, he could try to make a deal with McPhee to protect him and no, that deal will not be for Brooks Orpik. I have heard this theory and it is ridiculous.
“Please don’t take your top choice from my team and in exchange I will give you an aging defenseman with a massive cap hit." That’s not going to happen, but more on this later.
The problem with trying to make a deal with Vegas is that MacLellan does not have much to offer in return. The Caps are going to need prospects to step into important roles next season so they have little to spare within the system. They also do not have a draft pick until the fourth round in this year’s draft. Even though it may not take much to convince McPhee to take Grubauer over Schmidt, is the team really willing to trade away yet another draft pick to make sure of it? That seems doubtful.
One thing that should also be considered is whether MacLellan tries to pull off a major trade before the expansion draft. If you want to make a major shakeup after another disappointing postseason result, MacLellan could trade another defenseman, one the team would be likely to protect. That way, the team could still protect Schmidt while also making a major change so many have called for in the wake of continued playoff struggles. The most likely candidate would be John Carlson, someone with major standing around the NHL in whom MacLellan could find major value.
This depends on just how high MacLellan feels Schmidt's ceiling is and whether or not he wants a major shakeup going into next season. If he just wants to retool, then this won't happen. It's a longshot to be sure, but the team's inability to protect Schmidt does raise the question of just how far MacLellan will be willing to go to make sure he remains a Cap.
One trade related to Vegas that seems doubtful is moving Orpik. Orpik’s play on the ice has reached a point in which he is not living up to the $5.5 million cap hit his contract carries. McPhee essentially declared Vegas open for business when it comes to teams looking to move these type of big contracts, but that is unlikely to happen with Orpik. Both MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz have been very consistent on how much they value Orpik’s leadership in the locker room and I have not gotten any sense that this option is even being considered. Even if they did want to try to trade Orpik, it will cost them and we have already established the Caps do not have much to offer Vegas.
So what will MacLellan ultimately do? Perhaps nothing.
MacLellan hinted to reporters that he may take a more reactive view of the draft saying, “We’re going to lose one [player]. We’re going to have to react after they pick their player. We’re going to have to fill a hole. Whatever player they pick, we’re going to have to try and fill that hole.”
It certainly sounds like MacLellan is not willing to create one hole just to fill another.