The Capitals have already changed their head coach and general manager this offseason. Now, the hard work begins.
New general manager Brian MacLellan is familiar with this current roster as a longtime team executive in charge of player personnel. If he wants to put his own stamp on a franchise that missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, MacLellan has the means to do so quickly. After the 2015-16 season, only five current players remain under contract — forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich and defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
A compliance buyout won’t be used on any of those long-term deals, MacLellan said during a Monday teleconference. The Caps bought out defenseman Jeff Schultz last season, but MacLellan said it wouldn’t make sense to do so again with another player. This is the last chance for NHL teams to escape contracts through a compliance buyout thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement. After June 30, that option will no longer be available.
Former coach Adam Oates made clear after the season that Washington needed to upgrade its blueline. He’s gone, but MacLellan agrees. That apparently doesn’t include a desire to trade defenseman Mike Green, who struggled at times last year and has one year left on his contract at a $6 million salary-cap hit.
“Our priority is to get Mike Green on track here,” MacLellan said. “I think there were circumstances last year that might have hindered his performance. I guess I’m open to trading anybody. But as of right now I think we’d like to bring Mike Green back.”
MacLellan didn’t elaborate on those “circumstances” — injury, coaching usage, conditioning, off-ice issues — that would have hindered Green’s play. But he would like to add a second-pair defenseman who can play on the left side next to Green.
Given the high prices defensemen have commanded even before free agency hits, a trade may be the best way to accomplish that. MacLellan said he’s spoken with about half of the league’s general managers so far and anticipates a more active trade market at next week’s draft thanks in part to the NHL’s salary cap rising from $64.3 million to over $70 million next season.
“There seems to be bigger names being talked about in the trade market,” MacLellan said. “We’ll see if that really comes to fruition. I think with the cap going up there might be a little more room for trades to happen. … I don’t think they’re going to give centers and defensemen away, but I’m going to explore it.”
One problem that has long plagued Washington is the lack of a second-line center. That position has been a revolving door in recent years. The Caps traded for Mike Ribeiro in 2012 and he performed well, but only as a one-year rental. The team wasn’t comfortable with the length of contract Ribeiro sought, let him go without a fight last summer and waited for Mikhail Grabovski, bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs last July, to sign a one-year deal worth $3 million
That worked out at first, but an ankle injury derailed the second half of Grabovski’s season. Now, the Caps are negotiating with a free-agent center again. If they can’t come to an agreement, they will need to find another candidate, possibly from within the organization.
MacLellan would like to see if top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who appeared in 17 games in his first NHL season, can handle time at his natural center position. He played on the wing last year. MacLellan cited Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson as two players who could make that transition, too. Oates didn’t see Johansson as a center. Laich has played there before, but is coming off consecutive seasons derailed by a serious groin injury.
But that move comes with risk. None of those three players has ever proven he can handle second-line center minutes. That would leave free agency. Colorado’s Paul Stastny made himself a prime target for many teams after a strong season with the Avalanche, but will be prohibitively expensive. The Caps will have about $14 million in salary cap space going into next year.
“We have a couple of guys we’re going to pursue,” MacLellan said. “Everybody is fully aware that the free agency market is pretty thin and is gonna be competitive. There’s a couple of guys that we’re going to pursue up to a certain point. I don’t think we’re going to get ridiculous with our offers, but hopefully we can find a good fit.”