Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has been transparent about Washington’s offseason plans and has stayed true to his word, so far.
The Capitals spent the week leading up to free agency locking up T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov to long-term deals and, if MacLellan sticks to his plan, center Evgeny Kuznetsov can expect a hefty raise soon. MacLellan said in May the top priority was to bring back the team’s restricted free agents and hopefully re-sign Oshie, depending on the salary cap.
But as MacLellan can attest, $25 million is only so much to work with. Factor in the amount of lucrative contracts the Capitals have shelled out over the last week, and the nearly $25 million Washington entered the offseason with has evaporated quickly.
The Capitals spent Saturday watching Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Williams — Washington’s top free agents — sign elsewhere on the first day of NHL free agency.
What other choice did the team have? After all, Washington has a predicament on its hands: The Capitals only have $12.45 million left in cap room and still need to fill the roster.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Capitals have $62.5 million tied up in 14 players on the roster. NHL teams are allowed to carry up to 23 players on a $75 million salary cap — meaning the Capitals will have to go cheap for the back end of the roster.
The salary cap dilemma also meant saying goodbye to players like Alzner, who had played in Washington for nine seasons.
“It was pretty clear from my end that there didn’t look like there was going to be an option in Washington,” said Alzner, who signed a five-year, $23.125 million contract with the Montreal Canadiens.
“There’s big-ticket guys that needed to be signed and you can’t promise anyone anything until those get done, so we were pretty certain for at least three or four weeks now — probably two or three weeks now — that we weren’t going to be able to come back and stay in D.C.”
Here’s a quick recap how the Capitals got into this situation: Oshie signed an eight-year, $46 million contract last week and Orlov locked up a six-year, $30.6 million deal. Brett Connolly was re-signed to a cheaper two-year, $3 million contract, but the money still counts.
The Capitals will have even less room once Kuznetsov, a restricted free agent, is signed to a new contract, possibly worth up to $6 million per year. Washington also wants to re-sign forward Andre Burakovsky and goaltender Philipp Grubauer, both of whom are RFAs.
But if Washington does that, what does it mean for the bottom of the roster? The Capitals have younger players like Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey in Hershey, their AHL-affiliate, but they’ll make just over a combined $1.5 million next year.
Washington might be better off filling the roster with guys on league-minimum contracts — $650,000 per. The Capitals recently re-signed Chandler Stephenson and signed Anthony Peluso to the league minimum.
“When we get our team finalized, in terms of what we are, there’s players that will obviously have to fit in roles when the dust settles,” coach Barry Trotz said.
In the meantime, Washington will have to embrace seeing familiar faces in other uniforms next year. Williams signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. At 35, Williams signed a larger contract in 2017 than he did when he signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal with the Capitals in 2015.
Williams reunited with the Hurricanes, the team he played five years with from 2004-2009 and won a Stanley Cup with in 2006.
“I hadn’t heard from Washington very much,” Williams said. “You know, we had heard from them through the process, but certainly not as much as the other teams. They said they wanted to sign me, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that both sides are able to get it done.”
Shattenkirk took less money and fewer years to sign with his hometown New York Rangers. Shattenkirk, seen as the top prize in this year’s free agency class, still got the most money out of unrestricted free agents Saturday with an average of $6.65 million per year over a four-year term — well out of the Capitals’ price range.
The Capitals technically don’t have to carry 23 players on a roster, but most teams carry at least 21 or 22. Besides 12 forwards, six defensemen and one goalie, teams like to carry an extra forward, defenseman and goaltender in case of injury or poor performance.
But teams in the Eastern Conference have spent the offseason getting better.
Alzner joining the Canadiens improves their blue line; ditto for Shattenkirk and the Rangers. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded for one-timer specialist Artemi Panarin. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley, but re-signed defenseman Justin Schultz.
Does this mean the Capitals are now out of contention? Alzner doesn’t think so.
“There’s going to be a few changes, but you still have some of the main guys there,” Alzner said. “… I imagine the team is still going to be really good. There’s still a great coaching staff there. I expect them to still be competitive. I expect them to be a step below the Montreal Canadiens.”