The decision to trade forward Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils came down to one fundamental question for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.
“I think the decision at the end was do we let (Evgeny) Kuznetsov walk to Russia and become a UFA in two years or do we trade Marcus?” MacLellan said on a conference call with reporters Monday.
The Capitals chose Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov and the Capitals agreed to an eight-year, $62.4 million contract Sunday and then proceeded to trade Johansson to the Devils for a 2018 second and third-round pick. The deal, as most deals do, came down to money and priorities.
The Capitals’ lack of salary cap room for the upcoming season meant they were forced to clear Johansson’s cap hit — $4.58 million over the next two years — to make room for Kuznetsov’s whopping new $7.8 million per year average salary.
MacLellan admitted Kuznetsov had the leverage to force the Capitals’ hand.
Kuznetsov had the option of signing with the Kontinental Hockey League, the premier hockey league in Russia. If Kuznetsov had agreed to a deal with a KHL team, the 25-year-old Russian would become an NHL free agent in two years and the Capitals would lose his rights as a restricted free agent once he turns 27.
“I think we went a little above where we thought we were going to be I think initially,” MacLellan said. “Just the situation Kuznetsov was in with the ability to go play in Russia for two years and earn as much money or more than he’s making here and then come back as a UFA, he had leverage. We lost our arbitration leverage with his ability to do that, so we had to comply with his demands.
“When you look at it in total scope, I think he’s going to be a top-end center in the league and next year and going forward it’s going to be a good contract.”
The Capitals preferred having a top second-line center to a top left winger in Johansson.
Still, the timing of the trade came as a surprise. It was expected the Capitals might have to make a trade to clear salary in order to fill the bottom of the roster.
But if MacLellan knew this, which he said the Capitals did, then why did he wait all summer to clear the room when he could have theoretically traded Johansson before the expansion draft or the NHL draft to gain additional assets? MacLellan said he was comfortable with the players they chose to protect in the expansion draft.
New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero saw an opportunity to strike.
“With Washington, they loaded up and made a hell of a run this year,” Shero said on a conference call. “But at some point, especially with re-signing (T.J.) Oshie, (Dmitry) Orlov and Kuznetsov, they’re one of the teams we watched closely and we knew something had to give at some point.”
The draft picks the Capitals got in exchange for Johansson didn’t even initially belong to New Jersey, a franchise in the middle of rebuilding that had the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL draft. The second-round pick belonged to the Florida Panthers, 35-36-11 last year, and the third-round pick was originally from Toronto, a playoff team.
The Capitals couldn’t even manage to get a first for Johansson and the picks they did get are unlikely to be high in each round.
“We spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year, and we maxed it out, both player-wise and salary-wise,” MacLellan said. “We were expecting to run into some issues here going forward. I think it’s no different than the teams that have won in the past. We have the same kind of hangover, but we haven’t won a championship and we’re dealing with it now.”
The Johansson move helped Washington re-sign Kuznetsov, but the Capitals aren’t out of the weeds by any stretch when it comes to crunching the cap. According to CapFriendly.com, the Capitals have nearly $8.6 million remaining with as many as eight players still to sign. The NHL’s salary cap is $75 million and the Capitals have $66.4 million committed to 15 players.
Re-signing restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer will be the next priority for Capitals, which will quickly eat more of that cap room. The Capitals will rely on minimum-league contracts and younger players to fill out the bottom of the roster.
Washington signed more of those types of players Monday, agreeing to terms with forward John Albert and former 2010 second-round pick Devante Smith-Pelly (“We see him as a project,” MacLellan said.)
The Capitals have also added forward Anthony Peluso while re-signing forward Chandler Stephenson and goalie Pheonix Copley to league-minimum deals. These contracts are also two-way deals, which gives the Capitals flexibility to play those players in the AHL to develop further.
As for who replaces Johansson, MacLellan said 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana will be given an opportunity. Vrana appeared in 21 NHL games last year to mixed results, having three goals and three assists. MacLellan said Vrana played well with Kuznetsov on his first call up, but struggled later when he was called up a second time. Vrana spent most of the year with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ AHL affiliate.
The Capitals have to also fill the spot of right winger Justin Williams on the second line after the 35-year-old signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. MacLellan said Burakovsky, who played on the third-line last year, is ready for a bigger role and will likely take the spot.
MacLellan said he still expected the Capitals to be a good team. In losing Johansson, the Capitals lost a skilled, versatile forward who had a career-high 58 points (24 goals, 34 assists) last year.
MacLellan knew Johansson had to be traded, but was still bothered by it.
“I mean, it hurts,” he said. “We spent three years trying to get to that lineup that we had last year where I think it was a complete lineup and we knew that this point was coming in time where we weren’t going to be able to keep everybody and we were going to lose people that we really liked.”