Alex Ovechkin was not among the players the Washington Capitals protected in the upcoming expansion draft, but his pending free agent status gave the franchise the wiggle room to do so.
With Ovechkin set to become a free agent this month, the Capitals star would be free to sign elsewhere even if the Seattle Kraken select him this week.
Instead, the Capitals protected 11 players under a 7-3-1 format: Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. For the Capitals, those forwards included Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Anthony Mantha and Daniel Sprong, while they protected defensemen John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Trevor van Riemsdyk and netminder Illya Samsonov.
The NHL expansion draft begins Wednesday. The upstart Seattle Kraken get to select one unprotected player from 30 of the league’s teams, with the Vegas Golden Knights exempted from the draft due to also being a recent expansion team. The Kraken have $81.5 million in cap space to build their roster.
While Ovechkin being left unprotected was expected, perhaps the most surprising move for the Capitals was that they chose to keep van Riemsdyk over defensemen Justin Schultz or Brendon Dillon. The latter two played significantly more ahead of van Riemsdyk last season, but the Capitals gave the 29-year-old a two-year, $1.9 million contract extension in March.
If Schultz or Dillon are selected, a sizable contract would come off the books for Washington. Schultz is set to make $4 million next season, while Dillon carries a $3.9 million hit over the next three years. Losing either may not be the worst thing for a team that has $9 million in salary-cap space and still needs to re-sign Ovechkin.
Ovechkin and the Capitals have said they would like to work out a new contract. Barring something unforeseen, Ovechkin is expected to be back in Washington next season. The 35-year-old is coming off another dominant season in which he scored 24 goals in 45 games.
This will be the second time in four years that the Capitals will lose someone in the expansion draft. In 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights selected defenseman Nate Schmidt, who went onto play three seasons in Vegas before being traded to Vancouver last year.
Other notable players that the Capitals left unprotected in this year’s draft include forward Conor Sheary, forward Carl Hagelin and goaltender Vitek Vanecek. Of those, Vanecek has been strongly linked to Seattle because he’s young (25), cheap ($716,667) and has starting experience. Vanecek started 36 games for the Capitals last season, including Game 1 of the playoffs. His postseason was cut short, however, when he suffered a lower-body injury.
Seattle now has until Wednesday to negotiate with pending free agents left unprotected around the league, including Ovechkin. If the club agrees to a contract with a free agent, then that counts as Seattle’s selection for the team that loses the player. The Kraken, in theory, could select an upcoming free agent even if a deal could not be reached — but then they face the risk of them walking away when free agency opens July 28. That’s why it’s extremely unlikely Ovechkin will be selected.