The Washington Capitals finally got to sip out of the Stanley Cup Thursday night for the first time in the team’s 43-year history, but if they’re to repeat the feat a year from now, work begins almost immediately to keep them on track.
While the team and its leaders take at least a few days to bask in the glory, the NHL off-season picks up very soon. The buyout window will open in a week and trades will start flowing; the NHL draft will follow and free agency opens in a little more than three weeks.
There’s no resting for GM Brian MacLellan.
The Capitals lost a lot of players over the summer last year, which ultimately made them stronger and a tighter-knit group capable of winning a championship, but that’s not a sustainable way of doing business. The team agains enters the summer with some question marks and loose ends to tie up.
Here is what Washington needs to accomplish this summer.
SIGN JOHN CARLSON TO AN EXTENSION
While John Tavares gets all the attention as a sought-after pending UFA, the Capitals’s top defenceman is also a pending UFA who a lot of suitors would chase if he hits the market.
Carlson’s expiring deal came with a very team friendly $3.96 million cap hit, which should at least double this summer and could go even higher if he’s open to all bidders. The 27th overall pick of the 2008 draft, Carlson had 20 points in 24 games to lead all defencemen in playoff scoring, which followed a 68-point regular season that was also tops among all players at his position. He was the third-most used Caps defender on the PK, had the sixth-most PP minutes of any player league-wide and his total average of 24:47 ranked 13th in the NHL.
Just 28 years old, Carlson is right in his prime and the kind of right-shot, swift-skating, smooth-puck-moving defender who is valued across the league in today’s game. And there is no shortage of teams looking for that exact skill set this summer.
The Capitals lost trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency last year so can’t let Carlson get away this time. Washington has $11.2 million in projected cap space before it rises another $3-$7 million to the new amount and don’t have any other major UFA contracts to sign. The Caps have the advantage of being able to offer eight years instead of the seven other teams are limited to.
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KEEP BARRY TROTZ AS HEAD COACH
Both the Capitals’ GM and head coach came into the season as lame ducks in their positions, and if Washington faltered, surely both would have been dismissed. MacLellan signed his extension a couple months ago, but Trotz is still without a deal.
When he was asked about his future after winning the Stanley Cup, he said he “absolutely” saw a future in Washington.
“I’m not even going to go there. I said to Brian there’s no reason that I don’t want to be there. No matter what happens, give me a couple of days to enjoy or not enjoy what happens,” Trotz said. “But … these are my kids. This is a pretty special group.
“We’ll talk. I’m not worried, one way or the other. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
The GM, too, said he’d prefer to keep Trotz around.
“If he wants to be back, he’ll be back,” MacLellan said during the on-ice celebration.
According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Trotz made $1.5 million under his expiring deal, but Stanley Cup winning coaches have made upwards of $5 million in recent years, so the Capitals have to brace for a big raise to the soon-to-be 56-year-old head coach.
Trotz’s contract officially expires on July 1 and if he were to explore other options, teams would come calling immediately. The fifth-most winningest coach in NHL history, Trotz is well respected and has built up an expansion team before in Nashville, so there’s even been speculation he could hold out for a Seattle opening. The New York Islanders have been another link and, if Trotz was available, the Minnesota Wild could decide to switch out Bruce Boudreau.
EXPLORE TRADING PHILIPP GRUBAUER
There was a risk the Capitals would lose Grubauer at the expansion draft last season, but after hanging on to him the 26-year-old German became a key cog in this year’s team. As a starter, Braden Holtby struggled, so Grubauer was asked to play a career-high 35 games and he posted a .923 save percentage that actually led him to briefly taking over No. 1 duties. When the playoffs started, Grubauer was in net, not Holtby.
Now, however, Grubauer is an RFA one year away from being eligible for UFA status. His trade value may never be higher, since he went a long way to prove capable of being a regular starter in the NHL, which teams like Carolina, the New Y Islanders or Philadelphia could be interested in. All of them are division rivals, of course, which complicates matters — but if a good trade is there, MacLellan should take it.
Goalies don’t tend to go for a lot in trade these days, but with motivated buyers and a young-ish goalie on the rise, the Capitals are in a good position. Pheonix Copley is in place to take over the backup spot and they could add to an area of need by flipping Grubauer.
REWARD AND RE-SIGN THE DEPTH CUP WINNERS…IF IT MAKES SENSE
The trap a GM can get into after winning a Stanley Cup is perhaps getting too attached to his depth players who came through with spirited efforts and contributions to the Stanley Cup win. While you want to reward these players and keep a group together that clearly worked, investing too many years or too much cap space in bottom pair defencemen or bottom-six forwards can come back to bite a team in the years ahead.
Top Wilson is the biggest RFA of note in Washington and though he doesn’t have the natural skill of Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Kuznetsov, he plays on the top line and adds an element of traditional grit plus potentially 20-goal upside, so he’ll stay and get a decent raise on his $2 million AAV. It’s likely he’ll fall somewhere between Lars Eller’s $3.5 million AAV and T.J. Oshie’s $5.75 million.
After that it could get tricky. Devante Smith-Pelly was bought out by New Jersey from a contract that paid him $1.3 million against the cap last summer after he finished with just nine points and 53 games played. The 25-year-old is an RFA who the Caps paid just $650,000 to, so doubling that again could be a bit of a risk on a low-offence player.
Michal Kempny was a sneaky and effective trade deadline pickup who was a healthy scratch by Chicago, and then averaged 17:42 of ice time in the playoffs as the fourth-most used Capitals blueliner. A 27-year-old UFA, he could parlay his post-season performance into an unexpected contract opportunity in his prime years and the Caps need to be careful about wading into that pool for a late-blooming player just two seasons into his NHL career.