The Capitals may not be planning a rebuild this offseason, but changes are coming. The team’s salary cap situation is going to dictate a lot of what the Caps do this offseason and will force the team to part with some significant players.
Washington currently has 11 forwards, seven defensemen and one goalie under contract with a cap hit of just over $72 million.
“We’re still going to have a veteran team because that’s our core,” Capitals General Manager MacLellan said at the team’s final media availability of the season late last month.
The first problem is that the salary cap is going to remain flat at $81.5 million for the 2021-22 season. Typically, the cap rises every year based on expected revenue, but the pandemic has changed that. It’s complicated, but the players are going to owe the owners a significant amount of money from the 2020-21 season so the cap is going to stay in place until the players are able to pay that money back. This could take several years.
A flat cap is an issue for Washington because it means no cap relief, but several other teams are going to be in similar positions. With more teams out there trying to shed cap and fewer willing to take it on, MacLellan’s options will be limited.
The second issue is a big one: Alex Ovechkin. He finished out the last year of his contract. Though he is expected to re-sign, it is also expected that his cap hit is going to go up from his previous $9.5 million which is already more cap space than the team has left.
Basically, a team with an aging core that lost in the first round in each of the past three postseasons does not currently have the cap space to re-sign Ovechkin, re-sign goalie Ilya Samsonov who is expected to be the No.1 goalie heading into the season and add any players to improve the roster.
That’s why even though the team won’t commit to a rebuild this year, changes are still coming and they will have to be significant.
Don’t forget, when a team moves a player it means having to bring in another to replace him. That’s why trying to move a fourth-line player or a bottom-pair defenseman is not going to be enough. Moving a player like Garnet Hathaway, for example, would only clear up $1.5 million worth of cap space. But even if he’s replaced with a prospect making only $700,000, the team has only saved $800,000 against the cap.
That’s not going to cut it and this will ultimately force MacLellan’s hand this offseason.
When asked about the possibility of trading away Evgeny Kuznetsov, MacLellan said: “I think we’re always open to trading people if it makes sense for what’s going on. If it’s going to make our team better, I think we’re open to it. I don’t think anybody’s off the table. We’re not going to trade Ovi or [Nicklas Backstrom] and those type of people, but I think you have to be open on anything. We would talk to anybody about any player.”
Even if MacLellan didn’t want to trade Kuznetsov, his cap hit is $7.8 million. His trade value is probably the lowest it has ever been at this point, but it is something the team will have to explore if, for no other reason, than to try to recoup cap space.
The Seattle expansion draft is also looming. It’s a good news/bad news prospect for Washington as the Caps are going to lose a player off their roster which could ease the cap situation, but that may mean giving up a better player than MacLellan would want to give up for nothing.
T.J. Oshie’s name has been widely speculated as a possible target for Seattle given he was born in Washington state, is still a productive player and is the type of personality a new team could easily promote. He is also 34 years old with four years remaining on a contract with a cap hit of $5.75 million.
In his postseason availability, MacLellan didn’t seem happy with an option of losing him to Seattle.
“[Oshie] continues to produce, he continues to be a big part of what’s going on in the room and on the ice. He’s a big part of our organization. It would hurt our team and our organization if we lost him in the expansion draft,” he said.
But again, he may have no choice.
(Oshie, for his part, told reporters that he wanted to stay in D.C.)
What if the Kraken look at the Caps roster and decide to go after a player like goalie Vitek Vanecek? Samsonov may be expected to be the No. 1, but Vanecek’s cap hit is less than $717,000. Replacing him with a different backup goalie would probably be more expensive, thus making the situation worse. Losing a player and losing cap space in the expansion draft would be the absolute worst-case scenario for Washington. Could that force MacLellan to make a tough decision about Oshie?
The Caps may not want to rebuild and they may still have belief in their core as championship contenders, but for a team that does not see the need to make significant changes to the roster, they will have no choice.
They have to clear cap space. The question is how?