What We Learned: What's next for the Capitals?

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What’s next for the Stanley Cup champion <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/was" data-ylk="slk:Washington Capitals">Washington Capitals</a>? (Getty)
What’s next for the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals? (Getty)

This might be the first year the dreaded Stanley Cup Hangover is actually a real hangover, but the Caps may soon have bigger problems than future liver disease.

Let’s say the salary cap ceiling for next season does go all the way up to the maxed-out level of $82 million the league is projecting. That gives Washington about $18 million to play with this summer, more or less.

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Maybe it feels a bit impertinent to talk about this while the Caps celebrate in fountains and so on, but this is frankly stuff the front office should have been thinking about for the entire playoff run. “How much more does every win, every point for a pending free agent, end up costing us?”

And with 16 players already locked in for next season, having $18 million to play with is really not a bad number. You can afford to spend about $3 million per player, on average.

Most of the team’s pending free agents are either pretty close to replaceable (Jay Beagle, Alex Chiasson, Michal Kempny) or RFAs who are likely to be cheap re-ups (Madison Bowey, Devante Smith-Pelly). They’ll have a hard decision to make on Philipp Grubauer, who by the way is the same age as signed-for-next-season Pheonix Copley, but he shouldn’t be too expensive either if they want to keep him as a backup for some reason.

You can probably get all of these guys or some reasonable replacements for like $1.5 million each, which frees up plenty of money for the more expensive pieces. But Smith-Pelly’s Cup Final might be enough to convince all involved that he’s worth more than he is. That might skew things.

The problem, though, is that they have a few big personnel decisions to make. The biggest is obviously what to do about John Carlson, coming off the best year of his career by far at age 28, and due to be probably the biggest blue-line name on the UFA market.

What do you think he gets? Something in the neighborhood of $8 million until he’s 34 or 35 sounds about right, and with a season like this one you can say he earned that money the right way. But that’s certainly not the kind of money the Caps can reasonably afford to throw around, is it?

It’s more than fair to call me a John Carlson skeptic — it strikes me as hard to not-score 50 points a year behind that first power play unit — but the guy had the right “Poor Man’s PK Subban” season at the right time. The problem for Washington is that if he walks, regardless of whether it make an earnest effort to get him to stay, is that there aren’t likely to be many reasonable replacement options that it could just pull off the UFA market. That is to say, unless they make a run at RFA Jacob Trouba (which they should) if/when Carlson goes elsewhere, they’re probably going to be hitting the trade market in hopes of help, right?

The Caps have a not-great D group beyond Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov. And as much as I like Orlov for what he is (an overpaid but good second-pairing guy) you can’t count on he and Niskanen to make up the absence, so you have to spend money here. MacLellan has plenty of it, but not exactly a lot of worthy candidates on whom to spend it. Beyond Carlson, the UFA D crop is probably headlined by, I don’t know, Toby Enstrom, who’s 33 years old. Would you want to roll the dice on Calvin de Haan or Thomas Hickey? Well, they’re both Islanders, so probably not.

It’s a real rock-and-a-hard-place scenario because there’s not really a good solution here. The Caps would understandably be thrilled to get Carlson back, but at double the salary into his mid-30s, especially as the rest of the core ages? Yeah, I’m not so sure. Maybe you can work something out via trade (and maybe that’s where Grubauer comes in?) but teams aren’t generally willing to give up top-pair defensemen in their 20s for 1b goalies. So I’m not sure where that gets you either.

The other problem for Brian MacLellan is that the team needs to re-sign Tom Wilson. We can debate what kind of value Wilson provides this club until we’ve all passed out, and that’s certainly a thing we’ve all done at points this season. But obviously a team would have to look at his contribution with some amount of skepticism just to keep the price down, right?

Then again, Wilson is one of those guys “everyone wants on their team” and he’s an RFA, so no one’s going to come in and outbid you for his services on an offer sheet. This creates a tough circumstance for the Caps because of how their forwards get paid. Lars Eller just signed a nice little “both sides win” contract for just $3.5 million (starting in 2018-19) and Wilson will certainly be looking for more than that.

TJ Oshie got $5.75 million AAV for seven years, but he was a UFA, and Wilson isn’t, which is going to depress his value. He’s also arbitration-eligible but you have to assume the Caps would be able to talk so much trash about his game and value — given that arbitrators can’t exactly make decisions based on intangibles — that Wilson would be irresponsible to go that route.

Likewise, he would be irresponsible to go short-term because he’s not likely to actually play better than he did in the regular season and playoffs. So does he “settle” for something like $4.5 million AAV for five years or something? That strikes me as an overpay, but obviously I’m a Wilson skeptic as well and it’s very likely that the Caps would feel like they did well at that price point.

Most people can agree that the Caps were approaching a crossroads with their organization anyway. Most of their big difference-makers are 30-plus (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Niskanen) and guys like Holtby (29 in September) aren’t far behind. This Cup was a long time coming but this doesn’t seem like a team likely to repeat. Is that, too, something the organization can be realistic about?

Intellectual honesty is the best policy when running a team. While the Caps have money to spend, they might need to divorce themselves from their conceptions of what got them to the top of the league. Barring hometown discounts, it’ll be pretty easy to burn through that cap space, or spend it unwisely in pursuit of quick fixes.

The thing with cap space, though, is that you don’t have to spend it if there’s nothing worth spending it on. That’s something MacLellan would be wise to keep in mind if Carlson hits the open market.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Was it smart to give away Shea Theodore to get rid of Clayton Stoner? Well, probably not.

Arizona Coyotes:Man, imagine if Oliver Ekman-Larsson refuses to sign with them. That would be very bad, for them. Very good for the player though.

Boston Bruins:The Bruins need help up front, no question, but if they re-sign Rick Nash (ehhhhh, he’s fine as a rental) how much money do we really expect them to be able to spend?

Buffalo Sabres: The idea that they’d trade Ryan O’Reilly? Hoo boy. I truly don’t understand the logic on that one.

Calgary Flames: The Flames have a lot of problems and I’m not sure Brad Treliving can fix them all after his last two coaching hires.

Carolina Hurricanes: Talking about Andrei Svechnikov as bringing “a physical game” seems to be underselling all his other very strong qualities, but hey…

Chicago: Hell yeah, trade for Justin Faulk and Scott Darling! Do it!

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs are apparently likely to target a defender at the draft. That’s interesting.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Oh HELL yeah.

Dallas Stars:The Caps had a bunch of former Hershey Bears on their Cup-winning roster but don’t get your hopes up about that sort of thing.

Detroit Red Wings: I bet this was a great meeting.

Edmonton Oilers: This is a truly amazing take.

Florida Panthers: Poor Bobby Lu. Need guys like him winning Cups!

Los Angeles Kings: Ilya Kovalchuk met with both the Kings and Sharks in recent days and boy I would love Kovalchuk on the Sharks. That would rule.

Minnesota Wild: Say, speaking of coaches and the Wild “cutting ties” how much leash do you think Bruce Boudreau has this season? I’m not optimistic!

Montreal Canadiens: How confident are you that the Habs will screw up the No. 3 pick? Pretty confident? Yeah, me too.

Nashville Predators: Man, I know Vegas odds aren’t based on anything all that hard and fast but the Preds having worse odds to win the Cup than the Golden Knights is beyond parody.

New Jersey Devils: I mean maybe it makes sense for the Devils to trade down but they should have learned pretty quickly what legitimately good teams do to the papier-mache front they put up behind Taylor Hall last season. They’re not close to being truly competitive.

New York Islanders: The Isles might trade for a goalie around the draft. Okay, have fun out there.

New York Rangers: Interesting to me that the Rangers hired David Quinn, whose system relies so much on defenders getting up in the play, because the Rangers…. don’t have a lot of defenders who can do that.

Ottawa Senators: Just trade Karlsson to Vegas already for crying out loud!

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers might move on from Wayne Simmonds if he can’t bounce back next season after being hurt so much? Hey, I get it. But also: Huh?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Imagine if this team can add John Tavares this summer? C’mon man!

San Jose Sharks: A Paul Martin buyout on the way? Just goes to show that like 80 percent of all contracts that get bought out fall into the “mistake on Day 1” category. You can’t give 33-year-olds four-year deals and expect them to work out.

St. Louis Blues: Ownership is apparently opening the pursestrings a little bit, but to what end?

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts as favorites to win the Cup next year just makes sense.

Toronto Maple Leafs: What do you mean by “Dubas must make splash” exactly? This is a good team that’s only going to improve through the simple aging process and by jettisoning your Roman Polaks and so on. They can’t afford to add a significant piece without having to sacrifice ELC guys next summer. Use your brain!

Vancouver Canucks: Imagine thinking the defense is the Canucks’ biggest priority this summer? Yikes.

Vegas Golden Knights: Truly can’t wait for Marc-Andre Fleury’s .909 next season.

Washington Capitals: I don’t want to say this is the “definitive” history of how the Caps got from last summer to now — I’m sure there are at least a few books already being worked on — but this is pretty damn good.

Winnipeg Jets: Make True North pay for the whole thing. C’mon.

Play of the Weekend

No more plays until September!!!!!

Gold Star Award

I’m honestly like 10 percent concerned someone from the Caps is gonna drown in a puddle this week.

Minus of the Weekend

A whole offseason to get through? This stinks!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “BigFatCat999” had me at the subject line.

“Nashville: Karlsson

Toronto: Subban

Ottawa: Marner plus other assorted futures

Signoff

Yes.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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