Ranking the Caps’ Top Off-Season Priorities

The Washington Capitals’ season ended a lot sooner than most hoped it would. After winning a Cup in 2018 and successfully winning their division this season, the Caps were unable to advance through the NHL’s wild first round. Though the loss was tough, it’s time for the front office to shift their attention to next season and what moves they’ll have to make to contend once again. I’ve ranked what their top priorities should be, in order of importance.

Re-signing Restricted Free Agents

The Caps have five players from this year’s roster headed to restricted free agency: Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, and Dmitrij Jaskin. Of those, only Jaskin won’t be targeted to return to the Caps.

Vrana had a breakout year under Todd Reirden, who gave him much more opportunity than Barry Trotz ever did. He’s now due for a major pay raise, probably in the range of $4-6 million per year, depending on whether the two sides go for a bridge deal or a long-term one.

Djoos and Stephenson both regressed somewhat from being key pieces during the Cup run, but the Caps will surely want to bring both of them back. They’ll almost certainly be on cheap 2-3 year deals.

Burakovsky is the most interesting case here. Because of his previous deal, the Caps would have to extend a qualifying offer of at least $3.25 million, a hefty price tag for a player who’s struggled to fulfill his potential. Perhaps more likely is one of two scenarios: they trade his rights before or at the draft, or they allow him to hit the open market and compete with everyone else to sign him.

The Caps should be trying to bring all four of these players back.

Clearing Salary Cap Space

The Caps have a cap problem. According to Capfriendly.com, they’ll go into the offseason with only about $10 million left. That’s probably not enough to sign the four RFAs I mentioned plus any other reinforcements, let alone re-signing Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin, and/or Brooks Orpik.

They’re going to have to find a way to clear some space. One obvious way is to trade someone, and the most likely candidate is Matt Niskanen. The 32-year-old defenseman had a bad year and is overpaid at $5.75 million. The Caps have enough young defensemen that they don’t necessarily need Niskanen, and that money could be more efficiently used elsewhere.

Another way to save cap space is to let go of Brett Connolly. After a career year, Connolly is likely to have some pretty significant offers on the table around the league. The Caps may get a little bit of a discount, but he’ll still be expensive and will likely end up being overpaid somewhere. Letting someone else do that (like the Caps did with Jay Beagle) will leave that space for more efficient signings.

Discussing Long-Term Extensions With Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Holtby

The possibility of any of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, or Braden Holtby ever putting on another NHL jersey is sickening. Yet all three will become free agents within the next two years — Backstrom and Holtby next year and Ovechkin the year after — and it’s not too soon to discuss their extensions.

Backstrom’s may be the most likely to actually get done soon. At 31, he’s still playing at an elite level, and the Caps don’t have any obvious replacement for him in the system.

Holtby, on the other hand, sits in front of a number of intriguing prospects in the depth chart at goalie, most notably Ilya Samsonov, the Caps’ 2015 first round pick. Samsonov is at the tail end of his first season in North America, and after overcoming early struggles, he now looks back on track to be the next great Caps goalie. The Caps may want to wait until after next season to further iron out their plans at the position. If Holtby stays long term, that may mean giving up on Samsonov, which they should be hesitant to do.

Ovechkin still has two years left on his contract, so he won’t sign this summer. But I’d hope the Caps are keeping tabs on and encouraging his desire to keep playing past this contract and spend his entire career as a Capital.

-Tiger Bjornlund

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