Inexperience was considered this team’s greatest flaw going into the season, but the development of its youth could results in an even better position next year. Rookies Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos all played the majority of the post-season and are expected to improve in sophomore campaigns. Centre Evgeny Kuznetsov solidified his emergence as a member of the Capitals’ superstar core with 32 points in 24 playoff games, making him the league’s top post-season scorer. After not picking until the fourth round of the draft a year ago, the Capitals have a pick in each of the first three rounds this year.
“I think our young guys, I mean, they’re still improving,” MacLellan said before the Stanley Cup Final. “We have Vrana, (23-year-old Andre) Burakovsky’s still improving, Stephenson’s improving, (24-year-old Tom) Wilson’s improving. I look at our group this year and I think we play a little bit of a different style. It’s a faster style, we’re a younger team. We play a little more north-south than east-west and the structure of the team, the team defensive structure, is better than it’s ever been, too. I think as these guys keep improving, I think it should be good for our core guys — for Ovi, Backstrom, (T.J. Oshie). They’re going to be good complements because of the style they play.”
Washington’s top free agent priority will be John Carlson, who is expected to receive a significant pay bump after a career season with 15 goals and 53 assists, leading all NHL defencemen in scoring. He showed he can be counted on a top blue-line player, averaging 24:47 of ice time during the regular season and 25:38 during the playoffs. He’s been on a cap-friendly contract with an average annual value of roughly $4 million (U.S.) the past six seasons and some project that his next deal will pay twice that much, even if Washington gives him a maximum term of eight years. MacLellan said the Capitals are “going to do our best with John.”
“It depends on how much money he wants,” MacLellan said before the post-season. “It’s going to be a trade-off on: Do we want to create some space, or what the salary level we’re willing to go to and he’s willing to accept.”
“When we sat down and chatted, he basically said, ‘Look, we really would like to keep John,’ ” Rick Curran, Carlson’s agent, recently said of his conversation with MacLellan during the season. “I assured him that John’s preference would be to stay in Washington. We both recognize that neither one of us were really in a position to say much more about it because Washington doesn’t have any cap space at the moment.”
Even with the salary cap expected to rise to $80 million (U.S.) next season, it could be a tight squeeze for the Capitals. Wilson is a restricted free agent, and after his career season — 14 goals and 21 assists while playing mostly on a top line with Ovechkin — he’s earned a raise from his last two-year, $4 million bridge deal. Before the playoffs started, MacLellan said re-signing defenceman Michal Kempny, a rental trade-deadline addition, was a consideration after how well he fit into the Capitals’ top-four corps beside Carlson. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored seven playoff goals, is a restricted free agent, and his post-season was so impressive that it’s unclear if Washington will now be able to afford to keep him.
Fourth-line centre Jay Beagle is an unrestricted free agent, and with the expected constraints, it’s likely the Capitals will choose to replace the 32-year-old with less expensive options such as Stephenson or Travis Boyd. Beagle is one of the longest-tenured members of the team, making his NHL debut with the franchise a decade ago.
One way the Capitals could clear some cap room is by trading backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Washington signed vaunted goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov to an entry-level deal in May, so the 2015 first-round pick is expected to play his first season in North America next season. That means the Capitals will have to clear some room on their organizational depth chart to make way for Samsonov, who’s expected to start in the AHL next season. Grubauer played a career-high 35 NHL games this season, splitting time with Braden Holtby for the last month of the season, when Holtby temporarily lost his top job. Grubauer was even named the post-season starter before Holtby reclaimed the net for good in Game 3 of the first round.
Though he didn’t hold onto the starting gig in the playoffs, Grubauer showed he’s ready for more responsibility, making it doubtful that the Capitals will be able to afford both him and Holtby as a tandem for another season thanks to his impending status as a restricted free agent. Washington could trade Grubauer’s rights and promote Pheonix Copley to the role of Holtby’s backup next season, saving some money in the process because Copley makes the league minimum. Washington could get a mid- to high-round draft pick in exchange for Grubauer.