When the Capitals lost defenseman Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights, Washington general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters at the NHL Draft in Chicago they would explore all their options to replace him.
Since then, the Capitals’ plan has come into focus: Get young.
The Capitals have a number of young defensemen in the pipeline that are going to get their chance to make the roster.
“I think we’re going to have two young guys in our lineup as of now,” MacLellan said. “First-round pick (Lucas) Johansen, (Christian) Djoos, (Madison) Bowey, (Aaron) Ness, (Tyler) Lewington, (Jonas) Siegenthaler, all these guys are going to play in the NHL and it’s just a matter of when. We’re going to give them opportunity this year.”
Schmidt was expected to play a top four role for the Capitals next year, but he isn’t the only absence Washington will have to address. Defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk departed in free agency.
The Capitals don’t have the resources to go out and sign a top-tier defenseman — not that there are many out there. Alzner and Shattenkirk were both seen as the top defensemen in this year’s free agent class. MacLellan preferred to re-sign T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov instead.
“We talked after the year, and it was just one of those things where Mac said, ‘Our hands are tied. We have so many moving parts right now. We’ve got to see where the cap is coming in, we’ve got restricted free agents that we need to sign and the Vegas draft,’” said Alzner, who signed a four-year, $23 million deal with the Montreal Canadiens.
“There were just so many things that were going to need to happen first … Then as everything started to shake down, it was pretty clear from my end that there didn’t look like there was going to be an option in Washington.”
Washington only has about $5.6 million of salary cap room remaining, so they have no choice but to go young considering they need to fill at least six roster spots. Young players are cheap.
When Marcus Johansson was dealt to the New Jersey Devils, MacLellan said the Capitals didn’t have the option to get a player back, so trading for a defenseman was never a realistic option.
The Capitals, technically, could have bought out 35-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has a cap-hit of $5.5 million for the next two years, to free more cap room but MacLellan didn’t want to do that. Buying out Orpik would have saved $3 million for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but the Capitals would have had to carry a cap hit of $1.5 million over the next four years.
Orpik averaged only 17:47 minutes of ice time per game last year and was a team-worst -7 in the playoffs, meaning opponents outscored the Capitals by seven goals when Orpik was on the ice.
MacLellan defended Orpik’s year and said the franchise values what he brings to young defensemen. Before trading for Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, Orpik was paired with Schmidt, who improved over the course of last season.
“I think we have a bunch of young defensemen who are coming up,” MacLellan said. “I think we have 10 or 12 guys that are under 22 and they’re all pretty good players and we’re going to value the ability of Orpik to mentor these guys. So I didn’t want a buyout on our salary cap going out four years. I didn’t think it made sense to us (to buy him out).”
The Capitals’ defensive pairings will be in flux as the younger players fight for roster spots. If there are growing pains, MacLellan pointed out goaltenders Braden Holtby and Philipp Gruabuer can mask a lot of those mistakes.
MacLellan, though, expects Orlov and Matt Niskanen as the Capitals’ top pairing. Theoretically, the Capitals could spread out the talents of Orlov, Niskanen and John Carlson — Washington’s three best defenders — so there’s a strong defender on each pairing, but Orlov and Niskanen have a chemistry that’s worked well. They were tasked with handling stars like Auston Matthews and Sidney Crosby in the playoffs, often with success.
Expect two younger prospects to be matched up with Orpik and Carlson, rather than Carlson and Orpik playing together in the top four. As for which players break through, that’s what training camp and the preseason will determine.
“It’s time for a lot of our guys,” coach Barry Trotz said. “There will be some opportunities for our guys. We always said we were going to slow cook them, if you will. We’ve had guys in (Hershey) for a couple of years. … There’s going to be more opportunity.”
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