For general manager Brian MacLellan and the Washington Capitals, it’s a foggy future ahead.
On a conference call with reporters last week, MacLellan was asked how difficult it was to plan for the offseason with the lingering possibility that the NHL season does not resume due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He ran down the list of questions with unknowable answers: “What happens to the cap? Does the cap go down because revenues are going to decrease? Do they artificially keep it where it’s at? So, the answer to those questions puts us on pause on your UFA (unrestricted free agent) negotiations. How do we proceed given both those scenarios?”
He turned to the draft, which was postponed indefinitely.
“As far as the draft, we talk on how we’re going to have meetings, the possibility of meetings to put the list together,” MacLellan said. “How do we keep our guys engaged? With the combine being canceled, can we do some phone interviews? What can we do on the video side of it?”
Hockey isn’t the most important concern as the world comes to grips with a deadly pandemic. But for MacLellan, these are business concerns, his version of working from home.
Playing out some scenarios illuminates just how different things could be the next time we see the Capitals on the ice. For one, if the remainder of the season is called off and the NHL doesn’t hold a postseason in any form, it all but ensures we’ve seen the last of Braden Holtby in a Capitals uniform.
It would mark an unceremonious goodbye perhaps unbefitting of the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. But the fact is, Holtby’s contract is up at the end of the season and 22-year-old Ilya Samsonov, in a limited sample size of 22 starts, looked much stronger than Holtby did throughout the season.
As a veteran with a good track record, Holtby will command a big price on the open market to become some other team’s No. 1, and Washington is too hard up against the salary cap to give him that sort of contract. In terms of planning for the future, Samsonov is the Capitals’ obvious No. 1.
But wait. What is going to happen with NHL players’ contracts, exactly, if the season does eventually resume?
Contracts typically expire July 1, opening the free agency period. But if the NHL does resume its season during the summer and hockey is actually being played on July 1, the league can’t have players like Holtby swapping teams yet. MacLellan said that in a call with the league, NHL representatives indicated they’d want contracts to be extended until August — or whenever the Stanley Cup Final actually concludes — but the NHLPA would need to sign off on that before it’s codified.
So if the season resumed, in whatever format the league settles on, it’s safe to assume the Capitals would have their 2019-20 roster back. Planning for the future is the bigger question.
The NHL postponed its scouting combine and draft, which were set for June. It’s undecided when they would be held relative to the end of the season. Some trades that included draft picks had conditions pertaining to playoff finish: When the Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon, for instance, it was on the condition that if Washington won the Stanley Cup, the 2021 third-round pick it was sending San Jose would instead turn into a 2020 third-rounder.
How will that be handled by the league? As with many things, it’s too early to tell.
July 1 also would have marked the first day that Alex Ovechkin could sign a contract extension with Washington. Though no one in their right mind believes Ovechkin won’t spend his entire career a Capital, there would have been some daily intrigue over the summer about when, and for how much, Ovechkin would sign an extension. But not the way things are tracking right now.
The suspended season could affect Ovechkin’s individual milestone pursuits — the potential loss of 13 regular-season games with which to chase Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record — but consider the Capitals’ team goals as well. If the NHL can’t come back and complete the 2019-20 season and award a Stanley Cup, the Capitals’ current championship window would become one year narrower, through no fault of their own.
The core of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and other top players won’t last forever; Backstrom and Carlson recently signed long-term deals, but all four of those stars are 30 years or older and will eventually slow down.
Backstrom recently told reporters that he had liked Washington’s chances this year, before sports were shut down. The Capitals (41-20-8, 90 points) held a one-point lead in the Metropolitan Division when play stopped.
“No one knows what’s gonna happen,” Backstrom said. “You obviously know the salary cap’s situation gonna be different for every year. I feel like we got a great core group here, it’s been here a long time and hopefully we can keep it the same because we’ve been through it. We won before and you want to do it again. That’s how our mindset is all the time. Hopefully we can keep the same.”
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