The worst thing you can do in hockey is fall in love.
I know that sounds like the tag line to a bad romantic comedy (“Jon Hamm and Katherine Heigl star in…”), but it’s true. And the Washington Capitals just got sucked into a vortex because of it.
To catch you up on the debacle, the Capitals come out of the first few days of free agency having lost Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams through either trades, the expansion draft or free agency. The team replaced them with…nobody.
OK, Washington did sign Devante Smith-Pelly, but he is just one man and a fourth-liner at that. But DSP was necessary because he only commanded $650,000 and the Capitals desperately need bodies right now. Cheap ones, too.
New contracts for T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov ate up a ton of cap room and with just 15 players signed right now, Washington only has $8.5 million to play with. Andre Burakovsky and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer are still unsigned as restricted free agents. This is not going to end well.
GM Brian MacLellan acknowledged the problem in a media conference call, noting that his team had gone all-in for a Stanley Cup and just didn’t get the final result they splurged for. Fair play there, but I feel like there have since been some self-inflicted wounds.
For example, Washington did not have to re-sign Oshie. As good as he was for the Capitals, his offensive output wasn’t that much better than that of Johansson, whom the Caps were forced to trade to New Jersey on the weekend for pennies on the dollar – second and third-round picks in 2018. Johansson is also four years younger and his contract was more than $1.1 million cheaper per year than the cap hit of Oshie’s new long-term contract, which will see Washington pay the winger $5.7 million for the next eight years.
Would it have been painful to let Oshie walk as an unrestricted free agent? Sure. But there were cheaper options out there. Chris Kunitz, for example, went to Tampa Bay for one year and $2 million. Oshie may be better than Kunitz, but would you rather have Oshie, or Kunitz and Johansson next season?
There’s also Orlov’s new pact, which will see the young defenseman get paid $5.1 million for the next six seasons. This was probably a bit of an overpay for a blueliner who didn’t log top-four minutes this past season, though two of the guys ahead of him are gone (Shattenkirk and Alzner). Knock $500,000 off that contract per year and you get closer to another NHL defenseman, instead of the AHL tweener the Caps will likely have to bring up now.
The one contract I don’t have issue with is Kuznetsov’s new deal. The dangerous center will make $7.8 million for the next eight years and at 25 years of age, he’s good for that number. In a world where a 38-year-old Joe Thornton gets $8 million, Kuznetsov is almost a bargain. He’s one of Washington’s best players and may become their best skater within a year or two (Braden Holtby is, after all, one of the best goalies in the NHL right now).
But there is only so much space and a lot of it is taken up by defenseman Brooks Orpik. Originally brought in to help bolster the back end, Orpik’s best-before date has already expired, with two years left on his contract. I think many of us assumed he would have been bought out or traded by now, but MacLellan said the thought of buying out the veteran hadn’t crossed his mind.
Ideally, you trade Orpik for future considerations. Maybe that’s a pipe dream for an old war horse who brings a $5.5 million cap hit with him, but he complicates things now. That contract cannot stay. Burakovsky shouldn’t come cheap. If anything, the young winger is prime offer sheet material: a team could offer him $3.9 million per season on a bridge deal (say, two years) and only have to give Washington a second-round pick in return. As it stands now, the Caps couldn’t match even that reasonable sum.
And it all goes back to falling in love with players like Oshie, Orlov and Orpik. I know familiarity is nice, but as the Blackhawks proved during their three Cup runs, it’s not necessary. You can lose top talents such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell and still win, if you fill the holes the right way.
The Capitals didn’t even get the dignity of winning before plunging into an abyss and although I think they’ll still be a pretty good team next season, they can’t possibly be seen as Cup favorites. That’s what happens when you weren’t good enough to win before and then did nothing but lose talent and take on salary. Love can be rough.