July 1st is a date that every hockey fan circles – the start of the unrestricted free agent signing period. Like its comparison event, the NHL entry draft, it represents hope. Hope that can be addressed in a more immediate nature with the signing of players who can help their team now, not four or five years down the road (if at all).
Fans of the Washington Capitals are no different. They were made very happy last year at this time when the club signed free agent winger Justin Williams to help get them over the pesky second round playoff wall they never seem able to scale. Things did not turn out as planned, but hope springs anew as the 2016 version of the “NHL Talent Rush” commences. I’m sure the cousins have something to chime in with on this issue, so let’s get their take…
Peerless… OK guys, let’s start with holes. Where are they on this roster?
Fearless… If you look at the 12 forwards and six defensemen, plus the two goaltenders you are likely to want playing every night with this team, it isn’t really a team with holes, or at least they have fewer than just about any other team in the league. Their top-six forwards are not in such a state that you would seriously contemplate taking on salary to add that level of skill, given where the Caps are on the salary cap. The same goes for the top-four on defense. There might not be a Norris Trophy candidate in that group, but there aren’t many teams with the balance the Caps can ice at that position. Goaltending certainly isn’t an issue for this club.
Cheerless… Well, cuz, in this game, if you snooze, you lose. Stand still, and you’re moving backwards. If you’re not the early bird, you don’t get the worm. Are you going to look at what the bottom nine forwards did in the playoffs and what the defensemen not named “Carlson” did on offense and say, “we’re good?” If you can improve there with a free agent, you do it. You strike while the iron is hot. You can make the numbers work. Other teams seem to be able to do it.
Peerless… The Caps have several free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, whose futures must be addressed. Who stays, and who goes?
Fearless… By the time folks read this, I suspect Jason Chimera will shortly, if not already be the property of another club. His fate was sealed when the Caps traded for Lars Eller, which will end the matter of Marcus Johansson, wing or center? As for Johansson, a restricted free agent, I have a hard time imagining how the Caps don’t re-sign him. He’s among the most productive players from his draft class, and he’s a solid, reliable 45-50 point contributor (at that level or better per 82 games over the last five seasons). As for the “Mike’s” – Latta, Richards, and Weber – Latta (a restricted free agent not tendered a qualifying offer) is gone, and the other two will follow. That leaves the other restricted free agents, Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov. Both, like Johansson, were extended qualifying offers. They have roles to play on this team; I don’t think either is going anywhere (note: Wilson was signed to a two-year extension).
Cheerless… What Fearless said, but I wonder about Tom Wilson. Something Brian MacLellan said about Latta sticks with me… “I think the key for him is he’s gotta bring something besides energy in that fourth-line role. He’s got to kill penalties; there’s got to be another dimension to his game for him to be successful in the league.” Something like that might have been said about Wilson last year, when it seemed his biggest skill was making mayhem. He added penalty killing this past year, fourth among Caps forwards who appeared in more than half the games. But he’s a 16th overall pick, too. I think folks are going to want to see him add some more offense to his game, even if his point totals have improved every year. The team thinks there is something there; they re-upped him for two more years.
Peerless… Let’s get right to the nub of it. This is a team that has built itself largely from the draft, but the last two summers the Caps have been busy under Brian MacLellan, getting defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in 2014 and forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams last summer. Will they be busy this summer?
Fearless… No. Head Coach Barry Trotz gave up the ending yesterday when he said:
“I don’t think we’ll be actively going after a high-end free agent or anything…One of the reasons is we have a couple players out here that could challenge I think for our hockey team. We’ve been patient with some of our young guys who really made a lot of progress and showed how much they’ve grown. They went to the Calder Cup Final, and they’ve really grown. We don’t want to block our good young guys with a 35-year-old veteran, who can get it done, because we have a veteran team now…We want to give some opportunity to our kids. They’ve made great progress, and I think they’ve earned that right to challenge for spots, and I think we’re not going to block them. I think if we do anything, we might add maybe one forward. I think we’ll be pretty quiet.”
That pretty much sums up what Caps fans can expect.
Cheerless… If I’m dealt two pair, I’m not throwing one of them out to try to get four of a kind. I like my chances with this hand…maybe I look for another card to round out a full house, but I’m not blowing up my hand. All that talk about snoozing and worms and all that. Forget it. The Caps have a pretty good hand right now.
Peerless… In the end, the Caps are in a pretty good place, if you’re an optimist. If you look at the postseason just completed, the Caps were an overtime away from taking the eventual Stanley Cup champions to a seventh game on home ice despite:
- Their leading scorer in the regular season having one point in six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Evgeny Kuznetsov just turned 24 in May.
- The 13th player in team history to record at least 60 points over his first two seasons before reaching the age of 22 having one point in six games against the Penguins. Andre Burakovsky turned 21 in February.
- A defenseman who missed an entire regular season of hockey coming into this season and who had never appeared in an NHL postseason game before this year having no points in five games against the Penguins. Dmitry Orlov is 24 years old.
- A 16th overall draft pick who has improved on his regular season scoring numbers in each of his three seasons having one point in seven games against the Penguins. Tom Wilson turned 22 in March.
The worst you could say about this quartet is that they won’t get worse in the postseason. Frankly, it would be hard to do that. You hope, if not outright expect, that they will improve. And, if they do next season, they do it with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and others to perform at or near their production levels this past season.
Go back to the quote from Barry Trotz above, and think about where the open roster spots are. The Caps probably stabilized their forwards by trading for Lars Eller, which will likely settle Marcus Johansson in a wing slot on a permanent basis. With Jason Chimera (likely) and Michael Latta not coming back, one could envision a spot for a winger, but this is where those “good young guys” come into play. The Caps might want to take a long look at players like Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Chandler Stephenson, or Travis Boyd to fill a slot to reward developmental performance and, in the longer term, keeping salary room available for any moves the team might want to make in season or at the trading deadline.
If a lot of moves in free agency is something fans find entertaining, this free agent signing period is likely to look to Caps fans like a bad public access cable talk show. But this is a club that would already seem to have the parts it needs, just with a little more experience for some of them, to kick in the door to the vault where that Stanley Cup is kept.