With the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs, the focus now must turn from the 2015 postseason to the 2015-16 season. There truly is no rest for the weary as the Caps now must face several key offseason questions.
Despite how the season may have ended, Barry Trotz’s first season behind the bench in Washington was a successful one — he led the Caps back into the postseason and came within one win of knocking off the President’s Trophy winners, but that only matters if the team is able to capitalize on the strides they made.
Here are the biggest questions the team now faces as they head into the offseason:
How much will Braden Holtby cost?
Braden Holtby was absolutely phenomenal for the Caps with a .944 save percentage in the playoffs. In fact, Holtby currently owns the all-time highest career playoff percentage. Holtby also proved his worth in the regular season, playing 73 games and earning 41 wins.
This is pretty good timing for the Saskatchewan native as he is now a restricted free agent. Before you start thinking about a blank check with a lot of zeros, however, the fact that Holtby is a restricted free agent does give the team the option of a “bridge” contract — a short-term deal to take him out of restricted status.
Essentially a bridge deal allows for the player to make more money without the team having to commit to a long-term deal yet. At this point, however, what is there left for Holtby to prove?
Bridge contracts can sometimes seem business savvy, but to give Holtby a “prove it” type deal after the season he just had seems silly considering that he also had a strong postseason showing in 2012.
Other teams could also force the Caps’ hand. Restricted free agents can receive offer sheets from other teams which does not happen a lot, but for a budding star/elite goalie Holtby is sure to generate some interest from around the league. Chances are this won’t happen and even if it does, it seems unfathomable to think the Caps won’t match regardless of what the offer might be.
So what is Holtby ultimately worth?
Henrik Lundqvist currently has the highest cap hit among NHL goalies at $8.5 million, but that seems a tad unreasonable. Holtby falls much closer to the $6-7 million range, probably closer to the lower end of that spectrum given that Holtby has only been a starter for one full season.
Will Mike Green be back?
Mike Green is coming off a contract that paid him about $6 million per year and was a third-pair defenseman this season. Regardless of what anyone thinks he is worth, one thing is guaranteed: another NHL team will offer Green more money than the Caps will. That is a 100 percent, take it to the bank guarantee. How much more money he’s offered will ultimately determine whether he returns.
While Green is on the third-pair with the Caps, there are other teams who will be willing to give him a bigger role on their team and therefore will offer him significantly more money.
Green has made it clear he wants to stay in Washington and would perhaps be willing to take a paycut, but we are probably talking about several million dollars. That makes Green’s return unlikely.
Who will be the top-line RW?
Besides re-signing Holtby, finding a top line right wing will be a top priority this offseason. Given that Trotz tried just about everyone he could on that top line, this suggests the next right wing is either not on the roster or is still developing.
If you think Marcus Johansson should be on the top line, that’s great. Trotz tried it and moved on. If you think Joel Ward should be on the top line, that’s great. Trotz tried it and moved on. The same goes for Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Eric Fehr. Trotz tried all of these players on the top line and moved on from it.
Coaches on every team shuffle their lines during games and over the course of a season, but not nearly as frequently as we saw from Trotz. Clearly, he was not satisfied with what he saw on the top line.
Depending on how Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson develop this offseason, perhaps one of them can step into this role. Both players saw time on the top line over the season with some success. What makes them different from the others on the right wing merry-go-round is how young they are.
We know who Chimera is as a player. We know what you get from a player like Ward and Beagle. Burakovsky and Wilson are still developing and are capable of growing into a top-line role if they progress enough over the summer.
If the team decides neither of them are ready yet, they need to find someone to complete that line.
The free agent class is rather thin, but Justin Williams seems like a potential target. He will turn 34 just as the season starts and could bring veteran leadership and Stanley Cup experience to the roster.
If general manager Brian MacLellan doesn’t like what he sees among the free agents, then he will have to put some kind of trade package together to find one. Trading for a top-line player is expensive, however, and MacLellan will try to avoid this option if he can.
Who will backup Holtby?
The fact that Holtby played in 73 games this season says just as much about how Trotz feels about backup Justin Peters as it does about Holtby.
Peters finished the season with a 3-6-1 record and a .881 save percentage. That’s not good. At times, Peters did not play as bad as his numbers and often did not get a lot of help in front of him but when you play so little it becomes impossible to develop a report with the defense thus compounding the problem.
When Holtby was sick for Game 2 in the playoffs against the New York Islanders, Philipp Grubauer was recalled from the AHL and started over Peters. That should tell you all you need to know.
Considering that Trotz did not anticipate leaning on Holtby this much coming into this season, just think of what will happen next season now that he knows what he has in both Holtby and Peters. Clearly, something needs to change. Having Holtby play so much is not a recipe for success, this team needs a backup they can rely on.
Perhaps the answer is Grubauer.
Grubauer was very good in Hershey this year and has not looked out of place in his appearances at the NHL level. He is still young and no doubt would benefit more from getting consistent playing time rather than serving as a backup, but the team needs to evaluate what his role with the team will ultimately be if Holtby is going to be the long-term starter.
With one year left on Peters’ deal, it seems doubtful that the team will sign another backup. If Grubauer does backup Holtby next year, Peters could go to Hershey where he posted a .948 save percentage and one shutout in three games this season.
If Trotz has no faith in Peters — which seems to be the case — it makes no sense to go into next season with Peters as the backup.
Who will the Caps re-sign?
Let’s go over the easy ones first. On defense, Green, Tim Gleason and John Erskine will almost certainly be gone. Nate Schmidt is a restricted free agent and the team will want him back.
We’ve already gone over Holtby. On offense, both Evgeny Kuznetsov and Johansson are restricted free agents and there is no reason to think either will not be back, especially Kuznetsov.
Aaron Volpatti will be gone. Curtis Glencross was a deadline acquisition and was a healthy scratch for four games in the playoffs including Game 7 against the New York Rangers. Chances are the team will move on.
That leaves Ward, Beagle and Fehr. With nine points in the playoffs, Ward is someone the team would probably like back, but he was already overpaid on his last contract at $3 million per year. He would have to take a significant pay cut to stay, but at 34, this will likely be the last ‘major’ contract Ward gets. This is a deal MacLellan will get done if he can, but the ceiling for how much Ward can ask will be pretty low before he gets out of MacLellan’s price range.
There is mutual interest in Beagle returning, but the problem with someone like Beagle is that he is ultimately a third- or fourth-line player. If he tests free agency there will be a team willing to overpay for him. It won’t take much to out-bid the Caps. If he’s not locked up before July 1, he’s as good as gone.
Fehr is a great fit at the third line center and if Burakovsky goes to the right, the team will seek to bring Fehr back. Considering Washington is the only place where things have really clicked for him in the NHL, he will want to stay if at all possible.
What can we expect from the younger players next season?
The long search for a second-line center mercifully appears to be over. Kuznetsov had a breakout postseason scoring five goals and two assists. Caps fans should be drooling over what he can turn into when he reaches his potential.
Wilson was a first-round draft pick which means the Caps saw potential in him as a top-six forward. MacLellan told the media as much on Monday. He is the young player who needs to take the biggest step forward this summer to become a top-six wing. Depending on whether Ward returns, Wilson will likely start on the second or third line with a chance to prove himself. If he finishes the season on the fourth line again, then it may be time to consider whether the damage done to his development from Adam Oates’ tenure may be permanent.
Burakovsky started the season with the Caps, finished it in Hershey but was called back up to the NHL for the playoffs. He managed three points in 11 games, but looked impressive at times. It seems likely that his time in Hershey is over.
Burakovsky’s impact next season will be determined by what position Trotz uses him in. At the start of the season, Burakovsky was playing center, but developing two rookies at center in the same season is a difficult task and he was moved to wing. If he develops enough to challenge for the top-line wing, that’s where he will be. If not, don’t be surprised to see him back in the faceoff circle next fall centering the third line.
Given that Schmidt was recalled in the playoffs when Tim Gleason’s health was in question and that Schmidt was Hershey’s leading scorer in the playoffs despite being a defenseman and playing in only eight of the team’s 10 playoff games. It would be a surprise if he was not with the Caps next season with Dmitry Orlov as the team’s third-pair.
That would give the team six defensemen leaving Connor Carrick as the odd-man out. He should spend the summer trying to pack on as much muscle as possible onto his small frame.
As for some of the other notable prospects — Riley Barber, Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana — it would be unreasonable to expect anything from them at the NHL level next season. Neither Barber nor Bowey have spent any time in the AHL and Vrana has played only 13 games with Hershey.
All three are expected to start next season with the Bears. If they end up making any impact with the Caps next season, consider that a bonus.