The Washington Capitals have been very busy in the offseason so far, bringing in eight players during the first two days of free agency.
To recap: the Capitals 2022-23 roster now sports Dylan Strome (2C), Connor Brown (top six wing), Marcus Johansson (bottom six), and Henrik Borgstrom (depth center/winger) at forward; Erik Gustafsson (bottom pairing) and Matt Irwin (depth) at defensemen; and two new goaltenders, Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren.
The team is now $6.3 million over the salary cap, per Cap Friendly. Teams are allowed to be up to 10 percent over the cap in the offseason.
Brian MacLellan’s signings suggest several big competitions playing out during Training Camp, none larger than the third-center spot, where if Connor McMichael loses out to Lars Eller, he could spend the season in AHL Hershey.
Capitals projected Opening Night roster
Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said the Caps would fill Nicklas Backstrom’s spot internally, but the addition of Strome during free agency pushes McMichael, the team’s top young player, down the lineup and potentially off the roster entirely. Despite a 2021-22 season that saw him rank second on the team in CF/60, first in xGF/60, second in SCF/60, and second in HDCF/60, McMichael was not given more opportunity and one of the first player’s stapled to the bench by head coach Peter Laviolette, who seemed concerned about the Canadian’s two-way game. Among players that got into 20 games for the Caps last season, only Brett Leason (8:57) had an average ice time lesser than McMichael’s (10:28). McMichael could join Hendrix Lapierre, and Aliaksei Protas in Hershey next season, but opportunity could open up a year later. Multiple veteran forwards will be unrestricted free agents next summer.
Other battles in camp will include both bottom-six left wing positions. Based on evidence from last season, Marcus Johansson and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby have the inside track but Snively, Borgstrom, Leason, Protas, and maybe even McMichael will all be pushing for one of those spots. It will either be 13th forward duty in the NHL or the Hershey Bears for those who lose out on the positions. Is it possible Eller is even a fit on the wing as was tried on a couple of occasions last season?
On defense, things are a bit tighter. It appears Gustafsson was purposefully signed to play with TVR but Caps brass have also raved about how well Lucas Johansen played in the AHL last season. Matt Irwin is back too and is a Laviolette favorite, plays both sides, and got into 17 games in 2021-22. That’s a competition that likely will go down all season as the Caps have typically carried eight defensemen under Laviolette..
The Capitals strange salary cap situation
Capitals’ salary cap specialist Don Fishman has likely worked long hours this summer. The team is currently well above the cap maximum ($6.3M), but there is one obvious immediate solution: placing Nicklas Backstrom ($9.2M), Tom Wilson ($5.17M), and Carl Hagelin ($2.75M) all on long-term injured reserve to start the year. The cap savings would be $17.12 million and would it would give the team just a shade over $10.7 million in space. But, what happens when those guys return as the team expects them to do sometime this season? That’s a little more complicated.
The #ALLCAPS are projected $6.3M above the upper limit after signing Strome at $3.5M w/ 22 player roster.
Wilson, Hagelin, and Backstrom are LTIR candidates, allowing the team to exceed the cap by $17M to start the season.https://t.co/A5BdOVOLvc
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) July 14, 2022
The last update we received on Hagelin was that he has an appointment in August to determine the finalities of how well his eye surgery actually went and if he has recovered enough to play hockey in 2022-23. He has been back skating since early May and if that appointment goes positively, could we see him fighting to play as early as October? Hagelin’s $2.75 million salary will still be covered by the long-term absences of Wilson and Backstrom ($8.05 million in space) but it also likely forces a younger forward that won one of the final spots to Hershey or in the case of someone like AJF back on waivers first. That forward will not have a cap hit that changes much for the team going forward.
Now, Wilson is expected back around the holiday season from his offseason knee surgery. The first-line forward’s $5.17 million salary will also fit under the cap with Backstrom still on LTIR but it creates yet another scenario where without a trade, another forward needs to move back to Hershey. Wilson is a right wing and it’s not likely one of those guys currently on the depth chart on the right side are going to be the ones moving on. One possible scenario includes Sheary moving onto the left which is where we already expect the most competition for roster spots to be without adding another established NHL veteran to the mix. As you can tell, things are getting really tight for someone like McMichael mentioned above.
The final piece is Backstrom. The Capitals have operated this entire offseason like they expect to not be able to just pull a Nikita Kucherov and stash the Swedish center until the playoffs. If that was the case, someone getting paid a lot more than Dylan Strome would currently be on the roster. In our hypothetical scenario so far, Backstrom’s $9.2 million salary would put the team around $6 million over the cap upon his return. So, something major has got to give there and one possibility could be trades of both Eller and Hagelin whose salaries add up to $6.25 million together. That would also free up opportunities for the cheaper, younger alternatives already in the organization.
One thing is for certain is that the team’s front office will be earning their checks for the rest of the summer through the regular season.
What are your thoughts on the work the Caps did on day one? How do you think they’ll look on Opening night?