The Reality of the Capitals’ Offseason

"We like our team." (Sportsnet)

With the draft and unrestricted free agency approaching rapidly, the NHL is about to explode with activity.  The salary cap is coming down, older players with big contracts are being compliance buyouts and will soon be unrestricted free agents, and trade rumors are swirling across the National Hockey League.  And, as always, this means that Capitals fans are throwing together dream scenarios, playing general manager, and picking on players they want to see gone for various reasons. 

Everyone is excited for the future, as is the case every summer in Washington.

Here’s the thing with the Capitals – they are backed against a wall.  Massive salary commitments to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and even Brooks Laich and Martin Erat have left the Caps with a little more than $5.5 million in cap space to sign their two restricted free agents, Marcus Johansson and Karl Alzner.  Along with them are unrestricted free agents on the team last year, Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks.  Simple math will tell you that at least one of these unrestricted free agents is not coming back, and more than likely they will both not return to Washington in 2013-14.

So what to do?

Read on to find out.

The simple answer would be to exercise compliance buyouts or trade Jeff Schultz, Michal Neuvirth, or perhaps anyone on the roster with a big contract except Backstrom (Laich, Green, Joel Ward…).  This would give the Capitals assets to build for the future when Evgeny Kuznetsov arrives, which, if reports are to be believed, will be in the fall of 2014.  It would free up cap space for bigger contracts to young players and perhaps a free agent here and there. 

Exchanging Neuvirth and Schultz, in particular, would be the best way to do this if the Capitals hope to find a balance between remaining competitive and trying to build on the future.  The money that these players would free up could be used to bring in new talent via a trade or in free agency.

Unfortunately, it is not likely to happen.

Schultz has wanted a trade for more than three months now, and George McPhee has been unable to trade him.  Ownership and management seem unwilling to exercise a compliance buyout on the final year of the defenseman’s contract, which would rid them both of the player and his cap hit.  McPhee is also adamant that he does not plan on trading Neuvirth, despite the fact that he is now the de facto backup, regardless of how talented he is, following the play of Braden Holtby over the last 12 months.

Nor is it at all likely that Green, Laich, Martin Erat, Joel Ward, Ovechkin, or any other core players are going anywhere.  Yes, they would probably fetch a nice rebuilding return on the market and shed the team of salary if they were bought out, but management and ownership view them as – you guessed it – core players.  And they are on this Washington team.  But they’re not the core players of a team that is ready to win a Stanley Cup Championship. 

This core has struggled to be consistent in the regular season over their last two campaigns and have yet to win anything of substance in the playoffs.  They know it.  We know it.  But the group is not going to go anywhere – McPhee and by extension Leonsis have made this perfectly clear time in and time out, like on cleanout day:

“But these guys, I’d go to war with these guys. These are good players.  Where do you get another Ovechkin?  Nick Backstrom is a heck of a player.  Mike Green is a heck of a player.  Carlson is on his way up.  We’ve got a lot of good young players, and we’ll keep going to war with them.”

This does not sound like a man who plans on doing anything radical.  McPhee “likes his team,” as he says so often, and he has the backing of ownership in this belief.  Despite the salary cap crunch that will almost certainly cause Ribeiro and Hendricks to leave, albeit on inflated contracts I wouldn’t like to see on this roster, the brain trust believes that this team is good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup.  I don’t agree, but that isn’t the point here.

The point is that people expecting Washington to be very active during this upcoming flurry of activity are getting their hopes up for something that is unlikely to happen.  Anything worth doing that would really shake up the team, send a message, and inject new talent in to the roster is virtually certain to involve a player that management and ownership either don’t want to move or couldn’t move if they wanted to because of the contract the player has.  With compliance buyouts a pipe dream by all indications, where is there to go?

The answer is, more than likely, nowhere.  The Capitals are spinning their wheels, and the salary cap coming down has put them in a situation that will make it very difficult to improve their club or compete for the playoffs, let alone the Stanley Cup, in the new division they will enter next season.  There are holes on this club, at center and in the top half of the defensive core; they are not a good possession team.

In all likelihood, there is little help on the way this offseason.  And that is the reality of this upcoming summer.

Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the NHL and the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.

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