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Two Dudes: American Beauties

Two Yanks enter, only one can stay...

Photo by Jeff Curry/NHLI via Getty Images

Okay, Adam, we've gotta talk (and because my usual Two Dudes partner-in-crime, Rob, isn’t available, you’re my huckleberry).

In the wake of the Caps' trade deadline acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk and despite the acknowledgement that he's most likely a rental player who will test the waters of free agency this coming summer, Caps fans can't help themselves but wonder if their shiny new defenseman could be part of a longer-term solution.

That scenario is somewhat difficult to envision, given current contract commitments and pending free agents (both restricted and unrestricted) and Shattenkirk's own earning potential. But it got me thinking about one particular hypothetical, for which I had thought (and still do think) there's an easy, correct answer. Here it is:

With well over a thousand votes counted, better than 60 percent of voters chose T.J. Oshie. That result was... unexpected (and given that both players are Caucasian Americans, I can't even chalk this one up to the wave of vulgar white nationalism that has swept the nation). Hilarity aside, I see this vote as an indictment of our ability to adequately educate the electorate and need you to help me understand why I'm wrong.

First, let's set some parameters here. For Oshie, let's say the cost of re-signing him would start at the deal Andrew Ladd signed with the Isles last year: seven years at an annual average value of $5.5 million. Ladd signed his deal the summer before turning 31 in December, just like Oshie would.

For Shattenkirk, how about Keith Yandle's contract with the Panthers? Seven years at $6.35m per season, signed last summer just before turning 30 (Shattenkirk will turn 29 next January). Some other blueliner deals (Brent Seabrook, Mark Giordano) might also be informative, and have slightly higher AAVs, but are also under $7m per season. So we're talking roughly $6.5m to $7m per season for Shattenkirk, you'd think.

So tell me, String - why is T.J. Oshie the right choice here?

Adam: Well, J.P., it doesn't take a ton of sleuthing to see what T.J Oshie's brought to the Capitals this year as he is the most efficient five-on-five point producer on the team and the 12th-highest in the League. In addition to his even-strength dominance he's a key piece of not only the power play but also the penalty kill. But neither you nor our readers truly need me to convince you of Oshie's current value, this conversation is all about the future... so basically we're talking about salary cap management.

Unfortunately we're going to have to flush out the Capitals' salary cap position a little more for this argument. Per CapFriendly the Capitals have roughly $22 million in cap space available to them for next season with the following twelve contracts set to expire at the end of the year. T.J Oshie, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Paul Carey, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk will all be unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Brett Connolly, Philipp Grubauer and Andre Burakovsky will all be restricted free agents (RFAs).

It seems safe to assume the Capitals will re-sign Kuznetsov to a multi-year deal worth something similar to the $6m annual average value contract Nashville handed out to Filip Forsberg last summer. We can quibble here but I don't feel out of place allocating ten million dollars to the remaining five RFAs and factoring in an additional $2m to to be split among the three young players needed to fill out the roster... this leaves us with $3.42m in room under the (current) cap and the following lineup (via Cap Friendly):

You know I'm all about letting the kids play, but the lack of proven scorers on the right side of the forward groupings will certainly be a bit of a concern. How comfortable are you with having Burakovsky and Vrana as staples in the top six? Can either of them produce points on a consistent basis?

To put it simply the Capitals simply have a bigger need for a veteran scorer on the right side than they do for a third-pairing defenseman.

What makes you think that Shattenkirk is more than just a "nice to have"?

J.P.: To answer your somewhat rhetorical questions, I'm perfectly fine having Burakovsky and/or Vrana in my top-six. Tom Wilson's had his moments there as well. And it's conceivable that Williams comes back on a smallish short-term deal. Heck, I think Connolly could do a fine job there, too. Riding shotgun with Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin and getting that trigger position in the power-play diamond has made plenty of guys rich... and former Caps - Oshie won't be the first or the last.

I don't mean to minimize what Oshie has done here - he's been terrific in filling a role that was never adequately filled once Mike Knuble fell out of favor on the top line. He has a playoff hat trick against Pittsburgh, for crying out loud. But he's also shooting 22.7%, which is not only the highest efficiency of his career (blowing away his previous career-high of 14.1% set just last year), but the highest mark in half a decade, and one of the highest since the 2004-05 lockout. Couple that with a per-game shot rate that has dropped off around nine percent this year from last and what we know about aging curves for forwards (particularly so-called snipers) and it all adds up to a predictable decline that may arrive sooner rather than later. Just ask the Isles how that Ladd deal is working out.

But what we're talking about replacing here is at most the team's fourth-most important forward (behind the top two centers and that generational left-winger). Meanwhile, you're underselling Shattenkirk by calling him a "third-pairing defenseman" - he's a guy who can play first-pair minutes and contribute at that level regardless of where he slots in. If he's not currently the Caps' best defenseman, he's just a hair behind Matt Niskanen. We don't need to go into the details of just how good he is here (but if the readers want some background, check out our earlier post on it), but he's a difference-maker in a way that hardly any wingers in the League (including T.J. Oshie) are.

Also, don't forget that it looks like Grubauer may be headed to the desert as the guy the Las Vegas Golden Knights will pluck from the Caps at the expansion draft. But if he doesn't, and George McPhee snags, say, Orlov, and Alzner walks (or even if he doesn't), where does that leave the Caps' blueline? Even if he doesn't, look at the six guys you listed - that's a fine first pair, but in the bottom four you have Brooks Orpik who has thrived this year in a sheltered third-pair role but is inarguably closing in on his expiration date and Madison Bowey who hasn't played a second in the NHL yet. Nate Schmidt is a nice complementary player, and John Carlson is what he is, but that's hardly looking like a top-six for a team that has much of a chance come playoff time. If you let Shattenkirk (and Alzner) go, you might well be slamming the window shut on Alex Ovechkin's chances to win a Cup in D.C. And all to go all-in on an aging winger who rode unsustainable percentages to a jackpot free agent deal? That doesn't make sense to me.

Oh, and it's gonna take more than that $3.4m you have leftover to sign Oshie. But let's be clear - barring a trade (perhaps bribing McPhee to take Orpik or otherwise clearing him or Carlson off the books), it's going to be damn near impossible to re-sign key restricted free agents, ice a strong lineup and bring back either Shattenkirk or Oshie. This version, for example, lets Alzner walk, has very limited depth up front and in net... and is nearly $3m over the cap [Ed. note: that’s based on the current cap; estimates of next season’s cap are in the $75.5m to $76m range]:

Adam: I think you're underselling the value of wingers in the modern NHL. We know that it's forwards, not defenseman, that drive puck possession and we know how important possession is to future success. I'm not going to decry Shattenkirk's abilities, he's either the best or second-best defenseman on the team, but I have a hard time being comfortable with a defenseman who can't penalty-kill getting paid nearly seven million dollars per season. He's simply a luxury the Capitals can't afford.

J.P.: Shattenkirk can't or doesn't kill penalties? Seems a pretty spurious claim to assert the former when he was St. Louis's best penalty-killing defender (by Corsi-Against rate) since entering the League. That he's not killing penalties for the Caps speaks to their defensive depth and maximizing his leverage as a player, not to any defensive deficiencies. So while I might agree with you that he's a guy the Capitals can't afford, I wouldn't call him a luxury in nearly the same way that Oshie would be.

Adam: Right, emphasize the “can’t afford” part, if you want. He can kill penalties; he just wasn't killing penalties for St. Louis this year and was only their fourth most-used defenseman while shorthanded last year. But we’re deep in the weeds at this point.

Getting back to the bigger picture, fortunately for the Caps, they'll know whom they’re losing to expansion prior to having to make some of these big decisions on their free agents, and I'm sure they'll adjust their strategies accordingly. Once I add Oshie to my roster both of our projects have the Capitals over the cap ceiling by at least a couple of million dollars, so it's going to take some wizardry for either Shattenkirk or Oshie to return. That being said Oshie's lower AAV makes him the more realistic option and allows the Caps more flexibility to deal with their depth guys - even a $1 million annual savings allows you to go from a pair of $650,000 plugs to Brett Connolly-type gambles in the low seven-figure range.

To be honest with you J.P., this whole exercise has just shown me how unlikely it is the Capitals can keep their current roster of players together. Whatever money the Capitals do have available to them after re-signing their key RFAs would likely be best used looking for that next Connolly rather than on either of these two very talented - and soon-to-be very expensive - UFAs. We should enjoy this year's roster while recognizing that this season is Ovechkin's most realistic chance at winning the Cup in Washington.

J.P.: I still say that if they can squeeze enough room out of the roster to sign Oshie (at market value), they can squeeze enough to sign Shattenkirk. But you're absolutely right that it's hard to see how either guy (or Karl Alzner) really fit into the team's long-term plans. Next year's team will be very different from this one, and, frankly, probably not nearly as good. It's Cup or bust this year, so let's enjoy Shattenkirk, Oshie and the rest of this club while we can... hopefully well into late spring.